Nov 29, 2021

NATO’s Allied Command Transformation and its Innovation Hub in Norfolk, Virginia, are co-hosting an important biannual competition in Ottawa, Canada, on 30 November 2021. The Allies are looking for ways to defend the cognitive dimension against adversaries who are rapidly weaponizing information, using especially social media and turning potentially every connected device into a vector of attack.

This NATO Innovation Challenge is co-led by Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM), the Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security (IDEaS) program, and the NATO Innovation Hub.
Those who have been selected (entrepreneurs, designers, thinkers, engineers, scientists, coders, innovators), will be pitching their solutions at the online event. If chosen, the solutions could support the development of future NATO concepts, doctrine, standards, requirements, capability development, and will get stage-time at NATO-wide events. The prize is $8,500 and the winner will be announced on 30 Nov 2021.

NATO’s open and transparent “shark tank” competition, called the Innovation Challenge, is intended to work with universities, researchers, entrepreneurs and others in the private and public sectors to develop tools that help Allied nations anticipate, detect, and block comprehensive attacks designed to manipulate public opinion. With real-time or, ideally, advanced awareness about these activities, authorities can warn the public and prepare an effective response.

We have seen real-world examples of these attacks as they become more frequent - from political interference in Allied nations to ransomware attacks targeting hospitals, companies, and governments. NATO nations need to prepare and defend themselves against any eventuality.

The cognitive dimension is a 21st century iteration of an ancient concept of war: that combat is decided not just by arms, but also by will. Theorists Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz emphasized morale as the fulcrum that could break the back of the enemy.  Modern insurgency practitioners like T.E. Lawrence, David Galula, and Gen. David Petraeus extended this theory to the populations that support the warfighters, taking into considerations experience from Vietnam, Soviet-occupied countries, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Cognitive warfare has gone by many names and incorporated many concepts throughout history. Propaganda, psychological and hybrid warfare, active measures, disinformation, deterrence, and deception all contain elements of the cognitive dimension.  Even exotic concepts like telepathic espionage and psychoactive warfare have been associated with the cognitive dimension. Each has the same goal: to prevail not exclusively by kinetic engagements, which include physical destruction, but also by disrupting decision-making, morale, or the will to fight.

The cognitive dimension incorporates all of these antecedents but applies them to the information age. Smart phones have replaced television, radio, and newspapers by putting the entire world in our pocket. This unprecedented access to information brings with it the threat of manipulation on a mass scale at the level of the individual.  Combining big data, open sources, social media, mass surveillance, facial recognition, geo-location, artificial intelligence, and hacking, with the prospect of weaponized neuroscience and the convergence of nano- and biotechnology, the cognitive dimension offers almost omniscient access in any operational environment.

NATO’s solidarity and cohesion is formalized in the Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states that an attack on one ally is an attack on all. But that is not Treaty’s only utility. Article 3 obligates Allies to identify new threats and adapt quickly to the changing security environment.  NATO recognizes the cognitive dimension as an area of intense interest to Allies and adversaries alike, and its pursuit of understanding the cognitive dimension is open and transparent. This is by policy and by necessity. The Alliance relies on the ingenuity of the private sector to maintain agility necessary to defend against emergent threats.

Over its 72-year history, NATO has grown to protect the peace and security of nearly one billion citizens in 30 of the world’s leading democracies. When this requires defending “the public mind” against outside manipulation, the Allies must and will be ready. 

That is why we are hosting this Innovation Challenge. And it is why we actively encourage you to join us in strengthening our collective defence.

Gen. Philippe Lavigne is the current NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation and former Chief of Staff of the French Air and Space Force.