Over the past several years, R&D has become one of the most critical components of NATO’s grand strategy to protect and defend the 31 member states, which share responsibility for the military alliance. In fact, R&D has now become central to the West’s joint work to maintain technological superiority, enhance defense capabilities, and address emerging security challenges.
At the core of NATO’s challenge is maintaining an innovation edge that is sharp, up-to-date, and constantly evolving — all of which is easier said than done. We asked for insights on this from the Pentagon’s Barbara McQuiston, Chair of the Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA).
“At DIANA, we are building a pipeline of continuous innovation for dual-use technology to address security challenges we are facing today. By having the NATO Alliance come together and engage early on with entrepreneurs, we can rapidly pull ideas forward, test solutions, learn from failures, and fund stages of growth to help scale the solution to meet our urgent needs,” said McQuiston. “We are building this framework, or eco-system, to engage early on with entrepreneurs, accelerating ideas, testing these solutions, learning from failures, and funding all stages of growth. This is an eco-system of opportunity for both bettering our economic and security future.”
It is helpful here to gain an overview of NATO’s R&D spending in 2022 and 2023. This article highlights a few of its key areas of focus and examines the organization’s commitment to innovation.
Increased R&D budget — In 2022, NATO continued its emphasis on R&D by allocating a significant budget for innovation and technological advancements. The increased funding aimed to support research projects, collaboration, and the development of cutting-edge defense technologies.
Emerging technologies — NATO directed a substantial portion of its R&D budget towards exploring emerging technologies with potential military applications. This included investments in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, unmanned systems, and advanced cyber defense capabilities. NATO recognizes that staying ahead in these domains is essential for maintaining a technological edge and adapting to evolving threats.
Cyber-defense and resilience — Addressing the growing challenges in cyberspace remained a top priority for NATO in 2022. R&D spending focused on developing advanced cyber-defense technologies, bolstering resilience against cyber-threats, and enhancing the organization’s ability to respond effectively to cyber incidents. Investments were made in areas such as secure communications, threat intelligence, and cybersecurity training.
Space and satellite technologies — Recognizing the importance of space as a critical domain for defense and security, NATO allocated significant R&D funds towards space and satellite technologies. Efforts were focused on developing space-based capabilities, enhancing situational awareness, and strengthening the resilience of space infrastructure. Research projects aimed to improve satellite communications, space surveillance, and the utilization of space assets for defense purposes.
Joint Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) — NATO continued to invest in the development of advanced ISR capabilities in 2022. R&D spending focused on enhancing interoperability and information sharing among member states, improving sensor technologies, and leveraging data fusion and analytics to enable more effective decision-making. Joint ISR capabilities are crucial for NATO’s situational awareness and rapid response capabilities.
2023 R&D spending
Emerging threats and disruptive technologies — In 2023, NATO increased its focus on addressing emerging threats and disruptive technologies. R&D spending was directed towards understanding and countering challenges such as hybrid warfare, disinformation campaigns, and advanced weapon systems. The organization sought to develop innovative approaches, technologies, and doctrines to effectively respond to these evolving security dynamics.
Artificial intelligence and autonomy — AI and autonomous systems gained further attention in NATO’s R&D agenda in 2023. Investments were made to explore the potential applications of AI in areas such as decision-making support, autonomous vehicles, and unmanned platforms. NATO aimed to leverage AI to enhance operational efficiency, improve situational awareness, and optimize mission planning and execution.
Resilience and critical infrastructure protection — Enhancing resilience and protecting critical infrastructure, including energy networks and transportation systems, remained a priority for NATO in 2023. R&D spending focused on developing advanced technologies for early detection, monitoring, and response to potential threats. Efforts were made to strengthen the resilience of vital infrastructure against cyber-attacks, physical disruptions, and other vulnerabilities.
Next-generation communications — To meet the increasing demand for secure and resilient communications, NATO invested in next-generation communication technologies. R&D efforts focused on advancing secure, interoperable, and resilient communication systems, including 5G and beyond. These investments aimed to enhance command and control capabilities, information sharing, and coordination among NATO forces.
Climate change and environmental security — In recognition of the significant impact of climate change on security, NATO allocated R&D funds towards understanding and addressing the security implications of environmental challenges. Efforts were made to develop innovative solutions, technologies, and strategies to mitigate the risks posed by climate change and support sustainable practices within the defense sector.
NATO’s significant R&D spending in 2022 and 2023 demonstrated the organization’s commitment to innovation and technological advancement. It shows how the alliance is addressing emerging security challenges. Investments were made in various areas, including emerging technologies, cyber defense, space capabilities, ISR, AI, resilience, critical infrastructure protection, next-generation communications, and climate change.
By staying at the forefront of technological developments and fostering collaboration among member states and partners, NATO aims to maintain its military edge, enhance defense capabilities, and effectively respond to evolving threats in a rapidly changing security landscape.