David van Weel, NATO's Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges
Ukrainians apply new ideas and innovations on the battlefield
video 30.05.2023 16:11

A landmark event took place last week. By and large, I was somewhat underestimated by the public in the frenzied flow of information that Ukrainians deal with almost every day. Meanwhile, events of this kind can offer solutions to the problems and tragedies that Ukrainians face every day. For example, they can help better intercept Russian missiles, destroy Iranian-made drones, ensure the stability of the country's energy infrastructure, repel cyber attacks and do many other useful things. Last week, for the first time in the history of bilateral relations, Ukraine and NATO launched a High-Level Innovation Dialogue, in addition to the already existing agreement on scientific and environmental cooperation.

The event took place during the visit of Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister for Innovations, Development of Education, Science and Technologies, to the NATO headquarters. David van Weel, NATO's Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, told a small group of Ukrainian journalists why this High-Level Dialogue "breaks out" of the diplomatic algorithm inherent in such documents. Ukrinform used this opportunity to ask the NATO representative a few questions.


- As far as I notice, Mr. Fedorov is a great fan of artificial intelligence. Did you discuss some projects in this field with him?

- On artificial intelligence, it actually came up throughout the whole conversation because AI is a foundation of technology. It is like butter on bread, it is on cheese sandwiches and ham sandwiches. It is permeating everywhere.

So if we're talking about energy resilience and how we can have a smarter system in deciding how to build your energy grid, then AI is a very large part of that. If we look at a better detection of drones, then algorithms are really going to help in predicting how they work or in better detecting where the drones are or in filtering them out from distinguishing between a bird and a drone.

So in all the topics that I mentioned, AI will be a key technology. And I think we're all learning now with the come of ChatGPT that is all around us and can be used everywhere so definitely also in the projects here.


- It's obvious that cooperation in scientific technology is profitable for Ukraine. What kind of use do you have from cooperating with Ukraine? Do you have some kind of innovations that you value?

- Talking about the win-win of cooperation, let me make one general point. In general, if Ukraine prevails, that is also a win for NATO.

- No "if," Ukraine will prevail…

- It will prevail. And, of course, we stand behind you. In general, we're not counting on every piece of assistance that we give. But there is a definite win for NATO here, because you are now experiencing a real testing ground for new technologies and a very quick experience in what works and what doesn't work. So to gain that knowledge of your Armed Forces finding out what works, what is actually beneficial, how you can best operate drones. Because it's not only about technology but about how you use it in a concept.

So there we also have a lot to learn from Ukraine. And, of course, there's also opportunities for companies from Allied countries to actually provide their services to Ukraine but then also gain that insight into what they need to improve in order to benefit.


- If we talk about public-private partnership in the development of military technologies, what kind of incentives can be found for private companies to participate in this work? And how to prevent a situation when -- after the head of one of these companies changed his mind -- the troops on the battlefield risk being left, for example, without reliable communication?

- Our analysis is that if you look back a few decades in time, most of the new inventions came from government funding, and more specifically, it was military funding. So GPS, the internet itself – a lot of these inventions came out of military research and development. Then they were used, regulated and tested in the military environment and then later they became available for civilians. GPS, for example, in the beginning, was made available for commercial use but with lower accuracy than the military GPS actually could provide to avoid that risk.

Nowadays, it's the other way around. New inventions come out of the private sector, a lot of times they even come out of start-ups, spin-offs or universities and they're game-changing. So the question is how do we not get left behind as defense forces in the innovations that are out there and most of them are dual-use. So the question is how do we quicker connect those two worlds.

The main problem setting there is that a lot of innovators don't know what the military needs so they don't even take into account in developing an app. They are thinking about a business model and a market for things, but they're not thinking about security and defense as a way to develop for. The other problem is that a lot of the military doesn't know what new technologies are out there, that could solve the problems they are now encountering. So bringing together those two communities is a big step in enhancing that public-private partnership.

Regarding the incentives for the private sector to participate in this work. I think Ukraine shows us that a lot of the private sector actually wants to be part of the good fight in this conflict and therefore is very much willing to work for defense and defend them.

At the same time, why I said dual use is so important because it is good to have a commercial business model that provides for more money for research and development for the next generation than if you're only dependent on a government to support you.

In terms of discussions on regulatory rules and permissions that depend on government support in the use of such technologies, that's a discussion we all need to have worldwide. Let's be honest, without one private person there would not have been a Starlink system that provided the solution at a time when all other communication was done. Nobody ever asked for a Starlink system but we were all happy that it was there [on the battlefield] and we're still happy that it's all there, because it's still making a big difference in this war.

We have to come to grips with the fact that the private sector owns a lot of our infrastructure that is actually crucial for defense and security. And therefore, we need to stay in a constant dialogue about ethical uses, norms, etc. But I think that Ukraine is an example where companies like Microsoft and Starlink actually stood up and did the right thing.


- If we return to the topic of artificial intelligence. Certain ethical norms in using AI are being discussed at the G7 level. Does NATO have similar principles and rules? Would you like other countries to follow such rules?

- We have these principles. We have an AI strategy for security and defense, because we very much believe that if we don't take our own norms and values seriously with new technologies, then we're losing what we're fighting for. So we need to take our values onto the battlefield and that also means the use of technologies like AI.

One-and-a-half years ago, we agreed with all the Allies on an AI strategy and part of that AI strategy are principles of responsible use and they delineate how we want AI to function and what are the minimum demands that we put on this AI.

I will name a few examples. One is bias mitigation. So especially early AI tends to have a bias because it starts to look for patterns and if patterns then become the truth, then accidents happen. And you don't have to google very far to see how people got fired or got arrested on the basis of these early and simple algorithms that were biased. So that's one of the things that we don't want.

Another thing that we want is reliability. We need to know in 100% of the cases what the AI will do, especially when it comes down to more difficult decisions, when it comes down to life or death, which are being taken in the world of defense and security.

So we've delineated quite early on how we want our AI to function. And, of course, we hope that that will become the world standard because that would mean that we've run fewer risks from technologies like AI.


- We are now facing a hybrid war where the use of software products is combined with the use of traditional weapons. Did you expect to see all these trenches and "meat assaults" from the Russians? Does the current situation lead to fundamental changes in NATO's vision of the very concept of modern warfare? It is known that many countries were preparing for stabilization, peacekeeping or rescue operations – now we have an absolutely different situation...

- We've already learned the first lesson in 2008, when Georgia was attacked, and then in 2014, when Crimea was taken by Russia. So I think that was the first move for NATO, the first wake-up call that this was not a world where we would only bring stability and peace in countries far from NATO territory but that we actually face an existential threat close to our borders.

So already then, in 2014, we had 2% spending of GDP on defense pledge. We started to station troops in the Baltic countries as a deterrent effect towards Russia. So that movement was already put in place, but I think it's definitely been put in a roller coaster after the invasion last year in February.

It was hard to imagine such a large-scale war in Europe but it's happening. And it's not over in a few months and yes, we need all the materiel we see now on the battlefield in order to be able to withstand and defend for a longer time.

One of the issues that we are going to resolve is indeed to increase the readiness of NATO troops. We are looking at the defense industry, because we see that we need more production capacity than we had over the past decades to be able to be ready for deterring Russia and defending the Alliance.

At the same time, it is now extra, of course, because Allies are also supplying large quantities to Ukraine, which are needed now to regain the territory. So there's a real need to rethink the way we organize them.

Dmytro Shkurko, Brussels

Photo credit: NATO and Kristof Vadino

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