By Julian French. 

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”.

H.G. Wells

Yesterday, I took part in a small but great meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. The purpose of the meeting was to report to the ‘Sec-Gen’ on progress towards completion of a series of reports for the GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Initiative.  The main report will be published in a month or so, and will be entitled The Future Tasks of the Adapted Alliance. Watch this, and many other spaces.  For obvious reasons I will not disclose too much of what was discussed. However, I was deeply impressed by Secretary-General Stoltenberg’s understanding of the rapidly-growing defence-strategic importance of artificial intelligence (AI). Over lunch at the Atlantic Treaty Association the brilliant Amir Husain, Founder and CEO of sparkcognition, an American company at the cutting edge (my cliché of the day?) of AI, gave a masterclass on the importance of AI and intelligent machines across multiple domains of human endeavour.  Now, I would not go as far as to suggest it was AI for dummies, but this dummy sure did learn a lot.

NATO maintains defence by keeping the threshold of deterrence high. NATO is a defensive alliance the principal purpose of which is to cast a credible deterrence and defence posture by striking a balance between military capability, military capacity, and affordability. This is NATO’s iron triangle. However, Europe’s under-invested and under-capitalised military forces are dangerously weak and fast losing their deterrent value. Yes, the European Allies are spending more money on defence, but in the all-important battle of relative conventional military power NATO Europe continues to decline.

Right now there is a gap, a vector, between NATO’s conventional deterrent and its nuclear deterrent, which is – to employ Yorkshire strategic language – bloody dangerous.  Worse, Europeans can no longer expect the Americans to offset European weakness indefinitely.  It is unlikely, given the shifting balance of military power in the world, that the Americans will be defence-strong everywhere, all of the time. Thus, NATO Europe’s military power is vital to the enduring defence-credibility of the Alliance.  Yes, enshrined in NATO collective defence is nuclear deterrence.  However, if NATO’s conventional forces fail early in a future war some European allies could be faced with that most unpalatable of choices; surrender or nuke. NATO must assure and ensure no Ally ever faces that choice.

AI could help close NATO’s deterrence gap by assisting NATO European forces to increase their defence effectiveness through enhanced defence efficiency by exploiting such technologies without increasing the size of the peacetime force. AI would also ensure European and US forces will be able to work together safely and efficiently into the future.  This is because NATO’s deterrence gap is not simply a function of the exaggerated legacy weakness of too much of Europe’s military metal (and too many of Europe’s military people).  It is also a function of a growing ‘technology-interoperability’ gap between US forces and their European counterparts. Indeed, such is the revolutionary nature of AI that the very strategies and structures of the forces that employ it will themselves be changed radically by them. AI will also create winners and losers.

There is, however, a major impediment to N.A.T.O.A.I: NATO does not understand the new AI defence sector, and the new defence sector does not understand NATO.  Critically, NATO does not understand the companies driving AI, and with which it will need to work to fashion an affordable twenty-first century defence. Nor, at present, is NATO (or many of its nations) ready to countenance the radical change in its own approach to procurement and acquisition if vital new relationships with such industries are to be forged via a new NATO defence-industrial partnership. NATO is simply too clunky, an analogue alliance in a digital age.

What must NATO do?  First, NATO must gain a far better understanding of the nature of AI and associated technologies, and their potential application to credible and affordable defence. Second, NATO must become far more acquisition nimble. The companies driving AI are not defence giants who can afford to wait for five years or more to be paid.  They need to be sure that if they invest limited people and resources on NATO projects their existence will not be threatened by sclerotic acquisition practices with fielding times so long that the defence of Europe is also put at risk.  Third, defence planners and technology-drivers like Mr Hussein need to better understand each other.  Too many defence planners in Europe do not really understand AI (even if they talk about it), too many technology-drivers do not understand either Europe or defence.

Why N.A.T.O.A.I?  AI is not simply another civilian technology with military applications. It is an enabling architecture.  Indeed, NATO IS architecture and thus the natural locus for the development of collective AI-empowered defence.  AI, robotics, intelligent drone-swarms, big data, and a host of new technologies are now being applied to that most basic of human endeavours – war.  NATO needs to grasp this new reality and grip AI. This is because AI can a) act as an affordable defence-multiplier; and b) China, Russia, and the US are far AI-advanced of NATO Europeans.

If you don’t believe me then let President Putin educate you.  Last month he said; “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”  Need I say more?

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