Nato leaders seek to toughen response to new high-tech threats

Nato leaders are seeking how to best strengthen security in cyber space, outer space and emerging technologies as they gather to plot how to modernise the 72-year-old military alliance.

US president Joe Biden’s first Nato summit on Monday will “sharpen” the 30-member grouping’s “technological edge”, said Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general, and reinforce its response to potential threats from Russia and China.

The leaders’ gathering in Brussels comes amid a myriad of internal tensions and questions over how the cold war-era pact will modernise itself, as it prepares to pull out of Afghanistan after almost two decades.

“Nato leaders will today agree an ambitious forward-looking agenda, the Nato 2030 agenda,” Stoltenberg told reporters at the alliance’s imposing headquarters on the outskirts of the Belgian capital. “This is about how to reinforce our collective defence, how to strengthen our resilience and sharpen our technological edge.”

The heads of state and government are expected to sign off on a confidential cyber defence strategy, which includes extending existing powers to invoke Nato’s “Article 5” principle of collective defence in cases of cyber attacks, Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, told reporters.

“[This] will upgrade the defence, political and intelligence dimensions of cyber across the alliance,” Sullivan said. “And in the communiqué that will be released, there will be a strong commitment to Nato’s emphasis on cyber deterrence and collective defence.”

Speaking ahead of the summit, UK prime minister Boris Johnson emphasised the importance of allies investing in better cyber defences in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, when hostile states were accused of carrying out cyber attacks on allies’ health systems.

“Nato owes it to the billion people we keep safe every day to continually adapt and evolve to meet new challenges and face down emerging threats,” Johnson said.

Recent ransomware attacks on the US’s Colonial Pipeline and Ireland’s health service have underlined the risks posed by hackers to critical national infrastructure.

Writing in the Financial Times, Alex Younger, former head of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, said ransomware attacks were no longer just a criminal problem “but a national security and geopolitical one, too”.

“The people behind these cyber attacks need places to live and to enjoy their ill-gotten gains . . . The reality is that many are in Russia, and as long as they don’t intrude on Russian interests, they will be left alone,” Younger wrote.

Nato leaders were also expected to push through measures to strengthen capabilities in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, officials added. Nato countries have become increasingly preoccupied with widening theatres for potential conflict, from disinformation warfare to the growing activities of China and Russia in outer space.

Some European countries hope Biden’s presidency will help re-energise Nato and reduce conflict seen under his predecessor Donald Trump, who branded the alliance “obsolete” on the 2016 election campaign trail.

But Biden’s administration is keeping up longstanding US pressure on European countries to spend more on their militaries. It has also pressed for tougher language on potential threats posed by China, particularly through its military and economic presence in the traditional Euro-Atlantic sphere of Nato’s operations.

As well confronting external threats, Nato faces some chronic internal tensions, notably between Turkey and some member states such as France in the eastern Mediterranean.

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