Special Report

Defence in a new decade: NATO prepares for new threats

As NATO enters a new decade of existence, the 70-year-old alliance has begun to address the fact that the face of war has changed significantly. Harry Lye heard from NATO leaders and think-tankers how NATO is adapting to meet new threats and challenges.

// NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses the conference NATO Engages: Innovating the Alliance. Image: NATO.

“Today we face new challenges, and in keeping with our best traditions we must continue to adapt,” UK defence secretary Ben Wallace warned the crowd gathered for NATO Engages in London in December.


“Traditional warfare has changed,” he continued. “The threats are no longer only conventional. No longer only overt. Our adversaries are striking from the shadows. They are pursuing new tactics to divide and destabilise. Exploiting new technologies to exacerbate the uncertainties of an uncertain world, and undermine our way of life.”


The alliance that has stood the test of 70 years, including the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and more recently the 'war on terror', Wallace said, must stand ready not just to combat static warfare, but the proliferation of conflict to the new domains of space and cyber, or in the shadows of disinformation and assassination in a world where the rules of war have never been so grey.


“Our allies in the Baltic and our partners in Ukraine and Georgia are only too familiar with such tactics,” he added. “But this is happening right across our alliance. It is happening here in Britain.


“Before taking up this post I was the UK’s Security Minister for over three years. I got to see into the shadows and see the daily attacks on our societies that many do not. Cyberattacks, disinformation, assassination, corruption. All prosecuted on our open and liberal societies.”


This is all part of a sea change in conflict, its definition, its adversaries, and tactics. So what, specifically, are the new threats NATO is adapting to?

The rise of China and the hypersonic menace

“NATO is now looking at the ways in which new and emerging technologies will continue to change the threat landscape, from hypersonic missiles to reducing our decision-making time in the face of an attack,” Wallace said.


This was echoed by the Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as he discussed the rise of China, after NATO mentioned the country for the first time in an official declaration. After NATO’s December summit in Watford near London, Stoltenberg said: “A few weeks ago, they [China] displayed a new intercontinental ballistic missile, able to reach Europe and North America. They displayed hypersonic missiles, gliders. They have deployed hundreds of intermediate- range missiles that would have been violating the INF Treaty if China had been part of the INF Treaty.”


China’s Dongfeng-17 hypersonic missile, a prominent feature in China’s 2019 National Day parade, threatens to upset the balance of power in China’s backyard and is one of the earliest such systems to reach initial operation capacity. The missiles travel so fast they are hard to intercept, changing the game for air defence.

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A Chinese TV network reports on the Dongfeng-17 conventional missiles being unveiled in a military parade. Video: CGTN.

NATO’s approach to China, however, is not about creating a new foe in a new region. Instead, it aims to monitor the country more closely and work towards arms control agreements. As Stoltenberg said at the NATO Engages event the day before the summit, “this is not about moving NATO into the South China Sea, but it’s about taking into account that China’s coming closer to us.”


The idea that China is moving closer to the West is echoed by Robert Vass, founder and president of the Globsec think tank, who told us: “Chinese investments are quite heavy in Europe and are increasing, they are building the Belt and Road initiative, and it is an economic but also political project, which is bringing the political influence of China to Europe. We have to be aware of that. I'm not saying it is good or bad, but we have to be very much aware of the leverage that has.”


Voss added: “Now, we don't want to create Chinese walls between our two worlds. It's not a good answer.” He explained that it is important to avoid a confrontation with China, although ongoing trade wars could complicate that.


“For the first time, we addressed the rise of China - both the challenges and the opportunities it poses, and the implications for our security.”


The US has long challenged NATO allies’ use of Chinese infrastructure and European nations have long been willing to accept Chinese investment, while decrying the same in other continents. Now, however, the alliance seems to have come to a united approach.


Stoltenberg said: “For the first time, we addressed the rise of China - both the challenges and the opportunities it poses, and the implications for our security. Leaders agreed we need to address this together as an alliance.”


The “together” is the crux of argument. Wallace, although not specifically on the topic of China, also pointed out in his speech that a united response to emerging threats is vital: “We must stand together; no side deals, no separate voices. Our adversaries strive for that division, they fund that division, and target that division. We will not let them succeed.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at NATO Engages. Image: Atlantic Council/ NATO Engages.

Cyber, space and the hyper war

Space and cyber are other areas NATO is shifting its focus to. Agreed at the NATO summit in December, section six of the London Declaration reads: “We have declared space an operational domain for NATO, recognising its importance in keeping us safe and tackling security challenges, while upholding international law.”


On the topic of cyberspace the declaration adds: “We are increasing our tools to respond to cyberattacks, and strengthening our ability to prepare for, deter, and defend against hybrid tactics that seek to undermine our security and societies.”


With this addition, NATO acknowledges that conflict is expanding into new domains. In the 21st century a regional conflict can quickly progress above the atmosphere and through cyberspace, affecting everything from homes to government infrastructure and military installations.


Vass described this as ‘hyper war’, where conflict becomes a melting pot of traditional and emerging domains. He said: “We are moving from a traditional domain to cybersecurity and disinformation, and even I would say ‘hyper war’, which is a combination of traditional means with cyber, disinformation. The scale and the levels of domains that this is impacting will be just mind-blowing.”


“Hybrid warfare is our new reality. It is constant, and challenging to all our aims.”


Wallace, who in his speech described the Gerasimov doctrine [which suggests combining military, technological, information, diplomatic, economic, cultural and other tactics for the purpose of achieving strategic goals], echoed Vass’ notion of hyper war, saying: “With social media, cyber and more open societies giving our competitors unparalleled opportunities to achieve their aims, the Gerasimov doctrine is here to stay. And hybrid warfare is our new reality. It is constant, and challenging to all our aims.”


Bringing cyber and space into the same vein as land, air and sea is a move that will help NATO build resilience to new threats that lay in the grey zones of conflict, allowing the alliance to more aggressively build its defensive footing. With this, NATO will take a three-pronged approach.


Across the alliance arguments and threats about spending have resulted in European and Canadian allies putting an extra $400bn into defence by 2024, more than double of what China is estimated to spend on defence annually by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.


This investment is coupled with an alliance-wide push for innovation, as Stoltenberg explained. “So we [NATO] also agreed, for instance, that we should invest more in research and development,” he said. “We had this 20% pledge, [meaning] that 20% of the defence budget should be allocated for research, development and investments in new capabilities.”


NATO has faced challenges in the past and has a proven track-record of adapting to them. It will need to continue doing so as new threats emerge to maintain the peace in a new decade.