The Relevance of Superior Joint Air and Space Power Technology in NATO’s Defence

By Colonel

By Col



, US


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2022-2024)

 September 2023


Evolution in the military is driven by the need to defend yourself and defeat your enemy, sometimes at all costs. The victor, in general, first develops a military force capable of evolving and incorporating new technologies at a scale superior to his competitors or adversaries. In the past few centuries in particular, military engineers and inventors have developed many key technologies that considerably altered the character of warfare. One of the most important was the invention of gunpowder, which changed how militaries fought their battles, enabling smaller armies to defeat larger ones at greater and safer distances. The subsequent invention of rifles, machine guns, and artillery made large battlefields more lethal, allowing single soldiers to hold large numbers of attackers at bay and forcing armies to fight from entrenched defensive positions. During World War I, further technological advancements in combination with motorization and enhanced steelworks led to the development of the first tanks, which changed the character of warfare again. Tanks made it possible to cross no man’s land and break through enemy lines, forcing opposing armies to develop new strategies, doctrines, and weapons to deal with them.

Additionally, the invention of the aeroplane in the early 20th century radically changed how militaries fought. Aircraft made it possible to gather intelligence, conduct reconnaissance, drop bombs on enemy targets, and conduct aerial fights, making the battlefield overall much ‘smaller’ and more accessible. However, no invention holds such a tremendous impact on the fundamental concept of war itself as nuclear weapons, which can destroy entire cities with a single bomb.

As conflict and innovation have often led to remarkable advancements in warfighting capabilities, it begs the question – what exactly do we mean by ‘superior technology’? When we talk about superior technologies, we refer to tools, systems, or weapons that are more effective and efficient, providing a significant advantage over existing competing technologies. These technologies are typically innovative and reliably provide better performance, capabilities, and/or cost-effectiveness compared to their predecessors or alternatives. By utilizing superior technologies, military forces can gain a stronger position on the battlefield and significantly improve chances for success.

Current Technologies and Their Potential Impact on Future Warfare

The military field has seen a significant surge in the development of new technologies in recent years. Research and development of these technologies have become crucial due to the emergence and resurgence of competing military powers, making it essential to have an advantage to prevent a possible confrontation. There are two main categories of technologies in the military field: underlying technologies, and actual weapons systems that utilize them. In the following discussion, we will highlight some examples of both and explore their potential impact on future warfare.

Underlying Technologies

Artificial Intelligence and Automation: The use of machines and tools to support human workflow is nothing new. After the advent of modern computers, these machines became capable of ever more complex, adaptable, and quicker algorithms, significantly increasing the use cases for supporting human workflows. Depending on the speed of the necessary calculations and the processing power of the computer, different applications for command and control systems can be integrated into existing or emerging systems. These applications can range from strategic decision aides for the political/military level to automated mission execution for unmanned systems.1 For military application, deterministic algorithms are currently easier to handle since their behaviour can be completely predicted by the input.

Algorithms are also the building blocks of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL), with DL a subset of ML, and ML a subset of AI. AI enables machines to learn from experience, adjust to new inputs, and perform some human tasks. Therefore, decision processes are generally not predefined but learned over time with the goal of further improvement. The validation and verification of AI output is a major issue in accepting this technology in military applications. Therefore, using AI as a decision aide for various levels of automation, if the system reliably produces trusted outputs, not only enables using more data for decision-making but also helps commanders to keep up with warfare’s ever-increasing speed. Automation allows a decision to be supported or made by computers when a human cannot make it in time (time-critical reactive engagements) or a human decision is not generally available. Some of the major problems for AI in military operations are:

  • Identifying quality assurance mechanisms for AI.
  • Fielding it early enough to prevent competitors from gaining a non-compensable advantage with their own AI applications.
  • AI may produce outputs that we cannot understand in a relevant timeline.
  • AI may produce outputs the operator will not understand in general.
  • What decision outputs are appropriate for AI?
  • How to train AI for military applications.
  • Moral/ethical considerations of AI.

Quantum Technology (QT): Primarily describes technology stemming from the second quantum revolution, which focuses on manipulating and controlling individual quantum systems to drive advances in quantum computing, sensing, cryptography, and communications. These fields have the potential to influence military capabilities significantly. It is important to note that Quantum Computing (QC) will not replace traditional computers but will significantly accelerate resolving highly complicated problems. Additionally, QC can support machine learning, close to real-time simulations, and data analysis. Thus, providing a decisive information advantage over competitors or adversaries, particularly when faster C2 decision cycles are based on big data and battle cloud concepts. QT also strives to optimize, miniaturize, and synchronize certain systems, significantly enhancing sensing and communication capabilities. Overall, QT will help to strengthen military capabilities to evolve into more secure and capable systems. However, it is important to note that these advancements will also allow competitors to threaten our information and Command and Control (C2) superiority.

Stealth Technology: Using materials and designs that make military equipment less visible for sensors in certain radio frequencies, stealth technology makes it possible for military forces to conduct operations with less risk of early detection. Stealth technology is particularly important, providing a significant advantage in air-to-air combat and air-to-ground strikes.

Electronic Warfare (EW): EW systems utilize electromagnetic signals to disrupt, jam, or spoof enemy communication and radar systems. These systems minimize our adversary’s use of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), while allowing our troops to make maximum use of it. EW systems are critical enablers of modern warfare and empower our military to gain an advantage in the battlespace.

Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs): Weapon systems that offer several advantages over conventional kinetic weapons by utilizing high-power lasers or microwaves to damage, destroy or temporarily blind enemy targets. These advantages include immediate impact, increased accuracy, reduced collateral damage, and an almost endless capacity. DEWs have the potential to revolutionize modern warfare with their advanced capabilities.

From an Air power-related technologies point of view, we can find many examples of technologies that provide significant advantages to the owners:

Weapons Systems Using Enabling Technologies

Hypersonic Weapons: Hypersonic missiles pledge to have a much higher survivability, combined with precision strikes and extremely fast delivery times. In addition, hypersonic weapons imply warhead ambiguities, late sensor tracking, and shortened reaction times. At present, hypersonic weapons are comparatively expensive and are therefore only practical when equal effects cannot be achieved by cheaper means. However, many questions still need answers regarding hypersonic weapons. For example:

  • What penetrating effects can be delivered?
  • How fast can these missiles be programmed or re-programmed?
  • How much and when can they manoeuvre, and at what cost?
  • What are the trade-offs between terminal speed, manoeuvrability, survivability, and precision correlation?
  • What is their non-manoeuvring minimum range?

Polemically, one could argue that successfully pretending to invest in hypersonic technology can have a substantial effect on enhancing one’s deterrence capabilities and will force, especially a risk-averse adversary, to invest in hypersonic defensive systems. Such systems are also very expensive and will take away from a limited defence budget, potentially preventing investments in other, possibly more necessary, means.

Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS): UAVs have revolutionized modern warfare by allowing military forces to gather intelligence, conduct offensive operations, and increase dwell times without risking human lives. In addition, during the war in Ukraine, we have witnessed how small and relatively cheap technical improvements have increased UAVs’ lethality and employment options. For example, Ukrainian military forces utilized UAVs to provide target details of enemy forces or employ them as kamikaze drones or deliver weapons against hardened targets like tanks.

Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs): PGMs are either guided by GPS or other advanced technologies to accurately hit targets. PGMs have drastically reduced the overall number of ordnance needed to destroy a target while minimizing collateral damage. By targeting enemy forces with greater accuracy, PGMs became a key technology in modern air power and a significant contributor to our deterrence posture.


Although new stealth technology and advanced precision-guided munitions brought the US resounding success in the 1990–91 Gulf War, a different result ensued during the post-9/11 conflict in Afghanistan. Having superior technology by itself does not guarantee victory in future wars. Effective military leadership, training, and strategy can never be replaced, and need to evolve with technology. A military with advanced technology may be able to strike quickly and efficiently, but if its leaders fail to understand the political and social context of the conflict, the military’s efforts may not be effective in achieving its goals – as we have witnessed in Ukraine. Advanced technologies must be thoroughly understood and integrated on all levels for optimal employment. Even with cutting-edge technology, military operations are not impervious to other environmental factors, such as weather and terrain, that may affect the effectiveness of weapons, systems, and tactics. Overall, winning conflicts depend on a multitude of factors, including political and social will, the quality of military leadership, the effectiveness of military strategy and tactics, and the readiness and morale of military personnel.

Creative innovation plays a crucial role and is driven by both the civil and military sectors; both bring unique perspectives and expertise to the table. However, the military’s unique needs and requirements drive innovation in specific areas, which may not always be compatible with industry’s focus or advanced speed-to-scale production models. Gaining and maintaining the strategic advantage is the driving force behind innovation for the military. Maintaining a superior position in a rapidly changing world makes collaboration and cooperation between all sectors crucial. Sharing knowledge, expertise, and resources is necessary to ensure the rapid development of practical and effective applications for the military. The industry and military sectors have symbiotic roles in driving innovation and ensuring that the military remains at the necessary edge of technology.

However, innovation can only happen with significant defence investments. Managing national defence budgets requires careful and farsighted prioritization and consideration of the Alliance’s threats. Given that defence budgets are quite constrained, despite recent policy changes throughout NATO countries after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is important to invest in the correct areas which provide the most value and security over time for the Alliance. Nevertheless, merely investing in the Research and Development (R&D) of advanced technologies can generate fiscal pressure on competing nations to counter a perceived imbalance. Such pressure could generate a return to a type of Cold War arms race, forcing an opposing nation to overextend its budget to match and exceed its opponent.

Therefore, how do Nations prioritize their investments? Nations and NATO should procure capabilities that maximize deterrence and enhance the defensive posture should deterrence fail. Capabilities are needed to support the strategic communications position of a superior military force, elevate the threshold to commence military action and, foremost, enable NATO through indications and warning to have a superior situational awareness in all phases of competition, crisis, and conflict. NATO must be prepared in times of competition to overcome the fog of war, driving the need to maximize ISR with robust and resilient capabilities. Cybersecurity must be a 24/7 mission for NATO nations, enabling advanced warfighting technology and securing critical civilian infrastructures and businesses. Additionally, innovation will continue producing game-changing effects on warfare; thus, NATO nations need to emphasize continuous R&D to stay ahead of its competitors. Ultimately, the most effective investment strategy is highly dependent on a common threat perspective, which can only be achieved by unconstrained information sharing between allies. Developing a shared understanding and a coordinated effort may help prioritize investments for an optimal cost-to-benefit ratio to maintain or regain a stable security environment.

The article is a joint product of the Combat Air Branch with the Branch Head in the lead.

NATO STO AVT359, Study of Hypersonic Capabilities, Phase 1 Chapter 5.3, release March 2022.
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Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2022-2024)

Colonel Niebuhr entered the Air Force in 2001 when he graduated from Weber State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Physics. He earned his commission as a distinguished graduate from the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. After his commission, Col Niebuhr attended Euro-Nato Joint Jet Pilot Training at Sheppard Air Force Base, TX, and completed the F-16 Basic Operational Training Course as a distinguished graduate in 2004. Since then, Colonel Niebuhr has worked in various flying assignments across four MAJCOMs, serving at the squadron, group and wing levels. His operational experience includes Operations NOBLE EAGLE, ODESSEY DAWN, ENDURING FREEDOM, RESOLUTE SUPPORT and FREEDOM’S SENTINEL, with two six-month deployments to Bagram AB, Afghanistan.

Colonel Niebuhr commanded the 24th Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) at Nellis AFB, Nevada. The 24th TASS focused primarily on live Close Air Support training for JTACs, US F-16 FAC(A) production, and FAC(A) TTP development. Additionally, they provided integrated CAS training support for Green Flag, USAF Weapon School, and Special Operations Forces. He was also one of the founding cadre members for the CAS Integration Group established at Nellis AFB, Nevada, USA. Colonel Niebuhr’s educational background includes a Master of Human Relations and Master of Arts International Relations from the University of Oklahoma, Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB (by correspondence), and a Master of Strategic Studies, with an emphasis in Joint Planning, from Air War College, Maxwell AFB.

Colonel Niebuhr is a Forward Air Controller (Airborne) Instructor and Command Pilot with over 3,300 flight hours, including over 190 combat sorties and more than 760 combat hours in the F-16.

Information provided is current as of July 2024

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What Happened at NATO’s Vilnius Summit?

Enhancing Readiness, Availability and Resilience for NATO Joint Air and Space Power Operations

The Relevance of Quantity in Modern Conflict

What Does Russia’s Approach in the Russo-Ukrainian War Reveal?

Achieving Sustainable Air and Space Readiness in the Light of the Ukrainian War

Imperatives from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine – ‘The New Normal Readiness’

Enhancing Resilience in NATO’s Air and Space Power to Generate Deterrence and Defence in an Interdependent World

NATO Joint Air and Space Power Capabilities for Collective Defence

NATO Space Deterrence – Defence through the Lens of DIME

Ensuring the Availability of Capability

Sustaining NATO Joint Air and Space Power

Transparent Stakeholder and Multinational Collaboration

The Key to a Strong European Defence Industry

Organizing Logistics for Future Collective Defence

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