NATO – Topic: Emerging and disruptive technologies – NATO HQ

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Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous systems and quantum technologies are changing the world and the way NATO operates. These and other emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) present both risks and opportunities for NATO and Allies. That’s why the Alliance is working with public and private sector partners, academia and civil society to develop and adopt new technologies, establish international principles of responsible use, and maintain NATO’s technological edge through innovation.

  • Since its creation, NATO has stayed at the forefront of technology to ensure the defence of its member countries and the success of its operations.
  • In recent years, NATO Allies have worked together to establish an overarching strategy on emerging and disruptive technologies. This strategy is helping to ensure that Allies are fostering the development and adoption of new technologies, while at the same time protecting themselves from the use of EDTs by potential adversaries and competitors.
  • NATO is also developing more detailed policies and implementation plans focused on specific technological domains. Currently, this includes artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous systems, quantum technologies, biotechnologies and human enhancement, hypersonic systems, space, novel materials and manufacturing, energy and propulsion, and next-generation communications networks.
  • NATO Allies have established new initiatives to support technological innovation throughout the Alliance, including the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) and the EUR 1 billion NATO Innovation Fund, the world’s first multi-sovereign venture capital fund.
  • NATO is engaging with other international organisations, including the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN), to address emerging and disruptive technologies.

The strategic context – Why does NATO care about EDTs?

Emerging and disruptive technologies are increasingly touching all aspects of life – from electronics like phones and computers, to everyday activities like grocery shopping and banking. These technologies are also having a profound impact on security. Innovative technologies are providing new opportunities for NATO militaries, helping them become more effective, resilient, cost-efficient and sustainable. These technologies, however, also represent new threats from state and non-state actors, both militarily and to civilian society.

NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept – which defines key challenges facing the Alliance and outlines how NATO will address them – reflects this changing context. It affirms that EDTs bring both opportunities and risks, and that they are altering the character of conflict, acquiring greater strategic importance and becoming key arenas of global competition. As a result, Allies agreed in the Strategic Concept to promote innovation and increase investments in EDTs to retain NATO’s interoperability and military edge. Allies will work together to adopt and integrate new technologies, cooperate with the private sector, protect their innovation ecosystems, shape standards and commit to principles of responsible use that reflect the Alliance’s democratic values and human rights.

To embrace these opportunities while also countering threats enabled by EDTs, NATO is working with Allies to develop responsible, innovative and agile EDT policies that can be implemented through real, meaningful activities. By working more closely with relevant partners in academia and the private sector, NATO aims to maintain its technological edge and military superiority, helping deter aggression and defend Allied countries.

Innovation policy – What is NATO’s EDT strategy?

In February 2021, NATO Defence Ministers endorsed “Foster and Protect: NATO’s Coherent Implementation Strategy on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies.” This is NATO’s overarching strategy to guide its relationship to EDTs. It has two main areas of focus:

  • fostering a coherent approach to the development and adoption of dual-use technologies (i.e., technologies that are focused on commercial markets and uses but also have defence and security applications) that will strengthen the Alliance’s technological edge, and
  • creating a forum for Allies to help protect themselves from the use of EDTs by hostile actors, and protect their own EDTs and innovation ecosystems from interference and manipulation by potential adversaries and competitors.

These goals are key to ensuring NATO retains its strategic and effective dominance.

NATO’s innovation activities currently focus on nine priority technology areas:

The Alliance is developing specific plans for each of these key technology areas (linked above, where a public version is available). These strategies are laying the groundwork for NATO to accelerate responsible innovation and the rapid adoption of modern technologies, in order to improve decision-making and steer transatlantic innovation for defence and security in accordance with Allied values, norms and international law.

Data is a key enabler for all EDTs. NATO is bolstering its data exploitation efforts through its Framework Policy and Strategic Plan. In line with the Strategic Concept’s call to expedite the digital transformation of the Alliance, NATO has also developed an Implementation Strategy for digital transformation.

Innovation in practice – How does NATO foster EDT development and adoption?

To meet the critical challenges of today and tomorrow, NATO directly engages innovator communities. Through new initiatives and bodies designed to foster innovation in EDTs and protect such efforts from potential adversaries and competitors, NATO plays an active role in cultivating a transatlantic innovation ecosystem for defence and security.

Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA)

At the 2021 Brussels Summit, Allied Leaders agreed to launch the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) to foster transatlantic cooperation on critical technologies, promote interoperability and harness civilian innovation by engaging with academia and the private sector. Subsequently established in 2022, DIANA works directly with leading researchers and entrepreneurs, from early-stage start-ups to more mature companies, to solve critical defence and security challenges through dual-use technologies.

DIANA works by running competitive industry challenges. Each challenge is based on a critical defence and security problem, and asks innovators to develop deep tech, dual-use technologies to help solve it. Innovators that are selected to participate in DIANA’s programmes receive non-dilutive grants (i.e., investment capital that does not require them to give up equity or ownership in their company), and gain access to over 20 accelerator sites and more than 180 test centres in dozens of countries across the Alliance. They also have access to a network of mentors (scientists, engineers, industry experts, end-users and government procurement experts) and a community of trusted investors. Lastly, DIANA offers pathways to market both within NATO as an organisation and with NATO Allies.

DIANA launched its first three pilot challenge programmes in 2023, selecting 44 companies (from a pool of over 1,300 applicants) to join its accelerator programme and tackle specific challenges on energy resilience, undersea sensing and surveillance, and secure information sharing. Once fully operational in 2025, DIANA will have the capacity to work with hundreds of innovators each year across a wide network of accelerator sites and test centres throughout the Alliance.

NATO Innovation Fund

NATO Leaders also agreed at the 2021 Brussels Summit to establish a NATO Innovation Fund. The EUR 1 billion venture capital fund will provide strategic investments in start-ups developing dual-use emerging and disruptive technologies in areas that are critical to Allied security.

Many start-ups working on deep tech struggle to attract sufficient investment because of lengthy time-to-market timelines and the high capital intensity of their research. The NATO Innovation Fund will tackle this problem by leveraging its unique position as a patient investor with a 15-year run-time better suited to the extended time horizons necessary for deep-tech start-ups. It will focus on early-stage investments (i.e., pre-seed through Series A and follow-on), providing risk capital directly into these start-ups, while also having the ability to invest in other top-tier deep-tech venture capital funds that align with the Fund’s three strategic objectives:

  • to seek out cutting-edge technological solutions that solve the Alliance’s defence and security challenges;
  • to bolster deep-tech innovation ecosystems across the Alliance; and 
  • to support the commercial success of its deep-tech start-up portfolio.

The NATO Innovation Fund is the world’s first multi-sovereign venture capital fund. It includes 24 NATO Allies as Limited Partners: Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Türkiye and the United Kingdom. The Fund is making direct investments into start-ups located in any of the 24 participating Allied countries, as well as indirect investments into deep tech funds with a transatlantic impact.

The Fund’s main headquarters are in Amsterdam, with regional offices in London and Warsaw.

NATO’s Data and Artificial Intelligence Review Board

NATO’s Data and AI Review Board is the focal point of NATO’s efforts to govern responsible development and use of AI. It does this by helping to operationalise the Principles of Responsible Use of AI that Allies agreed in NATO’s AI Strategy, including by developing a ‘Responsible AI’ certification standard. The Board creates practical Responsible AI toolkits, guides Responsible AI implementation in NATO and supports Allies in their Responsible AI efforts.

Each NATO country has a member that sits on the Board. These members may be drawn from government, academia, the private sector or civil society – they come from diverse backgrounds to ensure NATO’s approach to Responsible AI is multidisciplinary. External experts are also part of the Board’s expert subgroups, which help fulfil the Board’s core functions – including with a focus on Responsible AI tools, standards and knowledge-sharing.

NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies

The NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies is an independent group that provides external advice to NATO on how it can optimise its innovation efforts. The Group was established in July 2020 and consists of 12 experts from the private sector and academia across the Alliance who have led cutting-edge research, developed EDT policy and managed innovation initiatives. Its membership is renewed every two years.

The Group released its first annual report in March 2021, providing four initial recommendations to NATO: improve technology literacy throughout the Organization; establish an efficient network of Innovation Centres; design and facilitate new financing mechanisms for innovation with private sector entities, both small and large; and create innovation partnership initiatives with external EDT stakeholders from industry and academia.

In its second annual report delivered in April 2022, the Group examined three critical, ongoing work-strands aimed at enabling NATO and Allies to adopt new technologies at pace and maintain a technological edge: DIANA, the NATO Innovation Fund and the Human Capital Innovation Policy (which contains recommendations for NATO on how to attract, retain and develop talented employees with technical skills and innovation mindsets). The report describes how these initiatives are signs of real action towards technological readiness and outlines the EDT-motivated, holistic defence pivot that NATO is ideally placed to lead.

In 2023, its deliverables included inputs to NATO’s Quantum Strategy and NATO’s Biotechnology and Human Enhancement Strategy. It also remains a trusted advisor of DIANA, with the Chair of the Advisory Group serving as an observing member on the DIANA Board of Directors.

NATO Innovation Board

The NATO Innovation Board is chaired by the Deputy Secretary General and brings together high-level civilian and military leadership from across the Alliance. The purpose of the Board is to look at new ideas from outside of the Organization, provoke discussion, foster adoption of best practices and secure cross-NATO support for changes that will help NATO innovate. This includes receiving recommendations from the NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies.

Other NATO innovation bodies

Other NATO bodies that are also involved in the Alliance’s innovation activities and are driving technological development and adoption across NATO include: 

NATO’s focus on EDTs is strongly linked to cooperation with partners in the public and private sector, academia and civil society. Given that many defence applications of EDTs are developed by or with the private sector, engagement with industry – especially start-ups – is key. The North Atlantic Council has held several technology-focused sessions where Permanent Representatives connect with executives driving technological breakthroughs.


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