Future-Proofing NATO: A Forthcoming Decade of Change
Memo 50: NATO must adopt hybrid models of national defense, coordinate efforts on economic and electronic warfare, and secure its space-based infrastructure. The Alliance should also establish a partnership with China and strengthen its presence in the Arctic.
Today's decision-makers are preoccupied with the many contemporary threats and might not recognize the risks, enemies, weapons, tactics or other challenges that could threaten the Alliance in ten years. Therefore, atlantic-community.org's policy workshop competition "Shaping our NATO: Young Voices on the Warsaw Summit" challenged students and recent graduates from all NATO countries to answer the questions:
What could surprise NATO in 2026? What scenario is NATO currently insufficiently addressing? What can realistically be done to prepare?
We have published the 32 best submissions from 12 different countries and put them up for public debate. Atlantic-community.org members posted more than 220 thoughtful comments. Then ten shortlisted authors have written this joint Atlantic Memo with the best policy recommendations to prepare NATO for 2026.
Download a PDF copy.
NATO is now closer to the brink of war than it has been since 1991. If peace and prosperity are to be maintained, the Alliance must adapt to the proliferation of threats that it faces, which is only possible if it recognizes that the 20th century's bipolar world of stable borders, guaranteed identities, and clearly defined opponents is over. In order to address new threats in the forthcoming decade effectively, the Alliance must (1) improve its electronic warfare capabilities, (2) adopt hybrid models of national defense, (3) coordinate efforts on economic warfare, (4) secure its space-based infrastructure, and (5) integrate research into developing threats.
The key to dealing with unconventional threats is to strengthen unity and cohesion. This should be achieved by: (1) countering disinformation campaigns with the help of NGOs, (2) redoubling public diplomacy efforts, and (3) state-building efforts in regions of high risk.
NATO should adopt an innovative conventional response to the rising ambitions of Russia and China that is appropriate to the contemporary context in which it exists, rather than a rehash of its Cold War strategy. In the case of the former, the Alliance has overlooked the Arctic area and must close its capabilities gaps. As regards the latter, NATO must involve China in both dialogue and operations in order to create an effective diplomatic platform.
1. Adapt to revolutions in warfare.
Current Alliance strategy and procurement indicates a preference for adaptation of Cold War planning rather than innovation. This view is underpinned by the belief that NATO needs only improve on its twentieth century tools, rather than developing a new strategic armory better suited to twenty-first century challenges. The Alliance must be proactive in planning if it is to maintain its technological and strategic edge, avoiding surprises on the battlefield.
1.1 Rectify electronic warfare inferiority through investment.
NATO's inferiority to opposing forces in electronic warfare (EW) will be a major issue for defending both current and future members. EW threatens NATO's advanced C3I capabilities, which are critical to NATO strategy and tactics. Denied these capabilities, NATO forces may find themselves at a disadvantage on the battlefield. Investing further in EW capabilities will reduce the risk of NATO intelligence, troop, and equipment losses whilst enhancing NATO's military effectiveness.
Potential adversaries have committed more resources to EW than has NATO. While attempting to match potential adversaries may be unfeasible for bureaucratic, financial, or political reasons, NATO's EW mission should at least be enlarged. There should be enough EW capability to ensure shifts and deployments of sustainable duration. Excessively long shifts invite mistakes. Emphasis should be placed on keeping NATO's C3I systems functioning reliably, including investing in personnel specialized in cyber defense. Though part of an EW mission, this task force may be raised from other NATO areas such as the Alliance Communications and Information Systems School in Latina, Italy. NATO forces should be trained to operate in a network-denied environment so that they are prepared to meet this possibility.
The costs of the expanded program should be borne collectively by the allies. This could be achieved with joint initiatives across national boundaries, drawing upon inherent specialties and benefiting from diverse perspectives within and from allies. Special care should be given to assessing EW equipment already in NATO's possession; upgrades represent a cheaper alternative to development.
1.2 Counter hybrid offense with hybrid defense.
At current levels of defense spending, NATO cannot deter by being a lion, so it must be a fox. Rather than countering hybrid tactics with smart defense, the Alliance should counter hybrid attack with hybrid defense. This strategy should center on the (re-)introduction of national military service. NATO should invest in preparation for asymmetric defensive warfare in its threatened allies. Following the Swiss model of national defense, NATO must, amongst other things, encourage the adoption of total defense strategies by its most vulnerable members in order to raise not only the cost of conflict, but the cost of occupation for potential adversaries, thereby reducing the risk of conflict. Hybrid defense cannot be NATO's only response to hybrid offense, but, given current willingness to act and to spend on defense, it represents a viable and positive alternative.
This strategy would undermine the advantage that NATO's would-be enemies gain from superior concentrations of conventional troops by raising the cost of an invasion to prohibitively high levels, not necessarily at the invasion phase, but certainly by the occupation phase, forcing the enemy to question at the strategic level whether conflict is a worthwhile pursuit. In addition, strengthening in-situ capability would reduce the Alliance's vulnerability to anti-access and area denial tactics, a key threat to the Alliance's utility.
This strategy would strengthen national identity and emphasize the values that underpin NATO, reducing vulnerability to hybrid offense of the sort seen in Crimea. It would increase the visibility of the military in society and heighten popular and political support for it.
1.3 Target adversaries' financial infrastructure.
NATO has underachieved in asymmetric conflicts and confrontations with non-state actors. Targeting adversaries' financial infrastructure will counter asymmetry, while complementing conventional capabilities.
Targeting financial infrastructure should become a structural element of NATO's policy. Economic warfare has been used in the past by individual NATO members, but never by the Alliance. NATO's interest in this area should move beyond research on merely macroeconomic trends.
NATO should target the elements of the financial infrastructure: physical (e.g. trade and transport nodes and pipelines) and non-physical (e.g. banking, online sales platforms). Terrorist groups, organized crime, and those advancing offensive hybrid strategies largely depend on the combination of the two in order to finance their activities.
Economic warfare means mapping enemies' financial infrastructure, then identifying and targeting the weakest element of the system through either soft (e.g. introduction of economic sanctions), or hard (e.g. destroying an element of transport infrastructure) means.
Research and acquisition of economic warfare capability is currently conducted at the national level. Allowing NATO to synthesize such efforts will increase efficiency and, consequently, reduce expenditure while broadening the pool of knowledge.
1.4 Defend spaceborne strategic infrastructure.
NATO must move to actively safeguard critical strategic spaceborne infrastructure, both from direct attack and the growing threat of orbital debris. If nothing is done, the Alliance's GPS, communications, and intelligence satellites will be threatened. Investing in defenses for existing space-based infrastructure against ground threats is critical. Future satellites and currently deployed systems could be better protected by dedicated space surveillance and tracking, ground-launched and space-based interceptors, and pre-programmed evasive patterns in satellite or ground-control memory for ready use. Defenses should be equally effective against both hostile attack and errant debris. NATO should also investigate economical debris-clearing technologies, including reducing the debris from each launch with reusable rockets like SpaceX's Falcon 9, and using high-energy ground-based lasers to deorbit strategic debris safely.
NATO must revamp its training exercises to include honing navigational and command and control techniques without the communications or navigation satellites it currently uses. A recent US Navy exercise in California is a novel model, where GPS and other satellite capabilities were jammed intentionally. Devoting resources to developing methods to rapidly replace satellite capabilities that are lost due to orbital debris or a direct attack will also increase the redundancy of this infrastructure. Funding research and development of rapid space lift capabilities to quickly get a new satellite into orbit and for high atmosphere balloon GPS and communication systems are both plausible avenues.
1.5 Create a NATO Opposing Force Office.
Intelligence, technology and expertise with personnel and perspectives from across the Alliance should be combined in a NATO Opposing Force Office to conduct research and investigations into future opponents' technologies, strategies and counterpoints. Given the game-changing nature of technologies like autonomous weapons systems, advanced directed energy and kinetic weapons, and the proliferation of stealth technology, the Office's "adversary team"-mindset will allow forward-thinking investigations into battlefield utility every member can use, preventing future opponents from surprising NATO forces with new tricks.
2. Reduce vulnerability to unconventional threats by encouraging unity and
In most areas NATO has developed an intimidating strength in traditional military warfare. As a response, state and non-state actors increasingly opt for Hybrid Warfare and unconventional ways to throw NATO off balance. Instead of attacking the Alliance in a conventional way, state and non-state adversaries try to weaken the community from the inside – through the clandestine dissemination of ideologically loaded disinformation or various recruitment strategies. To counter for unconventional risks and protect NATO's foundation – unity and cohesion – it is crucial to explain the importance of NATO's ability to act and the actions the Alliance undertakes in an objective and multi-perspective manner to the citizens of the member countries.
2.1 Promote NGOs to create independent information.
To tackle the threat of disinformation and declining willingness to act amongst NATO member state populations, NATO needs to restructure its information policy. Most citizens are only confronted with half-truths from media, hearsay, and other subjective reports about NATO. Individual investigations into NATO, require citizens to invest significant time and effort in research or the utilization of NATO media such as its Facebook page and YouTube channel. Although these formats represent a significant improvement in NATO public diplomacy, they are not suited to future challenges. With the population becoming increasingly multicultural, national interests diversifying, and the influence of ideology increasing, the variety of personal interests and perspectives increases even more.
Unilateral information broadcast from NATO itself would not be accepted in all parts of society and could be perceived as NATO propaganda, as the reception of Russian media disinformation has shown. Hence, the role of private institutions offering sound information from multiple perspectives will become increasingly important in the struggle for unity and cohesion within the alliance.
NATO should support independent NGOs in order to promote objective and multi-perspective media sources. Increasing support will allow such institutions to improve their current offerings and add new accessible formats, for example monthly TV debates and independent video-channels.
2.2 Expand public diplomacy to increase support for specific policies.
In light of the threat of declining support for specific NATO policies among the publics, NATO should foreground its role in defending the democratic values of such populations. Those that produce anti-NATO rhetoric often paint the Alliance as a militaristic and confrontational actor. To counter these arguments and declining willingness to act, NATO must credibly be understood as an Alliance that serves to underwrite peace, ensuring the principles of democracy, the freedom of the individual and the rule of law – principles in stark contrast to those of the Alliance's adversaries.
To promote this understanding amongst member state populations, NATO should ensure that Public Affairs work is not just a marketing strategy, but a real chance for dialogue between NATO leaders and the public. Only if people feel that they can contribute to defending peace will they value NATO's capacity to act and, concomitantly, demand independent and objective information. For this reason, the Alliance should expand its current outreach and engagement efforts (e.g. NATO conferences for university students) and develop continuous interaction formats like public polls, panel discussions and citizen workshops that highlight NATO's values, broaden access to the Alliance, and provide an insight into security policy topics.
2.3 Improve social programs to reduce vulnerability to hybrid warfare.
To prevent conflicts within member countries, many fueled by weaponization of the media by adversaries, NATO should prevent the alienation and marginalization of recently stateless former-Soviet citizens and international refugees. NATO should increase cooperation with the EU, starting by participating in the Eastern Partnership Program, and expand the work of the NATO Centre for Excellence in Civil Military Operations in order to encourage social projects. Furthermore, non-EU NATO members should contribute financially to existing EU or national programs in those countries targeted (e.g. social inclusion of Russian minority in Estonia or Syrian refugees in Germany). Within the member countries, domestic best practices should be adopted to ensure that the respective ethnic groups will be optimally integrated into member countries' society and their values.
3. Prevent conflict within a changing international system.
NATO must prepare to interact with a fluctuating international balance of power in a manner which prioritizes cooperation over competition. The possibility for conflict due to increasing tensions in the Arctic should be deterred through the strengthening of NATO's military presence there. NATO should react to the rise of China through diplomatic means by establishing partnership with the country and giving it an active voice in NATO operations in which it is a stakeholder.
3.1 Strengthen presence in contentious Arctic areas.
NATO must ensure that it closes its capability gaps in the Arctic. These gaps are evident when comparing Russia's and NATO's icebreaker fleets, search and rescue assets, and Arctic military bases. Several measures can be taken to ensure the gaps in these sectors are closed.
In response to Russia's numerical and qualitative superiority in icebreakers, NATO must begin a multinational project to develop a common heavy icebreaker platform. Arctic allies like Canada, Denmark, Norway, and USA should take the lead on this project and involve other willing partners through a smart defense project. Development of both nuclear and conventionally fueled icebreakers should be considered. By developing one icebreaker platform as opposed to several, money could be saved on R&D and duplication of work and capability avoided. Next a NATO Arctic icebreaker fleet should be created with a common rotating command, based in several locations in the Arctic.
NATO should build search-and-rescue bases in the Arctic. This would be done to assure safe passage is possible through Arctic shipping routes in the NATO allies' Arctic. It would ensure that NATO allies are better prepared to respond to emergencies than Russia, therefore strengthening sovereignty. The bases would be operated under a framework nation's concept system, with a focus of personnel and equipment from larger allies and Arctic allies. These bases would lay groundwork and establish infrastructure like air strips, so that they may quickly be converted into military bases if tensions in the Arctic increase in the future.
The use of drones should become a mainstay for surveillance and quick response to emergencies. Unmanned aircraft and watercraft are able to be deployed in much larger numbers and at longer intervals than manned vehicles could ever be. This would be ideal for the vast Arctic geography and could be deployed from search and rescue bases.
3.2 Establish partnership with China.
China's rising status in the international system may form an unfamiliar balance of power in the next decade. NATO must prepare to not be surprised by this shift, and must avoid isolating China, thereby reducing the belligerent tendencies it is already exhibiting the beginning stages of. There are practical ways the US can work within the structure of NATO to promote peace with China. Primarily, NATO must make China a "partner". NATO must assure that this offer of partnership is not merely symbolic by giving China a concrete role in operations in which it is a stakeholder. Economic negotiations, such as the terms of the opening of shipping routes in the Arctic, can serve as a feasible starting point. Through this partnership, NATO can choose cooperation over competition with China.
Effectiveness is a significant source of NATO's legitimacy. The Alliance is one of the key guarantors of peace and order in a period otherwise characterized by disorder, confusion, and animosity. NATO must be both reactive and directive, forcing its enemies to respond to its changes in strategy and new procurements, but also preparing to adapt its own strategies to those of its opponents. Only then can NATO maintain its supremacy and uphold the defense of its members well beyond 2026.
Wars of the future may not only involve battlefields, but shift to include the realms of cyber- and economic-warfare. NATO should invest in deeper understanding and capability in these types of conflict, preparing to combat a range of actors. In electronic warfare, NATO cannot afford to fall behind, either in its own defenses for its strategic and tactical communications and intelligence sharing, or in its offensive capability. Shifting conventional threats mean that NATO must be willing to adopt hybrid defensive strategies to counter otherwise intractable problems, embracing options such as national service within member countries or economic-warfare.
Moving to protect its space-based strategic infrastructure, both against direct attack and environmental threat, is also critical to ensuring allies' safety and Alliance operability in both near- and long-term scenarios. Creating an Opposing Force Office will further allow NATO to pre-empt its opponents, further reducing the prospect of conflict.
NATO must prepare itself to meet the challenges of the upcoming decade with unity and cohesion among its members – information and communication play a key role in this domain. The Alliance's public image must be improved, and when necessary rehabilitated, in order to strengthen NATO's legitimacy within member countries and around the globe. Developments in information warfare make it crucial that NATO and its members ensure their citizens receive accurate and unbiased information about the Alliance and its activities – emphasizing the links between domestic prosperity and defense preparation.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, twenty-five years ago, NATO has proved resilient to changing international power structures, and this upcoming decade will test that ability again. NATO must meet head-on rebalancing in the Arctic, as global warming opens up trade routes and rich oil, gas, and mineral deposits in an area where Russia is currently devoting significantly more effort than NATO is. Development of a common ice-breaker platform and fleet will enhance and fortify NATO's ability to operate in that arena, while search and rescue assets and unmanned systems provide greater coverage in the event of crises of all kinds in the region. Incorporating China is key to future international diplomacy, particularly if NATO wishes to avoid a belligerent relationship. Concrete offers of partnership and joint operations will go a long way in creating a solid foundation for future cooperation.
Matthew Ansley studies Russian and mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Since a young age he has fostered a deep interest of defense, geopolitics, and international affairs.
Patrick E. Boyle is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and student at the Harvard Kennedy School as well as an officer in the US Air Force. The views he expresses are his own, and not necessarily those of the US Gov't/USAF.
Nicholas Dube studied International Studies with a Security Studies concentration at East Carolina University. He is a research intern for a think-tank in the Washington, D.C. area.
Najia Humayun is a second year Economics and International Affairs major with a Spanish minor and pre-law focus at Georgia Institute of Technology.
Stephan Löbbert is a qualified wholesale and foreign trade merchant. Now he studies Master of Education at Leuphana University Lüneburg. Besides he works for a sociopolitical innovation consulting company, located in Berlin.
Joss Meakins is a graduate student at Columbia University studying Russian and International Politics. He recently graduated from Cambridge with a BA in Russian and French.
Edgar Palomino is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying political science and international relations.
Alfie Shaw is Development Director of Oxford University Strategic Studies Group. Previously, he was President of Oxford International Relations Society. He reads Geography at the University of Oxford and tweets as @shaw_alfie.
Cornel Turdeanu is a fourth year Political Science Student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver British Columbia. He is a founder of NATO@SFU, a group currently working to engage students in the discussion on NATO.
Dawid Walentek is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Amsterdam. He is interested in trade policy of the EU and the US.
The authors have written this Memo after qualifying with individual submissions, which provide more detailed information on the aforementioned policy recommendations for those interested:
Matthew Ansley: NATO Must Keep Up with Opposing Force Research
Patrick E. Boyle: Space Junk: The Biggest Threat to NATO Interoperability in 2026
Nicholas Dube: The Domino Effect of Environmental Threats
Najia Humayun: Partnering with China and Stifling ISIS's Funding
Stephan Löbbert: Cultural Diversity vs. NATO's Capacity to Act
Joss Meakins: The Battle for Tallinngrad: New Ways to Fight an Old War
Alfie Shaw: If NATO Cannot Be a Lion, It Must Be a Fox
Edgar Palomino: Shortfalls in Electronic Warfare Pose a Danger to NATO
Cornel Turdeanu: Identifying and Closing NATO's Arctic Capability Gap
The articles have been written for category A "Preparing for NATO 2026" of the "Shaping our NATO: Young Voices on the Warsaw Summit" competition and respond to the questions: What could surprise NATO in 2026? What scenario is NATO currently insufficiently addressing? What can realistically be done to prepare?
The competition has been made possible by generous contributions from the NATO Public Diplomacy Division, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.
Atlantic-community.org maintains editorial independence and this Memo reflects the opinions of the authors, not those of the sponsors.