Bit by Bit: Cybersecurity and disruptive innovations as driver for NATO´s Future

Written and published the workshop on „NATO’s Future“, organized by the Young Atlantic Treaty Association Germany.

Today, NATO faces two major problems: The first is the question of legitimacy and the second is internal division. Since the end of the Cold War, the former has been the subject of debates many times. It is problematic that the first leads directly to the second. Through an unclear mission, the reality of NATO fails because of the different and sometimes opposed interests of member states and all citizens involved. This division can be seen to a striking extent in the debate on the 2% target. Actually, the implementation of a target agreed on by all member states should be implemented quickly. The opposite is the case.

The core of the difficult mediation is the different perception of a dangerous situation. While NATO in itself is an intergovernmental institution, whose primary objective is the protection of national sovereignty, this nation-centered reference is only of secondary importance to many citizens and especially to the younger generation. Many in Western Europe can no longer comprehend the importance attached in some circles and countries to the conflict between Russia and the West. Securing NATO’s eastern borders is undoubtedly important. However, many do not have the willingness to drastically increase spending for this protection alone.

More important for the post-1990 generation is security in a global and virtual space. Although NATO recognized cyberspace as a domain of conflict, it failed to work out decisive steps to deal with the problems fundamentally. NATO should respond more strongly to these needs and can develop a clear and strong mission.

Cyberspace is of geopolitical importance as well as of direct importance for each citizen. Unlike conventional military conflict, which affects a limited region, impacts of attacks on the digital infrastructure are boundless. Increased efforts by NATO states in the field of cyber security are therefore important not only for protection of the nation-state, but also for the Alliance as a whole.

Cyberspace has shifted the perception of borders dramatically. While the analog mission of NATO is – with good reasons –concentrating towards Russia, Russia is not the only major power sharing a direct border in this new century. Although structure and effects are transboundary, political border in cyber space are existing. China, and several other realms of digital nations such as the so called “United Cyber Caliphate” shifting the threat scenario much closer to the Alliance than Russia will ever be.

The new reality offers a major opportunity for NATO to update its mission from concentrating solely on Russia towards a holistic approach to a new threat environment. However, NATO and its members states are not prepared for this shift.

A major challenge is the low level of knowledge of cyber affairs among decision makers. Statements are perfunctory and are missing a comprehensive appreciation. By many, cyber is still seen as a topic for geeks. Only Estonian leaders have so far exercised effective cyber policy making. The country has been the driving force to establish the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCD COE) based in Tallinn.

In combination with the CCD COE, the recently founded Cyber Operations Center, NATO is increasing its capacities, however, they are only a drop in the ocean. In a environment where private actors are already facing difficulties hiring cyber security experts, NATO and its members have even more troubles appointing skilled personnel. Regional Centers for Expertise and Operation should be created and established at the national level. Investing in those centers will train and educate staff members on all levels and will provide better understanding of cyber affairs.

As the expertise level is limited, the sense for state sponsored disruptive innovation in cyberspace lacking. Cyberspace is not a defined field of operation, but is subject to constant evolution. NATO will have to move forward to survive in a hostile environment. NATO must create agencies that promote new technologies. Existing „Innovation Hubs“ have not yet reached the full capacity of their capabilities. The financial resources are still too scarce to develop serious disruptive technologies and to provide an incentive for industry to cooperate. A culture of experimenting and be more comfortable with making mistakes should be established.

Cyber offers the opportunity for NATO the re-define its mission as the major power protecting its members against analog and digital threats at the same time.

The following recommendations should be discussed within NATO and member states in order to come to a mutual agreement on the 2% objective and to strengthen the strategic mission of NATO:

  1. NATO must increase the expertise on cyber affairs.
  2. The Alliance should create Regional Centers of Excellence (RCE) to increase cyber security capabilities.
  3. Spending on disruptive technologies to compete in a global environment must be increased.