NATO ups the ante on disruptive tech, artificial intelligence6 min read
STUTTGART, Germany — NATO has officially kicked off two new efforts meant to help the alliance invest in critical next-generation technologies and avoid capability gaps between its member nations.
For months, officials have set the ground stage to launch a new Defense Innovator Accelerator — nicknamed DIANA — and establish an innovation fund to support private companies developing dual-use technologies. Both of those measures were formally agreed upon during NATO’s meeting of defense ministers last month in Brussels, said Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Allies signed the agreement to establish the NATO Innovation Fund and launch DIANA on Oct. 22, the final day of the two-day conference, Stoltenberg said in a media briefing that day.
He expects the fund to invest €1 billion (U.S. $1.16 billion) into companies and academic partners working on emerging and disruptive technologies.
“New technologies are reshaping our world and our security,” Stoltenberg said. “NATO’s new innovation fund will ensure allies do not miss out on the latest technology and capabilities that will be critical to our security.”
“We need to ensure that allies are able to operate the different technologies seamlessly, between their forces, and with each other,” he added.
Seventeen allied countries agreed to help launch the innovation fund. They include: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom.
NATO will develop a minimum level of funding that will be required by every participating nation, and that level is being decided by those initial 17 allies, said David van Weel, assistant secretary-general for emerging security challenges.
He noted that there are “a variety of reasons” as to why the initial supporters stepped up, while the remaining 13 member nations did not. But he expects that more countries will sign up to participate in the fund before the alliance’s 2022 summit, he said during an Oct. 27 media roundtable.
“The bus hasn’t left the station to join the fund, and we expect more to join up,” he said.
Recommendations for NATO to launch such a venture capital fund, and a technology accelerator outfit reminiscent of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), were included in a 2020 report by NATO’s advisory group on emerging and disruptive technologies.
The alliance agreed to launch the DIANA accelerator at NATO’s annual summit, held last June in Brussels. Both the accelerator outfit and the innovation fund will have headquarters based in both North America and Europe, and several nations have already offered to host the facilities.
The plan is for a separate company to run the “day-to-day” operations of the innovation fund, but that partner has yet to be selected, van Weel said. “It is going to be professional venture capitalists that are going to run this fund — that could either be an existing company, or we would recruit an experienced general partner to run this,” he added.
The offices are expected to be in place next year, and both DIANA and the fund are scheduled to be “fully in effect” by NATO’s next summit, June 29-30 in Madrid, per the alliance.
Meanwhile, the allies also agreed on NATO’s first-ever artificial intelligence strategy, which has been in the works since early 2021. “It will set standards for responsible use of artificial intelligence, in accordance with international law, outline how we will accelerate the adoption of artificial intelligence in what we do, set out how we will protect this technology, and address the threats posed by the use of artificial intelligence by adversaries,” Stoltenberg said.
NATO released a summary of the strategy on Oct. 22, and it includes four sections: Principles of responsible use of artificial intelligence in defense; ensuring the safe and responsible use of allied AI; minimizing interference in allied AI; and standards.
It also lays out the six principles of AI use that member-nations should follow. They include: lawfulness; responsibility and accountability; explainability and traceability; reliability; governability; and bias mitigation.
The nascent DIANA outfit will host specialized AI test centers that will help NATO ensure standards are being kept as member-nations develop new platforms and systems and encourage interoperability, van Weel noted. That way, NATO creates “a common ecosystem where all allies have access to the same levels of AI,” he said.
NATO will also form a data and artificial intelligence review board with representatives from all member-nations, to ensure the “operationalization” of the AI strategy, he added. “The principles are all great, but they only mean something if we’re able to actually translate that into how the technology is being developed, and then used.”
NATO eventually plans to develop strategies for tackling each of the seven key emerging and disruptive technology (EDT) categories, van Weel told Defense News earlier this year. Having that strategy in place would allow the partnership to begin implementing AI capabilities into military requirements, and ensure interoperability for NATO-based and allied systems, he said at the time.
Member-nations also agreed to a new policy that treats data as a “strategic asset,” and sets a framework for both NATO headquarter-generated data and national data to be exploited across the alliance in a responsible fashion, van Weel said. The data and AI review board will serve as a quasi “Chief Data Officer” that ensures the alliance’s data, wherever it originates from, is stored securely and adheres to the principles agreed to by NATO’s members.
“This is step one … to create a trust basis for allies to make them actually want them to share data, knowing that it is stored in a secure place, [and] that we have principles of responsible use,” van Weel said.
It remains to be seen how each country will contribute to the innovation fund or the tech accelerator, but at least one ally already has some ideas.
Estonia has built up experience working with startups, and has invested heavily in cybersecurity technologies since the Baltic nation faced a wave of cyber attacks. That instance led to the creation of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn.
That center could play a key role in the alliance’s EDT efforts, particularly related to technologies like AI that will require a “basis” in cyber, said Tuuli Vors, counsellor to the Estonian delegation to NATO.
With cyber, “we build so many different technological areas or sectors,” she said in an interview with Defense News in Brussels. Having the cyber defense center in Tallinn “can be used for the benefit of this initiative, or for the allies in a general way.”
“We have this right mindset, we are flexible,” she said. “I think it’s one of the key competencies, to bring together the private sector with the government … and the civil sector.”
“We all know that these technological developments and the real breaks, these are in the private sector,” she noted. “So therefore, we need to bring them on board [in a] more effective way.”
At last month’s ministerial allies also agreed on a specific set of capability targets to achieve jointly, Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels. That set includes “thousands” of targets, heavier forces and more high-end capabilities.
“Very few of us can have the whole spectrum of capabilities and defense systems,” he said. “One of the really important tasks of NATO … is our ability to coordinate and agree to capability targets, so we can support and help each other as allies.”
Each of the allies spend varying amounts of money on their defense budgets, but each also has expertise that can be shared, Vors said. The innovation fund and DIANA can help provide more effective collaboration among these nations, she added.
“We have expertise in autonomous systems or cyber defense, … we can share it to somewhere where it’s lacking, and we can have from them CBRN [chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear] defense technology,” she said. “So it’s making this network.”
Joe Gould in Brussels contributed to this report.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News’ European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards’ best young defense journalist in 2020.