NATO’s Drones, Unmanned Systems, and Artificial Intelligence

By THO Contributor, Rylee Boyd

In the 21st century there is an expansive proliferation of new and emerging technologies that impact the nature of conflicts between states - such as hypersonic missiles, 5G, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, drones, and more. The proliferation of drones especially has concerned countries and international organizations around the world, as drones allow countries to carry out both armed and unarmed military missions remotely in order to minimize the risk to the countries’ own militaries. While advances in drone developments, unmanned systems, and technology can be advantageous, they can also pose ethical, legal, and moral risks, all of which are compounded when combined with increasing autonomy. 


The term “drone” is synonymous with the term “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs). Drones are unpiloted aircrafts that are able to complete  tasks, such as carrying out lethal strikes, assisting in surveillance and reconnaissance, and example. In addition, drones are used personally and commercially to complete tasks like package delivery.  The size and abilities of drones vary greatly. Since  drones are unpiloted and are able to operate with a varying level of autonomy, they are increasingly being used for military operations around the world. While drones can be armed or unarmed, the vast majority of drones are unarmed and used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. Yet because of how they operate, drones pose many legal, ethical, and moral issues. And due to the growth of autonomous technology and abilities, increasingly autonomous drones are a risk due to the further issues they face in this area such as issues in facial recognition and biases. As artificial intelligence continues to become more important, the linkages between artificial intelligence and drones will need to be examined in depth. Artificial intelligence (AI) leverages computers and machines to mimic the problem-solving and decision-making capabilities of the human mind. By leveraging artificial intelligence into drones, this has the ability to reduce the need for remote human operation of drones, and to allow drones to target and carry out missions completely on their own through AI programming. 

As a vastly important transatlantic alliance, NATO’s drone policy and its member states drone developments will continue to play a significant role in military missions and operability. Innovations in drone technologies pose a risk to countries that do not have such technologies or counter-drone developments. This is because it raises issues on what the proportional response is to a drone attack, and also whether or not armed strikes by drones can legally and ethically be carried out in other countries when not engaged in war. As many countries continue to explore and acquire drones operated with artificial intelligence technology, NATO needs to be ready to adapt to a world where drones may be operated completely with AI.  

Since NATO is a global and transatlantic alliance with interests all over the world, the growing proliferation of drone technology is a great concern for it. Over 90 countries around the world have drones, but a select number are leading on owning and developing drones. These are the U.S., China, Turkey, and Israel. While these countries are the main proliferators and exporters of drones and drone technology, the use of drones in armed conflicts by other actors and states has expanded exponentially in recent years. In the conflict in Libya following Haftar’s offensive to capture Tripoli in 2019, there have been over 1,000 drone strikes, with drones carrying out the majority of air strikes in the region. Other examples. 

Unmanned Systems

Current NATO policy on drones has improved in recent years, but it is still lacking to keep up with swift technological and military advances. NATO is also working to further develop unmanned vehicles and systems through its maritime unmanned systems initiative, adjacent unmanned underwater vehicle efforts, and the NATO Allied Ground Surveillance System. Unmanned systems will continue to increase in importance, as more countries pursue such efforts. Turkey recently tested an unmanned anti-submarine warfare vessel, highlighting the push towards unmanned systems across domains. Estonia has also been testing an autonomous counter unmanned aerial system. While these developments from NATO alliance members can provide helpful expertise and experience for NATO, Russia has been testing unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) making clear the need to always be adapting in response to new developments in tech and unmanned systems. The recent NATO summit and the NATO 2030 Agenda highlighted the need to continue to preserve its technological edge

Artificial Intelligence

For NATO to preserve its technological edge in this field, the rapid evolution of technology and especially autonomous technologies will have an impact on the use of drones and drone proliferation that needs to be addressed. Future drones have the potential to be fully automated, be programmed to execute auto-auction, as well as enhanced intelligent piloting models. Yet full and even partial automation through artificial intelligence poses many risks. AI drones use facial-recognition technology, which can easily go wrong. Further, AI technology can harbor biases or behave unpredictably. It is also likely that drones will be adopted much more for use outside of military and security reasons, as they have the potential to be used in emergency preparedness and response. While integrating AI into drone systems does pose many benefits such as real-time data, improving human operation, and more, it poses much more problematic risks. Yet as countries have already begun to incorporate AI into their drones, NATO needs to be prepared to incorporate AI into military preparedness, particularly drones, while also doing so responsibly and fully aware of the risks. 

Counter-unmanned aerial systems efforts are also important because they can have the ability to detect and/or intercept drones. This is essential, because while NATO has been pursuing a dedicated C-UAS effort since 2019*, which is led by a specific new working group, this effort still lacks the funding and dedication needed to keep up with the ever changing and challenging drone market. NATO should   prioritize C-UAS developments, which currently lag far behind UAS developments. Future C-UAS solutions will also need to account for further autonomous decision-making approaches, which will require stronger cooperation at every level of NATO to counter the threat of drones. Stronger technical cooperation between NATO member states is especially important given the risk many of its Eastern European members are to face the most immediate threats from gray zone or conventional conflicts. NATO should configure a special working group on how AI will affect drone development and C-UAS systems. It should then serve as the leader in pushing for C-UAS systems for all its members, encouraging technical cooperation and sharing especially from countries like the U.S. that have poured money into C-UAS developments. 

In order to keep up with AI and drone developments, NATO needs to continue identifying the risks of armed drones programmed with artificial intelligence. Especially as states like China work to weaponize artificial intelligence, NATO needs to preserve its technological edge through a greater focus on AI. While certain member states like the U.S. and France, both of whom have published military AI strategies, are working to advance innovations in artificial intelligence, NATO as a whole still lags far behind China. NATO should continue to prioritize utilizing its tech center to facilitate research and funding on military AI, especially how greater AI developments will affect drone developments. The 21st century has set the stage for rapid technological developments that have the power to impact conflict and security around the world, therefore; NATO will need to make preserving its technological edge when it comes to AI and drones a top priority. 

Looking to the Future

Drones, unmanned systems, and artificial intelligence have all been at the forefront of discussions on technology and security around the world. Yet all of these developments require large levels of funding and strong industrial and defense bases in order to continue their production and advancements. And keeping up with the development of adversaries on unmanned submarines, aircrafts and ships is simply not economically viable. NATO already struggles with financing issues, with discussions about individual nation-state spending commitments frequently rehashed with no solid conclusion in sight. Prioritization will have to be the key going forward. NATO will need to decide which technological developments to prioritize over the others when it comes to funding, and it should also work to convince alliance members to increase their funding of such important operations like drones, unmanned systems, and artificial intelligence. 

The future of robotic warfare, unmanned systems, and drones will be characterized by increasing technological advancements across the board, most presently including the incorporation of developments in AI. The new NATO AI strategy that has just been released makes clear that NATO knows that AI has the ability to significantly escalate and change threats and threat perception. Debates over weapons and systems characterized by increasing autonomy will continue to be at the forefront of thinking. NATO should continue to work across the board to continue its recent focus on preserving its technological edge through greater cooperation between allies, and a stronger look at newer technologies that have the possibility to significantly affect security and defense. This will also require NATO to prioritize the funding of such developments and investments. A strong funding base is needed to keep up with the technological developments of the 21st century, both within NATO and across all the alliance members. 

*The NATO Countering Unmanned Aircraft System Working Group (NATO C-UAS WG) has been formally established through the approval of the Countering Class I UAS practical framework, endorsed by NATO’s Defence Ministers on their meeting on 13–14 Feb. 2019.