NATO Must Keep Up with Opposing Force Research
Over the next ten years a series of revolutions stand to up-end the way wars are fought. To stay ahead of the curve NATO not only needs to invest in this research itself, but in comprehensive understanding of possible future opposing forces. Without such research, NATO's battlefield supremacy will be in serious jeopardy. Therefore, NATO needs an Opposing Force Office, and it needs one now, not in 2026, and not a day later.
The year 2016 promises to be the cusp of several technological and doctrinal revolutions in warfare over the next decade. Not all of these advances will fit in existing NATO doctrine or its priorities. That is not a problem necessarily, but efforts should still be made to understand them all, and investigate the possibility of integration. However, even more pressing than understanding these individual revolutions is a broader concern: the present lack of significant Alliance investment in understanding these revolutions from the perspective of an opponent of NATO, and their implications in potential opponent strategies, and no Alliance-wide effort to perceive and adapt to such strategies. Current NATO doctrine in effect assumes efforts will be made to minimize civilian casualties, and that the Alliance will have electronic, airborne, and general technological parity – if not outright superiority – against any near-term opponent. Further, current Alliance defense procurement indicates a continued belief that it only needs better versions of the tools with which it planned to wage war in the Fulda Gap against Soviet Guards tank and motor-rifle divisions, the conventional war to end all conventional wars. That will not be the next war, either strategically or tactically.
There is little to no imminent investment in any of the following revolutions: cyber-warfare, both strategic and tactical, offensive electronic warfare to deny the enemy use of their own networked battle-spaces and defenses against the same, autonomous weapons systems, both airborne and land-borne, battlefield-ready directed energy and electromagnetic weapons (e.g. rail-guns), and asymmetric strategies, including not only insurgencies but both limited nuclear warfare and anti-civilian strategies in a total war scenario. Without investment in at least understanding these potentially revolutionary technologies and doctrines and their possible strengths and weaknesses, in 2026 the Alliance could find itself on the back foot technologically and its enemies leapfrogged over it into the next era of warfare.
In the realm of cyber-warfare, even civilian vulnerability through a poor security of the "internet of things" is a pressing threat to NATO operations. If electric power or water supplies in population centers were to be disrupted in NATO nations, or their communications disabled, the resources needed to engage the enemy would be absent when making up lost ground from these attacks. Similar attacks – using both cyber and conventional electronic warfare – on command and control infrastructure could be devastating. NATO commanders are used to tactical pictures far larger than their radios can give them, relying on data passed back by fighting units and passed forward by strategic reconnaissance instantaneously. Individual regiment commanders are used to knowing exactly where each of their tanks and armored fighting vehicles are, and division commanders are used to being able to command at a platoon level. In short, Alliance reliance on extensively networked battle-spaces has created a dependence on them, one that is not immediately obvious through the haze of successful use.
The radically decreasing cost and difficulty of producing sophisticated electronics, communications equipment, and increasingly compact computing power means further that on a future battlefield, NATO forces may not be the only networked units. The same advances also presage the possibility of an opponent fielding huge numbers of fully autonomous weapons systems, linked in swarms, operating in unison to overwhelm less numerous manned Alliance forces. This asymmetric investment in numerical superiority could be further accented if an enemy exercises disregard for civilian casualties, perhaps even seeking them out when such casualties would hamper Alliance forces. Such strategies could not only include cyber, electronic, and kinetic strikes on both Alliance forces and their supporting civilian infrastructure, but also include nuclear assault, including conventional, neutron, and electromagnetic pulse attacks. Directed energy weapons can render inert NATO's limited supplies of precision weaponry by destroying the lot as active defenses while projecting huge line-of-sight anti-aircraft threat, coordinated with railgun- and coilgun-armed vehicles destroying tanks and other vehicles, whose armor simply cannot withstand the energy release of such arms.
None of these technologies are beyond the reach of NATO. On the contrary, efforts are being made. Just this week, NATO established cyber-warfare as a full domain of combat, and began concerted efforts to coordinate Alliance cyber-war efforts. The American Navy is making strides in both directed energy weapons and railgun technologies for its warships. The American Department of Defense is also conducting its first experiments in fighting in a GPS-denied environment in southern California, a key part of NATO's electronic infrastructure. All is not lost, not yet.
The present level of investment is not enough, not if NATO is serious about future battlefield relevance. NATO needs more investment, and not just in raw technological progress. The Alliance needs to understand how its opponents could take advantage of these technologies and what it needs to do to halt those lines of attack. An Alliance Opposing Force Office could combine intelligence, technology and experts therein, and personnel and perspectives from around the Alliance in a dedicated, permanent, working group to conduct thorough research and investigation into both possible opponent strategies and lines of attack, and possible counters, while also passing back its own discoveries and advances to the Alliance's fighting forces. Research and development for its own sake is laudable in a perfect world, but NATO and its member states have limited budgets. An Opposing Force Office can be a force multiplier for those resources, combining and leveraging research across national lines to ensure all members get the best kit for and the best understanding of the missions ahead. Without such investment, in a decade's time NATO won't just be surprised by a new opponent or a particular trick, but by an entire suite of changes not only to the technology of war but the very way wars are fought. NATO needs an Opposing Force Office, and it needs one now, not in 2026, and not a day later.
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.
This article has been submitted for category A "Preparing NATO for 2026" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video in the categories B, C, D.
- Atlantic-Community.org in Transition
- Towards a More Inclusive Transatlantic Partnership: Update on the 2nd Atlantic Expedition
- Topic of the Month: The Future of Health Care
- Do We Need Data Donations?
- eHealth - Tele-Monitoring and Tele-Medicine - Digital Innovation in the Life Science Sector in Germany