NATO visionaries: Artificial intelligence has huge potential for future military capacity

General (Retd.) John R. Allen [Georgi Gotev]

The GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Initiative, led by retired General John R. Allen, presented on Monday (27 November) its final report on the future of the Alliance. In a wide-ranging interview, EURACTIV.com spoke to General Allen and Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary-General of NATO.

General John R. Allen is a retired United States Marine Corps four-star general, and past Deputy Commander of US Central Command, prior to serving as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A).

Alexander Russell “Sandy” Vershbow is an American diplomat and former Deputy Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. From October 2005 to October 2008, he was the United States Ambassador to South Korea.

They spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

What is GLOBSEC and what is the purpose of the report?

Gen. Allen: GLOBSEC is a think tank, a public policy research institute in Slovakia, headquartered in Bratislava. It’s an organisation that has the second largest security conference in Europe annually. GLOBSEC asked me if I would lead this study almost two years ago. One of the things I like about GLOBSEC is that it’s a Central European think tank. As so many of the young democracies are, it is highly attuned to what the conditions were, and what could be lost, if we are not successful.  So we did this report about NATO adaptation. I think it’s important to make the point that NATO has been in a constant process of adaptation for a number of years.

This report is coming out almost exactly on the 50th anniversary of the Harmel report, which was a NATO report from 1967 from which such things as “flexible response” came.  So 50 years later, the world has changed a lot, and it has changed a lot since 2010. And we are making recommendations for NATO to consider, as it looks to the future for adaptation in the aftermath of the Warsaw summit [July 2016], which was a ground-breaking event for NATO, its communiqué touched many of the things the Alliance has to consider as it goes forward.

The very broad areas that we talk about, in terms of adaptation, is being prepared to adapt to the East and the North, which is the Russian challenge in its many forms, whether it’s the severing of Crimea or the frozen conflict in the Donbas. Russian Zapad activities appear to be threatening the eastern flank of NATO. Almost certainly Russian influences over Europe itself include cyber-attacks.

The so-called ‘hybrid war’…

That’s correct, actually I think hybrid war is underway now. And then of course with climate change and the warming of the poles, the opening of the North-East passage above Europe and the potential for economic competition is there. We’ve heard some discussions about conflicting claims about [the] Svalbard [archipelago], between Russia and Norway…

Excuse me for interrupting, but I thought Russia and Norway had found an agreement for their common border in the Arctic Ocean and Barents Sea…

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I think they have, but things have changed. The other thing we talked about is China’s rising, and its continuing to increase its capabilities, and with India certainly following on China’s heels, it’s time for NATO to consider a deeper relationship with these countries as well. Something like the NATO-Russia Commission – a NATO-China Commission.

China has created deep relations in Sub-Saharan Africa. NATO is going to be very interested in ensuring that those countries remain as stable as possible, to prevent other waves of economic migrants coming into Europe. It will be important that NATO considers what China is doing and that they have conversations about how they can improve stability.

Challenges to the south are to be found in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the conflict in Syria which doesn’t appear to be susceptible to resolution anytime soon. NATO has capabilities in terms of counter-terrorism that could be helpful to the EU as it undertakes its own counter-terrorism activities. NATO has command and control systems that span the entire continent, it has exceptional intelligence capabilities that now exist within NATO’s headquarters. And as the EU continues to build its capabilities to deal with terrorism inside the EU area and in individual members, NATO has the capacity to help in that regard.

And then we have technology. Technology is changing dramatically, in the field of artificial intelligence, big data. How big data can be harvested ultimately to train the artificial intelligence algorithms to do what you want them to do, including in military capacity, which can give you speed for decision-making and action we have not seen before. It’s a new horizon of military capability which is called Hyper War. The distance between the decision and the action is now measured in seconds, instead of days or weeks as it was before.

This is frightening.

It is frightening, but it’s the reality of where war technology is taking us.

What if technology goes wrong?

I don’t think technology does go wrong; it’s how it’s used. I think artificial intelligence has the capacity to enormously benefit the world. Here’s what we know: it’s that the Russians are weaponising artificial intelligence, and so are the Chinese. It’s important for us to understand what capabilities artificial intelligence can bring. For example, it has the capacity of doing enormous good in terms of intelligence collection and analysis. It can vastly speed up command and control.

The question on artificial intelligence, and that’s the one people typically ask, is whether fully autonomous systems will be released ultimately to take human life. And that’s a debate we’re going to have to have. I can tell you there are people who have the capabilities, but no debate at all.

To sum up, NATO is in a constant process of adaptation, but the change the geo-strategic environment has undergone in just seven-eight years, has really been dramatic and the factors of change for the next 20 years are really going to be dramatic as well.

Can you give more details concerning the cyber-security field?

Cyber-security in the context of influence operations, that’s how I would put it, how cyber capabilities and big data capabilities have the capacity to create targeting strategies for influence operations that can change opinions of entire populations. They can reinforce populist rhetorics, on the other hand cyber intrusion has the capacity of endangering critical infrastructure. So we need to understand what are the vulnerabilities of our networks. One of the most important ways for cyber-security will be at the level of artificial intelligence that has been trained to see at DNA level the code of incoming malware, to ensure that it is able to protect the network or the particular system.

What happens today with the kinds of malware that we see, known as zero-hour or zero-day malware, or polymorphic malware, these are systems that emerge completely new with no warning. And if your cyber-protection is what is known as signature-based protection, which is almost obsolete now, but is still the basis for many of the cyber-security systems in the world, the capability of such system to protect you is a function of how frequently it is updated. But when polymorphic malware, which means it changes itself, with hundreds of thousands polymorphic pieces of malware produced each day, signature-based systems are actually a liability.

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So you need to augment protection with other capabilities to include cognitive algorithm, which has been trained on all known malware, and when done properly, it can pick up such things as the WannaCry virus, or the Petya virus. With the Petya virus the Russians took Ukraine down to their knees, and there were weeks before some critical infrastructure was restored. There are cognitive security systems that pick all of that, because they detect aspects of the code of the WannaCry virus, or the Petya virus. WannaCry was North Korean, we were able to tell, we saw there was a piece of DNA that appeared in other North Korean malware. So cyber-security is extremely important, not only for protecting our critical infrastructure, but also the quality of life of Europeans in general, universities, hospitals. It requires that we be constantly vigilant and that we think differently how we secure ourselves.

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The Warsaw NATO summit produced an unprecedented EU-NATO joint declaration. After that the EU embarked on PESCO, the Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence. How big or small are these steps?

Alexander Vershbow: I think the joint declaration itself was a very important breakthrough, committing the EU and NATO to work much more systematically with each other, despite the well-known political obstacles that still exist. The initial focus was the recognition that hybrid warfare requires a mix of responses and different tools that neither of the two organisations has in full, that they need to complement each other. They recognised that there is more than can be added to the agenda, in terms of coordinating their efforts in dealing with migration, defence capacity building in the Middle East and North Africa, possibly working more closely on counter-terrorism, which has a domestic dimension as well as an international dimension. And of course defence capability development, as they tried in the past but didn’t produce much. There has been a NATO-EU capability group for years, it hasn’t delivered.

Alexander Vershbow [Georgi Gotev]

So these latest steps by the EU could be very beneficial for NATO, if they are carried out in a serious way that ensures there is an effort to align the priorities on the EU side with the shortfalls NATO has identified. And if NATO’s planning process capabilities targets are taken into account on the European side, obviously this could benefit both CSDP operations and NATO operations.

PESCO is potentially helpful in motivating nations to combine their efforts both for capability development, but also for operations that don’t require the full participation of all members. If the EU continues to take the lead in putting out fires in North Africa, and if PESCO is a way of bringing more nations in this kind of operations, this benefits our common security. The concern is that there is always the potential for divergence in priorities, whether this would be more about structures and about autonomy for its own sake, rather than about producing real capabilities to solve problems. I tempt to be more optimistic. I’m aware that others see it more as a Potemkin village.

How about protectionism in the defence industry? Like calls to “buy European”?

It’s ultimately good for NATO and for the Transatlantic community to have strong defence industrial basis on both sides of the Atlantic, and not to have a market that is dominated so much by US producers. At the same time you cannot put protectionism ahead of essential capabilities, if there are off-the-shelf solutions available from the US that could fill gaps, they should not to be ruled out just because they are American. European industry has suffered from the lack of consolidation, and projects such as the European Defence Fund could push nations to pull their efforts, and get some of the small European companies collaborating and reverse the decline in the strength of European defence industries.

Turkey made the choice of buying Russian air defence systems. How serious could the consequences be?

It’s serious in the sense that it cannot be linked up to NATO’s integrated air and missile defence system, given that it’s using an incompatible technology. The Turks have at the same time signed an agreement with France and Italy to work on a possible joint programme which would be interoperable with NATO. Turks try to have it both ways. The Turkish priorities have always been industrial benefit-sharing and co-production. But the Russians are not going to share the technology with them.