Improbable Defence

NATO has guaranteed our collective security for over 70 years. Now we need to ensure that it is properly fit for another seventy

Improbable advisor Air Marshal Sir Christopher Harper is a former-Director General of the NATO International Military Staff.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation NATO turned 73 on 4th April 2022. Over seven decades of security and stability can be attributed to this remarkable alliance. Its commitment to the rule of law and the international rules-based order has been central to securing the Long Peace; the period of declining violence that followed Word War II which – until the ghastly events of recent weeks – delivered what many scholars believe to have been the most peaceful era in human history.

Putin could never have anticipated just how definitively Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine would reinvigorate and strengthen the unity of the Alliance and those that share its values. Of the numerous unexpected and unintended consequences of his ill-judged, poorly planned and ineptly executed ‘special military operation,’ this renewed, shared commitment to NATO’s founding ideals is arguably the Alliance’s perfect birthday present.

The crisis in Ukraine is the first time since the foundation of NATO that a European country has been invaded. But this horrendous situation also generates opportunity, and the Alliance should capitalise on this unprecedented moment to lay further groundwork for its next 70 years. The new Strategic Concept that will be published at this summer’s NATO Summit in Madrid will be key to this, but the question of turning the Alliance’s industrial sophistication and technological advantage into a strategic one must also be addressed.

Using NATO’s incredible convening power to collaborate and better integrate our industries’ efforts will facilitate genuine innovation and progress. Together we must take steps towards modernising out-dated acquisition and procurement techniques, which leave us at risk of losing ground in their current state. Initiatives such as NATO’s Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) are welcome but need to be hastened. The time is also right to recognise that our current decision-making capabilities need critical attention.

Moreover, in an age of digital transformation, static, on-the-shelf plans are increasingly irrelevant. We simply must harness the power of technology and innovation enshrined by the 4IR to assist with faster, better-informed, more effective consensus building, decision support and operational employment of our forces. We can do this if we boldly embrace partnership with industry and imbue a less risk-averse approach that paves the way for ‘a road to yes’ – rather than assuming the answer is ‘no.’ We should also eschew the idea that such moves would undermine discussion, compromise, deliberation and analysis. They would not; they would simply allow these activities to take place faster and be more effective – at, some would say, ‘the speed of relevance.’

My sense is of an increased willingness in industry and academia to collaborate with NATO to achieve such aims. Indeed, both camps recognize not only the current opportunity but also the responsibility to meet these demands. Arguably meeting them is not optional if we are to retain any form of competitive edge over our adversaries and potential adversaries. They, after all, often unencumbered by the need to generate consensus or abide by the rule of law, can act swiftly and with greater agility.

As NATO looks to the future, it is clearly essential that we hold true to our values and keep faith in our principles. But this means ensuring our Alliance has the contemporary tools and technologies it needs to thrive under even the most challenging of circumstances, and meet today’s ever-changing threat landscape with courage, confidence, commitment and consensus. Through new relationships across industry, academia, government and the military, Allied technological lead must be translated into a strategic and sustainable competitive edge, so that NATO can continue to safeguard our collective security for another 73 years and beyond.

I unreservedly wish NATO very many happy returns!