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Increasing Complexity and Uncertainty: Future Challenges to NATO and the West

NATO is facing an unprecedented diverse range of security challenges in the Euro-Atlantic area. The emergence or resurgence of state actors as potential peer competitors, coupled with the increasing threat of terrorism have generated a renewed emphasis on deterrence and defense. Persistent transnational challenges such as organized crime, climate change, or economic instability further deepen the uncertainty and complexity of our security environment. Living in a globalized society, we cannot ignore the developments in areas beyond our borders. 

NATO’s Allied Command Transformation (ACT) – located in Norfolk, Virginia – seeks to provide NATO with relevant, resourced, military capacities in the right posture, to address current, but with even more emphasis, future challenges and to keep NATO relevant now and in the foreseeable future.

At the same time, this underscores the need for stability projection. 

At the 2016 summit in Warsaw, NATO decided to adapt its posture in a 360-degree approach. Heads of state and government reconfirmed that the three core tasks – collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security – remain valid. In order to maintain its effectiveness, NATO has therefore embarked upon a journey of adaptation. ACT being in one of the driving seats. 

This adaptation is framed by three major questions: 
Do we fully understand the context and developments in our security environment? 
Do we have the right capabilities to counter evolving threats?
And, are we adapting at the speed of change and in a comprehensive approach (e.g. governments, civil sector, military, economy, cultural, non-governmental organizations)?

All this requires an Alliance that is strategically aware and flexible and agile enough to simultaneously decide, operate, and adapt. If executed poorly, NATO may in the future find itself dominant in a conventional sense and effectively irrelevant at the same time.

Of course, NATO has adapted before, but currently, the new security environment shows that we do not have plenty of time to get it right. We need to be in place, resilient, and persistent. To get the adaptation of the Alliance right, we need to speed up our processes and our adaptability, increase our situational awareness, and plan for challenges of the future, not the past ones. Decisions taken today must take the effects over the mid and long term into account. And we have to be ambitious and innovative. Maybe we will even have to redefine innovation in the military realm.

All this requires a better understanding of what surrounds us today and in the future. This is not about predicting the future, but about identifying general trends. ACT released its first edition of the Strategic Foresight Analysis (SFA) in 2013. But in fact its origins go back to 2009, when ACT was commanded by today’s US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. Back then, he initiated the “Multiple Futures Project” as a solid foundation for much of our strategic planning. This key document already recognized many of the future trends, threats, and requirements that have been driving the adaptation of NATO’s military posture since Wales and Warsaw.

The aim of the revised SFA 2017 is still to provide a shared understanding of the strategic future security environment. It describes the most significant political, social, technological, economic, and environmental trends in the coming years, and resulting security implications for the Alliance and for its member nations. Supported by professional military judgement, the SFA helps to both understand today and to visualize the future, in order to enable NATO to adapt.

Besides that, all nations develop their own foresight documents. The combination of all these different perspectives, however, is what gives the SFA its unique added value. Not only does it establish a shared view by 29 Allied nations, but it is the result of a collaborative effort drawing extensively on their expertise, and integrating inputs from partner nations, other international organizations, think tanks, industry, and academia. 

In particular, it is closely shared and coordinated with the European Union. The European Strategy and Policy Analysis System’s (ESPAS) “Shaping the Future of Geopolitics,” released in November 2017, and the SFA reciprocally informed each other in their production phase. As 22 nations are members in both organizations, a certain overlap and shared assessment should not surprise us, but be valued as criteria for combined strength, shared resilience, and common ground for future cooperation. 

In addition, to enable a shared point of view of 29 allies, SFA 2017 also offers different opinions in some particular issues, where general agreement could not be achieved. This underlines the ambition to maintain maximum objectivity.

The SFA forms the intellectual foundation for the “Framework for Future Alliance Operations” (FFAO) which was released by both Allied Command Operations (Belgium) and ACT earlier this year. This document goes one step further by taking a number of instability situations from the SFA and defining their military implications for the years to come. It identifies characteristics and abilities of future Alliance capabilities to meet the potential challenges and opportunities of the future security environment.

What do we believe are the most significant evolutions in trends since the SFA 2013 report, and what might be their key implications for the Alliance?

The shift of powers as a challenge to the West

The geostrategic power transition that has been taking place over the past years in the Asia-Pacific region is now reaching a decisive turn. It clearly illustrates the resurgence of power politics in the region. China is leveraging its economic power to increase defense spending, as the foundation of a growing global power strategy. The neighboring India is following the same path. It could reach a comparable status in the medium term. At the same time, Russia is resurfacing with the intent to be recognized as a major power again. It is challenging the established order in the former Soviet space by taking advantage of the lack of unity and resolve of Western nations. 

Finally, a wide variety of emerging non-state actors – ranging from terrorist groups to globally operating companies – with significant resources and ambitions are increasingly influencing societies, national governments, and international institutions. This trend, combined with a growing lack of trust in governments and institutions, raises a number of consequences for the Alliance.   

First, the increased likelihood of power competition is putting the international rule-based order to the test and is directly challenging the cohesion of the Alliance.

Second, the growing complexity of this environment and a wide variety of actors requires NATO to develop a global strategic awareness, beyond the Euro-Atlantic area.

Third, in this unprecedented range and multitude of global developments NATO will need to reinforce its cooperation with existing partners, other international organizations, or relevant non-state actors; and establish an effective dialogue with the rising powers to develop confidence and security building measures. 

The exponentially growing innovation rate of technologies will change our societies 

Emerging technologies are undoubtedly the fastest-growing and -evolving trend. The literally disruptive nature of some technologies has already started to transform our daily lives and the societies we live in. The surge in computing power, together with artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous systems, will continue to accelerate the pace of technological progress. The development of global networks eases the access to new technologies and information, as well as their dissemination down to individuals.

In addition, the trend that governments will continue to lose their driving role in the development of cutting-edge technologies, leading to an overdependence on the commercial sector, including in sovereignty areas such as defense and security, is likely to continue.

For NATO, the consequence of this easier access to disruptive technologies poses a threat through their exploitation by our potential adversaries. This even includes individual actors.

Therefore, the Alliance will have to keep up with the tempo of these evolutions and adapt at the speed of relevance. A paradigm shift in our acquisition processes will be needed to allow quicker integration of innovative solutions into our range of capabilities.

Start-ups spend their own money on research and development. If the market embraces their product, they make a fortune, if not, they move on and develop something else innovative. However, if we compare this model to our governmental procurement processes, we must recognize we usually spend public resources for concept development and experimentation. Instead of stopping a defense project due to a change in parameters, we feel bound by the millions we have already spent and stick to the decision taken 15 years before in many cases.

This does not correspond to the innovative velocity of the world we are supposed to operate at all. Our business model differs in many regards; we often tend to focus more on processes than on outcome.

The United States released their Third Offset Strategy in 2014, aiming to ensure the US keeps the global technological edge in the defense sector and focuses on the most advanced technologies. Many technologies originally developed for other purposes were identified as relevant for the military today and in the future. The purpose of the Third Offset Strategy is to deter other major global powers from contesting the US militarily and to take advantage of the most advanced technologies. 

For NATO, this makes it imperative to increase funding for the most advanced defense technologies. The US invited the Europeans to participate in some of their capability programs. One focus for NATO and the US alike is to enhance any man–machine interface. 

Machines increasingly outpace humans in processing data. We need to identify ways and means to utilize this capability to our benefit. Furthermore, the disproportionate tempos in technological developments amongst Alliance nations could lead to compatibility issues within NATO. 

Divergent ethical and legal interpretations and acceptance of the evolutions in technologies will create different levels of adoption and a reluctance to partner with nations that employ them in operations.

The technological edge and the newest gadgets, which are driving change in how we interact socially, how we shop, how we plan, how we conduct our businesses, no longer reside in the military community. The information environment is developing into a new battlefield with data as a main strategic resource. This will require adaptive mindsets, technological awareness, appropriate policies, and legal frameworks to facilitate the adoption of new technologies, as well as to ensure the highest level of interoperability for capabilities that will be increasingly connected.  

We need to be aware of the impact on our most valuable capital and bring about a change of attitude in order to remain relevant. In the international community, the discussion on how legal norms like “law in armed conflict,” “human rights,” and “protection of civilians in armed conflict” are effected are ongoing. There is growing consensus on the need to apply international norms to the field of AI and autonomous systems. As we stand right at the beginning of the political process, NATO could take a leading role in shaping the discussions and driving them forward.

In fact, the complexity becomes really challenging if we have a closer look at the legal framework and the closely linked ethical aspects. How do we foresee the decision cycles for the deployment of unmanned and semi-autonomous systems? AI will inevitably lead to autonomous self-learning platforms and they are a technological reality already even though not fully operational so far.

Have we considered the necessary legal adaptation to that? Are we up to speed in the ethical discussion process? Are we sufficiently aware of the concerns, worries, and fears of our citizens?

Whatever turns the discussion will take we must always keep our Western societies in mind; we cannot wish away these emerging technologies – if we do not embrace them, others will, and we need to be prepared to deter and to defend against the threat imposed by them. Our potential adversaries are increasingly using global networks to disseminate false or misleading information to influence public opinion and decision-making. It can be assumed that they will neither have the legal constraints nor the ethical debates that are required on our side.

NATO will not only need to develop capacities to detect changes in the information environment to become more strategically aware and to take an agile approach to strategic communications. Equally important is that NATO and its nations will need to increase resilience against false information disseminated by opponents who do not feel bound by the same set of norms, rules, and legal frameworks.

What does this mean in the realm of deterrence?

Changing societies could impact the Alliance 

Increased urbanization will lead to more resource competition and even to scarcity. Ownership and control of critical infrastructure could become contested. It will create additional vulnerabilities for the distribution of available resources. In addition, ageing populations will continue to challenge medical and social welfare policies, potentially limiting the necessary budgets for defense and security. Furthermore, the polarization of societies is increasing, preliminarily affecting Western nations fuelled by endless opportunities of individualized lifestyle and amplified recognition of minorities.  

All these factors will increase instability and the risk of large-scale migration, civil unrest, potentially even civil war. Consequently NATO must be prepared to operate in heavily concentrated urban environments. Therefore, the related measures regarding the protection of civilians are integrated into the planning and conduct of NATO-led operations. 

Among allied nations, the understanding of civil preparedness and interdependence between services will be an essential factor to improve their sustainment and to build resilience.  

Threats and strategic opportunities raised by environ­mental and climate change 

Climate change impacts nearly all domains and comprises technical, legal, and political challenges. Increased frequency and severity of natural disasters will continue to shape the security environment. The scientific understanding of climate change is growing and will have to be taken into account in the Alliance’s long-term planning and risk assessments. The following implications must be addressed:

First, the easier accessibility of the Arctic region will cut distances between Europe and Asia by a third. It will also allow increased military use of the far North and Arctic regions by friend or foe. This will impact both the Alliance’s threat assessment of these regions, and also offer greater opportunities for our strategic lines of communication.  

Second, there is a need to develop resilience against deficiencies in primary resources and infrastructures while planning for military operations. Extreme weather conditions, water and food security issues and other climate and environmental stressors must be included in allies’ situational awareness and planning processes.  

Third, natural disasters will increase requirements for humanitarian support. The lack of military assets required for this support must also be taken into account in operational plans. 

Strategic shocks of a yet unseen magnitude 

All those briefly presented trends could equally lead to crises. However, the greatest danger is the confluence of these trends, and of many others described in the SFA, building up to trigger strategic shocks of a yet unseen magnitude.  

Are we prepared to be resilient and to absorb such shocks today? Are we really considering the possible effects of those shocks and are we willing to plan for them or do we still prefer to ignore those scenarios because we fear debates about their consequences and the measures we would have to take to be resilient?

The understanding that the allied nations have of civil preparedness and interdependence between public services will be an essential factor to improve their sustainment and to build resilience. Building resilience already demands persistent interconnectedness between the civil, private, and military sectors in peacetime. Waiting for emerging crises to address the needs and required processes will lead to failure and existential threats for our nations.

It is important to have a common understanding of the future trends and their security and stability implications. In order to cope with this challenge, the SFA makes a valuable contribution with its shared perspective of the 29 member states, which lays the foundation for the discussion of future trends, threats, and challenges and fosters cohesion of the Alliance. It will enable us to better coordinate our national defense plans to face the future and to grasp new opportunities. 

The SFA is also the primary document to inform national security reviews and defense and security strategies. It will help allied nations and partners to include future perspectives in today’s decisions and enables the Alliance to permanently adapt.

But in fact, we at ACT strive at more than only to influence. Our purpose is the implementation of the outcomes of Warsaw on a larger scale and to bring coherence.

It is about better use of what already exists, leveraging it through existing structures and using it on a persistent, day-to-day basis, but without taking ownership or duplicating the work.   

It could apply to everything we do: Command and Control, Capabilities, Training and Exercises, Logistics and Partnerships. And speed in this process will make the difference between being one step behind and one step ahead of any potential opponent.

Practically speaking, our ambition is to connect and to federate what exists in NATO, in nations, and in other organizations for the benefit of all. And in doing this to also strengthen national responsibilities in service of the Alliance.

That’s why ACT’s Persistent Federated Approach is not just focused on Command and Control, but also on capabilities, logistics, the way we train and exercise, and on our ­approach to partnerships. Partnerships that are not limited to partner nations but incor­porate international organizations, non-governmental organizations, industry, and academia, etc.

A Persistent Federation to achieve higher levels of resilience 

It is about constantly improving the way NATO and nations collaborate and cooperate, whilst nations retain full sovereignty and control over their systems. This would require, among other things, the adaptation of policies and permissions. Key however is a change in working ethos and practices. 

A federated approach would provide insights into a specific situation through its architecture, encompassing NATO nations, partners, the private sector, academia, and all sources of publicly available information. It would facilitate enhanced strategic awareness to provide early warning and the assessment of a deteriorating situation.

Such a change in policy and mindset does not come from the organization itself. It builds on the people within, their curiosity about adapting at the speed of relevancy. NATO and its allied nations need to embrace the uncertainty, need to learn from the rapidly changing world around us, and need to enhance our interaction in order to gain a common, whole-of-government increased situational awareness and higher levels of resilience.

Improving today, shaping tomorrow, bridging the two is what drives Allied Command Transformation.



Admiral Manfred Nielson assumed duties as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia in 2016. He has commanded units at all levels and held various leading positions in the German Federal Ministry of Defense. Following his promotion to Rear Admiral (lower half), he served as Commandant of the Naval Academy in Flensburg from 2003 to 2005 where he served as Commander Combined Task Force 150 during Operation Enduring Freedom. Promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral in 2010, he was appointed Commander in Chief of the German Fleet in Glücksburg. From 2012 to 2015 he served as Chief of Staff Joint Support Service of the Bundeswehr. He was promoted to the rank of Admiral with the assumption of NATO task at ACT.