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The Future War, Strategy and Technology Conference

Monday 9 – Wednesday 11 October 2023 | WP3219

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In association with The Alphen Group, with major funding support from NATO and sponsorship from Anduril Industries, Syniad Innovations, Teledyne and Area9 Lyceum


The Future War, Strategy and Technology Conference was specifically designed to complement the work of NATO Chief Scientist Dr Bryan Wells and his team, specifically, the NATO Science & Technology Trends 2023-2043 report by addressing a series of additional policy and strategy questions. What will be future requirements? What impact will emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) have on Allied and Partner forces, interoperability, and missions, and in what combination? What new and adaptive force concepts and doctrine will be needed? What political, military and defence-industrial policies and processes will be needed to enable our forces and at what scale? How should democracies conduct warfare with EDTs? What impact will EDTs have on the conflict escalation ladder? How must military innovation evolve to enable commanders and operators to test and experiment with EDTs and accelerate both capability and new concept development? For NATO, how will such developments impact the relationship between Allied Command Operations (ACO) and Allied Command Transformation (ACT)?  How best to educate political and senior military leaders to help better prepare them for informed choices on defence policy, strategy and technology? How will EDTs better enable the human dimension of warfare? How have democracies integrated technology in their respective armed forces over the past 120 years? How will command and control and C4ISR change?  

To address these questions, Wilton Park and The Alphen Group jointly organised this four-day, invitation only conference, bringing together some 80 leaders, experts, analysts and commentators from public policy and politics, the armed forces, the private sector, and from technology and innovation. Participants came from the democratic world across North America, Europe and Asia.

The conference methodology centred around eight working groups that considered the implications for defence and military strategy of EDTs: the Technology Working Group, Military Strategy and Future Force Working Group; Capabilities Working Group; Industrial Implications and Procurement Working Group; Strategy and Policy Working Group; Ethics and Legal Working Group; and Training and Leader Education Working Group. Finally, the Dreadnought Working Group considered the impact of the fusion of such technologies on future war. The conference considered two phases: now to 2035 and 2035 to 2050. Phase one is likely to see the enabling of the warfighter by such technologies, whilst beyond 2035 (phase two) autonomous action by such technologies is highly likely. These groups met for over six hours and constituted the key mechanism for delivering the conference outcomes.

Overarching takeaway

There are two emergent, emerging, and disruptive technologies EDTs that will drive the changing character of future war: artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic biology (synbio). Machine learning, big data, quantum computing and nanotechnologies will either drive or exploit these two framework technologies. Technology will thus shape strategy as much as strategy drives technology, not least because the defence establishment has so little control over technological development and application. There will also be two phases. Prior to 2035 such EDTs will play an essentially enabling role. Beyond 2035, as these technologies mature, they are likely to become increasingly autonomous. However, there is unlikely to be a ‘silver bullet’ technology that could lead to a ‘Digital Dreadnought’ breakthrough making all other platforms and systems simultaneously and immediately obsolete. Mass of force will thus continue to have as much an intrinsic quality in warfare as quality of force.

The next defence planning cycle will see ever greater application of such technologies as enablers of the warfighter, not his/her replacement. Beyond 2035, the sheer pace and scope of technological advancement could well see the rapid development of autonomous ‘intelligent’ systems, such as drone swarms and glide missile systems. If the Alliance and its Partners are to maintain a critical comparative advantage over autocratic peer competitors, credible deterrence and defence will require NATO to understand far better the application and interactions of such technologies in the post-2035 future high-end battlespace. Only then can informed policy, strategy, and procurement decisions be made in conjunction with partners in the defence technological and industrial base. The failure to properly understand the utility of technology could be devastating. For example, the force President Putin thought he had available to him on the evening of February 23rd, 2022 was not in fact the force that existed because the Russian military had failed to integrate the technology they thought they had. This forced the Russians to shift from a concept of conquest to a concept of destruction in Ukraine.

Core message

“We must think the Future”

“Substantial risks may arise from potential intentional misuse or unintended issues of control relating to alignment with human intent. These issues are in part because those capabilities are not fully understood and are therefore hard to predict. We are especially concerned by such risks in domains such as cybersecurity and biotechnology, as well as where frontier AI systems may amplify risks such as disinformation. There is potential for serious, even catastrophic, harm, either deliberate or unintentional, stemming from the most significant capabilities of these AI models. Given the rapid and uncertain rate of change of AI, and in the context of the acceleration of investment in technology, we affirm that deepening our understanding of these potential risks and of actions to address them is especially urgent.”

The Bletchley Declaration, November 1, 2023

NATO’s worst-case mission

NATO’s essential mission is to consider the worst-case and offer Allies and by extension Partners affordable solutions to meeting any such threat. Whilst much is made of the potentially transformative role of EDTs in the battlespace those charged with preparing for the future force have little real understanding of either their application or impact on strategy and doctrine. The result is that both strategy and doctrine are being driven by incomplete knowledge and imperfect data reinforced by misplaced confidence. This dangerous combination is due in no small part because technological innovation is no longer driven by defence establishments in democracies but rather by the commercial sector.

The Conference validated the work of the Chief Scientist and his team, specifically Technology Trends 2023-2043. Artificial Intelligence, autonomous systems, big data, information and communication technologies, energy and propulsion systems, hypersonic systems, space-based capabilities, quantum technologies, human-performance enhancement, novel materials and advanced manufacturing and other ‘exotic’ technologies will doubtless impact the Western Way of War but how, to what extent and when is not known and very little understood. Changing that is now critical and a capstone requirement.

Demonstrably maintaining and gaining comparative advantage is the sine qua non of Allied deterrence and defence. If Allies and Partners are to gain comparative advantage today and tomorrow in both deterrence and defence, it will be vital to establish a new defence eco-system in which public and private sectors work closely and innovatively together at speed. The focus should thus be on the end-user of technology reinforced by an agile system of responding to feedback, need, and the evolving capabilities of the adversary.

The years 2023 and 2024 are a critical moment in Alliance planning. NATO must seize the moment given that that 2023 is “Year 2/Step 2”in the current (2022-2026) NATO Defense Planning Process (NDPP) cycle (2022-2026) during which capabilities must be identified to ensure that the Capabilities Target (CT) “package” is presented to Heads of State and Government for final endorsement at the July Washington 2024 Summit. As such, it is vital that the Alliance capture not only the lessons learned from the Russo-Ukraine War, especially about UAVs and UCAVs, establishing the appropriate requirements definition for sustained production lines, and for the development of emerging and disruptive technologies that are beginning to appear from technology innovation initiatives such as DIANA. It is also vital that the capabilities targets are distributed to all Allies in 2024 prior to the summit under the rubric of the NDPP “Year 3/Step 3”, i.e. allocation of requirements, consistent with NATO’s principle of fair burden sharing and reasonable challenge. This will be vital to deflect critics in the US at a particularly sensitive moment in the political cycle who assert that Europeans are not taking on an appropriate share of the overall Alliance burden.

Consequently, there can be no room for complacency. Ernest Rutherford once warned that splitting the atom might lead to a catastrophe. Some at the cutting edge of AI are similarly concerned. In 2023, Elon Musk joined others to call for a hiatus in development until the risks are better understood. Prof Yoshua Bengio, seen as a leader in the AI community, also warned that he would have placed safety over utility had he understood how fast the technology is developing. That very statement captures the paradox of EDTs – those developing it have a vastly better understanding of its applications – good and ill – than those in government who will be responsible for ordering it and applying it.

A fleet of digital Dreadnoughts?

The simple truth is that no-one really understands how EDTs will develop and few policymakers have the imagination to envision future war particularly when AI is fused with other technologies to possibly realise a Digital Dreadnought moment, or rather a fleet of Digital Dreadnoughts moment when the fusion of such technologies affords an actor a decisive military breakthrough that for a critical period would give the attacker a war-winning advantage over the defender.

Therefore, NATO, its Allies and Partners urgently need to commission further studies by the Chief Scientist to do precisely that – better understand such technologies, their applications and their possible fusions. Eighty years ago, the development of atomic science led to both abundant energy and the first weapon of mass destruction. However, a lack of understanding in cash-strapped European governments has bred cynicism in power about breakthrough scientific and industrial innovation. This so-called ‘precautionary principle’ tends to emphasise caution before any potentially revolutionary technology is exploited. The West’s adversaries?

What is clear is that the changing character of warfare is facing not just a set of force multipliers but immeasurable magnifiers. The hard truth is that many Western governments have also enshrined the precautionary principle into a ‘not-spending money’ principle on the grounds that few ‘fancy gadgets’ ever work. This culture of governance has too often stifled innovation and led to controversial decisions, such as the ban in some countries on genetic modification (GM) for reasons that are little more compelling than the burning of medieval witches. Secretary-General Lord Robertson once rightly said it is all about “capabilities, capabilities, capabilities”, but such capabilities cannot be generated until there is an understanding of technology and its relationship between defence and military strategy! Moreover, sooner or later ‘new’ tech becomes old tech and inevitably spreads. AI, machine learning, quantum computing etc cannot be un-invented, and if the Western democracies do not exploit them others will.

Why now?

Why now? NATO Allies and its Partners the world-over are engaged in systemic competition with autocratic states such as China and Russia. Russia seems determined to contest the sovereignty of Allies and Partners by seeking to dominate, coerce or even conquer territory. China is developing a very muscular military instrument of power (MIoP) and it is reasonable to assume that within 7-10 years Russia will have reconstituted the damaged elements of its armed forces and developed those not as yet engaged in Ukraine. It is also reasonable to assume that both China and Russia will further exploit emerging and disruptive technologies across the hybrid, cyber and in time hyperwar spectrum.

Much of that competition will be played out in the race to develop and apply EDTs to strong effect in the future force and future battlespace. An arms race is already underway, and the democracies need to engage and win. Emerging and disruptive technologies will help to re-define the character of high-end war, if not its nature, and thus establish the basic requirements for maintaining credible deterrence and defence going forward. Speed of recognition, autonomy of decision and distributed command will be its quintessence across the multi-domains of a four-dimensional battlespace in which the analogue and the digital will co-exist. In time such technology could lead to hyperwar: warfare led by AI in which humans have little command agency. Too many policymakers and practitioners understand little about the potential impact on the battlespace of AI, quantum computing, machine-learning, big data, Synbio, nanotechnologies, ‘intelligent’ autonomous drone and unmanned vehicles, as well as hypersonic and glide missile systems and a host of other technologies.

Both the NATO Communication and Information Agency (NCIA) and the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) show that it is possible to speed up processes for acquisition of technology and software. Hitherto, NATO processes and those of most Allied defence ministries would take four years but that is being reduced to one year, although the private sector still takes only four months. What is important is that a mix of imagination and agility has enabled NATO for the first time to lead across defence on the speeding up of technology acquisition. In other words, it is possible a precedent for action has been established proving the Alliance can improve the speed of acquisition but only through close industry partnering and access to commercial sector know how. Strategic and tactical imagination will be vital and there is already innovative developments and new thinking within the broader compass of the Alliance. For example, a 2031 NATO-relevant scenario at the 2023 Gartner Defence Symposium envisaged the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) engaged on a multi-domain operation in which an AI-administered biosynthetic antidote is used to prevent a nerve attack on the commander, and during which an autonomous container ship with a reinforced biosynthetic light hull designed for operating in Arctic ice sludge is boarded and then sunk by Russian forces. At the same time, mass cyber-attacks take place on hospital ventilators and physical attacks on critical underwater infrastructure. However, all the attacks are countered and defeated by a rapid thinking multinational headquarters equipped and staffed in partnership with industry cooperation because of new sourcing strategies that NATO is already piloting guaranteed by financing from the JEF bank concept.

People protection and power projection

Protection of people will also be as important as projection of power. The development of EDTs will again place the security of the home base at a premium because future war will likely be a form of total war in which all citizens will be engaged. If society is vulnerable the capacity of democratic states to project power will be profoundly constrained, and future deterrence and defence will depend on a capacity to project as well as resist coercive power. The first step is to make society more information resilient by educating people to identify fake news. Critically, all democratic societies will soon need to make hard choices as to which technologies are most relevant and how they might be harnessed collectively as they design and implement their respective future deterrence and defence postures. In NATO they have no better tool to collectively undertake such an endeavour. If they do not, China, Russia and others will press ahead forcing the democracies to react rather than lead. In time, they could all face a “Dreadnought” moment in which EDT is tailored in such a way as to create an era-defining weapons systems that renders Allied and Partner deterrence and defence obsolete at a stroke and digitally decapitates government and governance in such a shocking way that defeat is suffered before any war is fought.  


Executive summary

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