It seems every technology and defense magazine these days is gushing about the future of warfare. The discussions center on all the revolutions claimed to be on the horizon or already arriving to a battlefield near you. They’re not wrong. A plethora of convergent technological revolutions stand to upend the ways wars are fought around the world, between both state (e.g. the US, China, Russia), and non-state actors (e.g. ISIS, Boko Haram, FARC). Today we are going to discuss implications for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, otherwise known as NATO. Current NATO doctrine in effect assumes efforts will be made to minimize civilian and military casualties. It also assumes that the Alliance will have electronic, airborne, and general technological parity, if not outright superiority, against any near-term opponent. This was a key part of NATO defense strategy during the Cold War, relying on superior Western munitions, non-kinetic technologies, and the threat of American, British, and French nuclear arsenals to offset massive Warsaw Pact numerical and conventional firepower advantages. Further, current Alliance defense procurement indicates a continued belief that it only needs better versions of the tools with which it planned to wage war against Red Army tank and infantry divisions, the war to end all conventional wars. The Eurofighter Typhoon multi-role fighter, F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, Zumwalt-class destroyers and Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, the new Leopard 3 main battle tank Germany is developing, and the ongoing upgrade series for the vaunted M-1 Abrams tank all are examples of this line of thinking.
That will not be the next war, either strategically or tactically. While conventional force and firepower will be an integral piece of the next war, the rate of change in how wars can and should be fought since the collapse of the Iron Curtain cannot be underestimated. There is little to no investment in any of the following combat revolutions on the horizon: strategic and tactical cyber warfare, offensive electronic warfare (EW) to deny the enemy use of their battlespace networks, defensive EW against the same, airborne and land-borne autonomous weapons systems, battlefield-ready directed energy and electromagnetic weapons (e.g. lasers and railguns respectively), and asymmetric strategies, including not only insurgencies but both limited nuclear warfare and anti-civilian strategies in a total war scenario. However, even more pressing than understanding these individual revolutions is a broader concern. There is a critical lack of significant Alliance investment in understanding the aforementioned revolutions from the perspective of an opponent of NATO. NATO has not studied the implications for enemy strategies. There is no Alliance-wide effort to perceive and adapt to such strategies. Without investment in at least understanding these potentially revolutionary technologies and the doctrines they will fit into, their possible strengths and weaknesses, in the next decade or less, the Alliance could find itself on the back foot technologically and its enemies leapfrogged over it into the next era of warfare.
Let’s walk through each of these forthcoming revolutions, starting with the one many believe is already here: cyber-war. Generally speaking, cyber warfare is defined as an attack on and through computer systems, sometimes with intent to cause further damage beyond computer connections. Some examples of cyber weapons include computer viruses and worms programmed to do any number of things. Stuxnet, the program that ripped a hole through the Iranian nuclear program and ruined centrifuges, and generally believed to either be American or American-aided, was a cyber weapon, a worm specifically, and it is not alone. The breach of the Office of Personnel Management was a cyber attack. Other types of cyber attacks, called denial of service (DOS) attacks, focus on overloading networks and preventing legitimate traffic through the noise. This particular kind of attack is common both in government and civilian circles. The “hacktivist” group Anonymous is perhaps the most famous user of DOS attacks. A DOS was the likely American retaliation for the Sony hack alleged to be North Korea’s doing, when a few weeks later the only Internet line in and out of North Korea was shut down for hours by a gigantic DOS attack. As we move towards the Internet of Things, meaning that devices and systems throughout our daily lives from our phones to our air conditioners, and dishwashing machines to elevators, and even the electric power grids are connected across vast networks, cyber-security will become ever more paramount as the target list for a potential cyber attack grows longer, and potentially more devastating, by the day.
In the realm of cyber warfare, even civilian vulnerability through poor security of the Internet of Things is a pressing threat to NATO operations. If electric power or water supplies in population centers were to be disrupted in NATO nations, or cellular and phone networks disabled, resources needed to engage the enemy will be lost making up ground from these attacks. The civilian crisis would be catastrophic if, for example, all electricity and natural gas was cut to Northern Europe in the dead of winter. NATO’s armed forces would likely be the only organizations capable of responding in time to save the most lives. However, now all those troops distributing propane heaters and checking homes cannot be finding or fighting the enemy that unleashed the attack, whether conventionally or in cyberspace.
NATO itself has a similar issue of electronic reliance. One of NATO’s key battlefield advantages is a strategy called network-centric warfare. On the battlefield, all NATO units are connected by datalinks and radios, sharing sensor pictures, status, targeting information, and other critical data. Network-centric warfare allows NATO commanders to have far larger, more detailed tactical pictures than their predecessors reliant on just radios could have, using data passed back by fighting units and passed forward by strategic reconnaissance instantaneously. This is a massive force-multiplier, increasing the efficiency of combat operations with easier precision targeting and tasking orders, and making it much more difficult for deceptive tactics to have an effect on NATO units. Individual regiment commanders are now used to know exactly where each of their tanks and armored fighting vehicles are, and division commanders are used to being able to command at a platoon level. However, this is essentially the only way NATO has practiced fighting wars for decades. Alliance’s reliance on extensively networked battlespaces has created a dependence on them, one that is not immediately obvious through the haze of successful use in such places as Kosovo, Iraq 1 and 2, and Libya.
The radically decreasing cost and difficulty of producing sophisticated electronics, communications equipment, and increasingly compact computing power means that on a future battlefield, NATO forces may not be the only networked units. During the Cold War, NATO had the advantage of the United States, whose technology industry leapt forward at the behest of civilian demand for the power of computers. Without that same incentive, Soviet computing systems, including such things as navigation and communications equipment, sensors, and aircraft avionics lagged NATO counterparts by up to a decade. With the collapse of the Iron Curtain, sole possession of this technological windfall is no longer a safe assumption. NATO has precious little investments in the EW or cyber assets beyond limited strategic-level American efforts. On a tactical level, NATO and its members are only just now moving to counter this threat, whereas potentially hostile actors like Russia and China have surged forward in their own research, fielding advanced and powerful systems at tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Jamming equipment supplied by the Kremlin has given Ukrainian rebels a huge advantage, allowing them to interfere with or disable drones used by the Ukrainian army for artillery spotting and reconnaissance, and by international organizations for battlefield observations and reports. The Kremlin even deployed its most powerful battlefield jammer, the Krasukha-4, to Syria to protect its air power there. This unit is reportedly able to disable NATO airborne surveillance radar and command and control units at a range of 300 miles, and deal permanent damage to unshielded satellites in low Earth orbit. NATO has no equivalent system, nor any program of public record to develop defenses against this unit.
The same advances in electronics and electronics manufacturing also presage the possibility of an opponent fielding huge numbers of fully autonomous weapons systems, linked in swarms, operating in unison to overwhelm less numerous, manned Alliance forces. For the first time, it is now within the realm of possibility to give an autonomous weapons system the computing power required to execute complex tactics on its own initiative in the midst of battle. Since autonomous weapons systems do not require pilots, only controllers who may have dozens or hundreds of units at their disposal, autonomous weapons systems are the future for massed attack options, especially for nations seeking to augment small numbers of actual human soldiers. Such numerical superiority could also allow the attacker to accept higher rates of loss, since only equipment is being destroyed, rather than human lives. It should also be noted that such losses stand at a distinct counter-point to NATO’s manned forces, which place a premium on crew and soldier survivability in combat.
This asymmetric investment in numerical superiority could be further accented if an enemy exercises disregard for civilian casualties, perhaps even seeking them out when such casualties would hamper Alliance forces. Such strategies could not only include cyber, electronic, and kinetic strikes, on both Alliance forces and their supporting civilian infrastructure, but also include nuclear assault, with such tactics as conventional, neutron, and electromagnetic pulse attacks. Many nuclear-armed nations, including both NATO members and their possible adversaries, do not have No First Strike policies. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world’s official count of nuclear weapons has declined, in no small part through strategic arms treaties between the United States, Russia, and Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus, the other inheritors of the Soviet strategic arsenal. However, not all weapons have been accounted for, and many are known to be lost, whether misplaced permanently, or acquired by organizations with deadly intent. Even the remaining Russian arsenal presents a critical threat type, such as the recent leak of a new Russian long-range torpedo design, equipped with a dirty bomb warhead to contaminate and shut down major enemy port facilities.
NATO and its civilian populations must remember that the NATO method of warfighting is unprecedented in recorded history. Advances in precision weaponry were not engineered to minimize collateral damage and casualties, as they are now used, but to decrease the number of munitions required to destroy a critical target. Further, during the Iraq Wars and the campaigns in the Yugoslav regions, NATO wielded massive technological and materiel advantages over its opponents. During Operation Desert Storm, Iraqi armored formations were decimated by the combination of GPS-guided NATO vehicles, able to navigate without using roads, and devastating air power usage, which the Iraqi air force was helpless to stop. In anti-air operations around the world, NATO aircraft are required to visually identify their targets before launching weapons, negating the huge investments in beyond-visual-range missiles and stealth aircraft. Anyone planning potential wars with NATO or its member states is aware of these policies, and will use every tool at their disposal to take advantage of these deficits, including a disregard for civilian casualties in order to achieve their own aims. It is also wise to remember that NATO is equally unusual in its emphasis on soldier investment, and thus survivability, and that enemy forces could exploit this by only wounding NATO service members rather than killing them, drawing even more soldiers off the front lines to withdraw and care for their wounded comrades. As NATO allows its Rules of Engagement to be dictated by political realities in its member states, it must understand the weaknesses that come with these choices and adapt its strategies to compensate for this or overcome it. Politicians and civilian voters would do well to keep this in mind themselves.
Returning to ordnance advances, directed energy weapons present an incredible threat. Already, portable laser systems exist that can intercept artillery shells and rocket fire. Such systems can render inert NATO’s limited supplies of precision weaponry by deploying as active defenses around critical targets, requiring more munitions and more effort to breach these defenses. Lasers also can project huge line-of-sight anti-aircraft threats, able to damage any aircraft it is able to target. While shooting down the aircraft is the most direct method of such anti-air denial, these lasers would only need, for example, to damage wing surfaces and sensors, or cook off under-wing munitions stores to damage an aircraft beyond mission requirements and force it to return to base, its mission still failed. Surface-oriented lasers can also be coordinated with railgun- and coilgun-armed vehicles to destroy tanks and other units, whose armor simply cannot withstand the energy release of such arms. Infantry would be equally vulnerable to these arms, and no modern armor is designed to withstand either weapon. Artillery ranges promise to increase yet again, as guided shells and shells equipped with jet or rocket boosters, termed Extended Range Guided Munitions, or ERGMs, further improve their ability to shape the battlefield and wreak chaos and destruction in enemy lines.
None of these technologies are beyond the reach of NATO. On the contrary, efforts are being made. Just weeks ago, NATO established cyberwarfare as a full domain of combat, and began concerted efforts to coordinate Alliance cyber-war energies. Various member militaries, notably the United States Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps are all studying the future requirements of cyber and electronic warfare on the battlefield, at levels from squad to full army group. The United States Navy is making strides in both directed energy weapons and railgun technologies for its warships. A point-defense laser has already seen at-sea tests aboard the USS Ponce, and the branch is considering whether or not to arm one of the later two Zumwalt-class ships with the weapons. The American Department of Defense is also conducting its first experiments in fighting in a GPS-denied environment in southern California, a key part of NATO’s electronic infrastructure. The Army and the Navy are also studying ERGMs, and the best way to mix both ERGMs and conventional shells in artillery use. These are of course only the known (read: de/unclassified) American efforts, and similar work is being done in labs and training fields across Europe. All is not lost, not yet.
However, there is still a great deal to be done, and room for all of these efforts to grow. The present level of investment is not only duplicative in many sectors, but insufficient even before that, if NATO is serious about future battlefield relevance. NATO needs more investment, and not just in raw technological progress. The Alliance needs to understand how its opponents could take advantage of these and other future technologies and what it needs to do to halt those lines of attack. Such knowledge allows NATO to focus its efforts on likely future requirements and reduce waste as it attempts to pursue all options at once. Defense budgets are limited, and the ability to coordinate such efforts could be invaluable to extending those defense dollars and euros as far as possible. To that end, I propose that an Alliance Opposing Force Office could combine intelligence, technology and experts therein, and personnel and perspectives from around the Alliance to conduct thorough research and investigation into both possible opponent strategies and possible counters. The Office can do this while also passing back its own discoveries and advances to the Alliance’s fighting forces. Intelligence agencies and defense planners have traditionally played this “Red Team” role, but increasingly complex and diverse situational possibilities all but require a new effort to match. Within the Office, staffers are not restricted to considering the immediate or the apparent, but can be free to consider future possibilities and investigate alternate avenues not pursued by conventional military and national intelligence gathering.
Fundamentally, I’m advocating for the basic precept of how the Boy Scouts of America teach emergency preparedness. A scenario considered allows the thinker to plan possible responses, saving critical time and energy in the event a given scenario actually comes to pass. It is leveraging capability in the present to retain or improve ability in the future. Research and development for its own sake is laudable in a perfect world, and NATO must continue to invest to maintain technological superiority, but NATO and its member states occupy this imperfect and unpredictable one. Technological achievements and revolutions in the next ten or twenty years with the ability to potentially reshape the modern battlefield abound, and NATO cannot afford to ignore their implications, nor look even farther into the future for its own defenses against these threats. An Opposing Force Office can be a force multiplier for limited and stretched resources, combining and leveraging research across national lines to ensure all members get the best kit for and the best understanding of the missions ahead. Without such investment, in a decade’s time, NATO won’t just be surprised by a new opponent or a particular trick, but by an entire suite of changes not only to the technology of war, but the very way wars are fought. NATO needs an Opposing Force Office, and it needs one now, not in 2026, and not a day later.
A number of weeks ago, the Atlantic Community released the rules for its Shaping Our NATO essay contest, to which I wrote my own entry for Category A, NATO Must Keep Up With Opposing Force Research. I was one of the ten authors entered in that part of the competition later selected to work collaboratively on the contest’s Category A memo, later entitled Future-Proofing NATO: A Forth-Coming Decade of Change. The above post is a long-form version of my original entry essay, expanded to include more detail on many of the technologies and ideas I mentioned in the original, word-limited essay. Please feel free to peruse both the original, the memo, and this longform essay and comment as you will. Feedback is always appreciated. And as always, thanks for reading. – GP
Update: the Atlantic Community has moved our collaborative memo to somewhere I can’t find. However, Small Wars Journal had generously republished it here, for those interested in reading it.