NATO can learn from Ukraine’s military innovation

Expensive procurement and bureaucratic torpor hamper the alliance – Ukraine’s embrace of cyber technology and new funding shows the way forward, writes Rob Murray.

The World Today Updated 22 November 2023 Published 3 February 2023 3 minute READ

Rob Murray

Senior Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University

In the Ukraine war, tech titans, troops and technocrats are working within one of the most organic and effective public-private collaborations ever seen. The result is that Ukraine is winning both the battlefield and the political narrative against a Russian aggression.

There is no cacophony of bureaucrats in Kyiv endlessly coordinating to opaque ends. There are simply empowered and resilient action-takers seeking to win a war.

Yesterday’s technology at next week’s prices

When imagining innovation, NATO and her allies can learn a good deal from this conflict. One area in particular is that of allied defence acquisition models, which remain dangerously outdated, expensive and bloated – often resulting in yesterday’s technology being delivered tomorrow at next week’s prices.

The new NATO Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) and the NATO Innovation Fund are designed to change this approach and build greater resilience into how allies get tech to troops at speed. It won’t be those nations with the best technology that win the next major conflict, it will be those with the most agile bureaucracy, regardless of whether they spend 2 per cent or 20 per cent of their GDP on defence.

War is about winning and losing. One intriguing element coming from Ukraine is how to acquire what is needed to set oneself up to win. The winners of conflicts always get to decide subsequent power structures, be they economic, military or geopolitical. The British discovered this in the late 18th and early 19th centuries vis-à-vis the Dutch and French, and the allies – with varying degrees of success – did the same after the First and Second World Wars with the Treaty of Versailles and the Bretton Woods agreement respectively.

NATO nations have lost in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali in the last two decades – it needs to win again

Given the allies’ desire to maintain the post-Bretton Woods international order, NATO nations need to get back to their winning ways. The past two decades have seen the UK and NATO lose in Libya and Afghanistan, the US-led coalition lose in Iraq, and French-led efforts lose in Mali.

This is a worrying trend that needs to be reversed if those post-Bretton Woods power structures are to endure. Allies must show some strategic humility to understand why there has been a series of persistent failures at political, economic and military levels.

To some extent NATO ’s 2022 Strategic Concept provides such analysis, acknowledging that NATO will now ‘promote innovation and increase our investments in emerging and disruptive technologies … and … cooperate with the private sector…’ Does Ukraine, which is not a formal NATO ally, foreshadow what this future might look like?

Ukrainians have succeeded with nothing like the training NATO troops receive

The Ukrainian military has taken equipment from around the world, forged it into a relevant, decentralized and empowered structure and fought against an intense Russian onslaught. Yes, they have received training, albeit very limited, and nothing like the sort of training NATO troops would expect. Nor have they had consultants and staff officers slavishly producing glossy slides and organizational charts depicting the most ‘efficient’ structures that are subsequently debated at the annual budgetary knife-fight.

And yet we see a Ukrainian military capable of counter-attacking Russia, conducting operations across land, air, maritime and space, operating behind enemy lines and using some of the most advanced cyber activities ever witnessed. This has been supported by an eclectic mix of actors and financed through a web of institutional public-private money, crowd-funding and alternative sources.

Ukrainians have rapidly leveraged a broad range of equipment, including drones, artillery pieces, anti-tank weapons, cyber capabilities, cube satellites and soon to be tanks. If the same sort of inventories were to arrive rapidly on the shores of most NATO countries, it is quite believable that the bureaucracy would not be able to get out of the way of the fighting. Although London’s seasoned ‘Whitehall Warriors’ are quite capable of fighting among themselves.

The challenge of private-sector funding

Of course, that is an unfair comparison because the context between allied capital cities and Kyiv is very different. What is not different is the relationship between public and private funds. The US government has gradually decreased its investment in new technology research and development since the 1960s, while the private sector has increased its share.

Ratio of US R&D to GDP, 1953-2021
Line chart showing proportion of business and federal sources of US defence funding 1953 to 2021

The ratio of US research and development (R&D) to GDP, by source of funds for R&D: 1953 to 2021. Source: National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Patterns of R&D Resources (annual series).

This is a pattern repeated across the European Union, Britain and the wider NATO alliance. This has seen new technology predominantly funded by the private sector for the prime aim of commercial gain.

One challenge is getting the latest tech to troops effectively – which is not the same as efficiently

Today’s challenge is understanding the differing roles of public and private finance and the collaboration needed to foster an innovation environment where NATO allies can influence new technological developments to the advantage of both commercial markets and national security needs. This is about sharing the opportunity between public and private sectors, as opposed to socializing the risks and privatizing the rewards.

A significant part of this challenge is creating the acquisition network where getting future tech to troops in the most effective way – which is not the same as the most efficient – works for all involved. The US Navy’s Task Force 59 is a superb template. NATO’s DIANA and Innovation Fund are the tip of the spear for this challenge, with a mandate to bring together the alliance’s most creative scientists, soldiers and start-ups.


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To inform their mission, both DIANA and the Fund must look to Ukraine and see how a winning army undertakes acquisition, how to successfully leverage both public and private money, and, critically, how quickly technology gets to the front line and is put to effective use, all while resisting capture by the bureaucracy.