Why cognitive superiority is an imperative

Complacency is a lethal error in strategy-making and warfare. As Russia has learned in Ukraine, overestimating your capabilities and underestimating your enemy can lead to failure. NATO cannot take its own continued strategic success for granted.

By Dr. Kestutis Paulauskas

NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept – the Alliance’s guiding policy document for the next decade – emphasises that the Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace. It also brings a sense of urgency, by identifying Russia as “the most significant and direct threat”, and terrorism as the “most direct asymmetric threat”. These threat actors and other potential adversaries have been studying NATO’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, Russia often justifies its aggressive actions by pointing at various NATO crisis management operations and the ‘colour revolutions’ in Eastern Europe, which it attributes to the West. China has cited the first Iraq War in 1991 and the US-led revolution in military affairs as significant triggers for its breakneck military modernisation.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg presents the 2022 Strategic Concept during the NATO Summit in Madrid, 29-30 June 2022. Photo courtesy of NUPI (Norsk Utenrikspolitisk Institutt).

The 2022 Strategic Concept also acknowledges for the first time the long-term ‘systemic challenges’ posed by China. China already has the largest navy in the world numerically (over 350 vessels). It aspires to become the world’s largest economy by 2030; to triple its current nuclear arsenal by 2035; and to possess a ‘world-class military’ by 2049. This is all in pursuit of changing the rules-based international order in its own image.

Furthermore, new actors and technologies are shaping global events in unprecedented ways. Space used to be an exclusive strategic preserve accessible to a handful of space-faring states. It is now populated by thousands of satellites and super-empowered, space-faring individuals, like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Big data, AI, automated and autonomous systems and other new technologies are permeating every facet of the social fabric, including warfare. As Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, General Philippe Lavigne put it, “Ukraine has shown how future warfare is likely to be fast-paced and highly contested”. In Ukraine, new weapons are being employed for the first time, like hypersonic missiles (fired by Russia), and used in innovative ways, like Ukrainian software GIS Arta, which is modelled after the Uber app. Commercial and civil society actors have been directly engaged: Microsoft beefed up Ukraine’s cyber defences and Anonymous wreaked havoc in Russia’s cyber space.

In Ukraine, new weapons are being employed for the first time, like hypersonic missiles (fired by Russia), and used in innovative ways, such as Ukrainian software GIS Arta (pictured), which is modelled after the Uber app.

These developments underscore the need for NATO to improve its self-awareness by identifying weaknesses and strengths within the Alliance. This is just as important as understanding the weaknesses and strengths of our adversaries in order to get ahead of the threat curve – the ebb and flow of intensity of specific threats over an extended period – and shape the security environment to NATO’s advantage. This timeless imperative of cognitive superiority was set out by Sun Tzu millennia ago: “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”.

In 2021, Allied Heads of State and Government explicitly acknowledged this imperative by committing to the implementation of the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept, a 20-year vision for the development of NATO’s Military Instrument of Power. According to Allied Joint Doctrine, actions in maritime, land, air, space, and cyberspace operational domains generate effects in physical, virtual, and cognitive dimensions. Superiority, as the word implies, is about being better, faster or larger than others. Cognitive superiority, in a NATO context, could thus be defined as an ability to excel in understanding and decision-making that enables out-thinking and out-manoeuvring the adversary. In other words, it is about possessing faster, deeper, and broader understanding of the operating environment, your adversary and yourself, and about applying better, more effective decision-making than adversaries apply. It is also adversary centric – the NATO Military Instrument of Power must be able to out-think the enemy to be able to gain and maintain the advantage when shaping and contesting below the threshold of armed conflict, and when fighting a conflict.

What is cognitive superiority, do we have it and how do we know?

The efforts associated with pursuing cognitive superiority can be broadly grouped in three blocks: awareness, understanding and advantage.

Situational Awareness is about sensing: acquiring, storing and exploiting information, data, and intelligence through multiple means. It is what we know about the adversary and our own forces, but also partners, other international and non-governmental actors, neutral and criminal actors – who, how many, where, when and how they relate to each other. This includes knowledge about military posture; size and disposition of forces; force design; and various strategic factors (political, societal/demographic, and economic). Intelligence professionals like to quip that something is either a policy success or an intelligence failure. The NATO intelligence enterprise is comprised of some 70 national security and intelligence services; NATO intelligence fusion entities; and advanced all-domain intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. It stands to reason that NATO already possesses a high degree of situational awareness of the ‘red’ (adversarial) picture, as so visibly demonstrated by the unprecedented sharing of intelligence by the United States in the run up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There is always room for improvement, as NATO can do even better, especially by exploiting new technologies and leveraging digital transformation.

Situational Understanding is about sense making: turning knowledge into actual understanding. It is about understanding what different actors are planning to do, how they think, decide, and operate, what their strengths and weaknesses are. This would include understanding the long-term vision and strategy; strategic culture, behaviour and operational art; long-term warfare development trajectory and technological focus; command and control arrangements and the like. One could argue that NATO has sometimes been surprised and ‘shocked’, despite investing heavily in readiness and preparedness over the last decade. It has been hard for NATO and Allies to fully penetrate an adversary’s way of strategic thinking, intentions, and perceptions, especially when the adversary, such as the Taliban, is steeped in a radically different system of values and beliefs. In a similar vein, the Alliance arguably did not fully appreciate the intended scale, motive and intent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Allies may not have a complete understanding of the full extent of China’s strategy and its global and regional intentions. On the plus side, NATO is starting to recognise the immensity and urgency of the challenge of better understanding the way nations like Russia and China, or terrorist groups think, operate and fight.

Cognitive Advantage is about acting: turning the situational awareness and understanding into an actual decisional advantage over adversaries. This is about ensuring NATO’s understanding is faster, deeper and broader, and decision-making is more effective than that of adversaries, enabling it to always retain the initiative and be a step ahead of the adversary at strategic, operational and tactical levels. This includes mitigating perceived threats, risks and weaknesses, while exploiting strengths and opportunities, expediting advancement in specific technology and capability areas, whilst incorporating other, non-military instruments. NATO has held an advantage for a very long time and decisively shaped the post-Cold War Euro-Atlantic security system, particularly through enlargement, partnerships and crisis management operations. However, this advantage has been slipping for all the reasons listed above. NATO and Allies have been struggling to translate awareness and understanding into a real advantage in persistent multi-actor competition. Not least because NATO’s advantage is contested in different domains and socio-economic areas by the likes of Russia and China.

A roadmap for getting ahead

The three building blocks described above – awareness, understanding, and advantage – could provide a useful roadmap for undertaking a number of steps towards cognitive superiority:

First, sharing the knowledge that we already have. Allies individually and collectively possess and collect vast amounts of data and information. But it is often extremely compartmentalised among nations, domains and services. There are challenges associated with the means of gathering information, filtering out misinformation, storing data and exploiting it. The issue for NATO is finding an appropriate balance between protecting and sharing information. Simply “sharing more” is not always the answer, given the aggressive hostile intelligence gathering efforts by Russia, China and other actors. Some areas, such as operational security or nuclear deterrence, must be tightly protected. On the other hand, Allies can reduce policy barriers for raw data and information sharing, on the basis of the ‘share, unless’ principle (i.e. proactively endeavour to share information unless there is a good reason not to); and become better at open source intelligence, including by leveraging digital transformation. Allies must continue working to connect sensors across services nationally (‘sea-bed to space’) and across the operational domains at the NATO level in order to develop all-domain situational awareness. NATO also needs to develop a shared baseline approach – potentially in the form of a Cognitive Warfare Concept – to protect against subterfuge and disinformation.

Second, understanding the adversary better than the adversary understands us. The adversary’s picture of NATO cannot be better than NATO’s picture of itself. Historically, NATO has not been very good at critical self-reflection of its own performance. The Alliance needs to become better at identifying its own ‘blind spots’ with sufficient honesty. Allies know their national strategies, the state of their armed forces and capability development plans. NATO gets an insight into these elements through the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP). NATO is aware of its capability shortfalls and vulnerabilities. SACEUR’s visibility of actual force readiness has been improving, thanks to the NATO Readiness Initiative, which improved this aspect of some Allies’ forces, and also brought more visibility to SACEUR with regard to the forces that would actually be available on the day of a fight.

The Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship, USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44), departs Naval Station Norfolk to commence operations for Steadfast Defender 2024, NATO’s largest exercise in decades. Steadfast Defender will demonstrate NATO’s readiness and ability to deploy forces rapidly from across the Alliance to reinforce the defence of Europe. Photo © NATO

NATO should continue to enhance political and military-strategic net assessment practices. The Alliance could also do better to ensure that lessons are not only identified, but carefully studied and adopted. As for threats, some will remain unpredictable, and will ‘shock’ the Alliance no matter how well prepared it is. Trying to understand Vladimir Putin’s or Xi Jinping’s ways of thinking will remain conjecture. Yet, NATO can better understand adversaries by investing heavily in adversary-centric expertise across all services and domains. NATO can also improve across all levels of command through training, education and wargaming, and by continuously studying the adversary’s way of war.

Third, deciding more assertively on the basis of better information, and acting on these decisions more effectively than the adversary. NATO has a formidable, consensus-based decision-making process, and an integrated military command structure, a unique asset among all international organisations. Today, terrorist, cyber and information attacks are no-notice affairs and hypersonic missiles take minutes to arrive. Many of these threats cannot be deterred and it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to defend against them. This places a premium on proactively and creatively shaping the strategic environment to NATO’s advantage by imposing dilemmas and risk of escalation on the adversary. To do so, NATO has a readily available toolbox. It spans short-term force employment measures, including advance plans, exercises and force demonstrations, and strategic communications. It also spans longer-term warfare development measures, including NDPP, concept development, common funded capability development, modeling and simulation, and wargaming. NATO can also bring to bear its vast and diverse network of partnerships (nations, industry, academia), a 5,000-strong network of scientists under the umbrella of the NATO Science and Technology Organization, and its many NATO-accredited Centres of Excellence, with Allied Command Transformation serving as a fail-safe hub for experimentation and learning for the Alliance.

But NATO could have a better integrated political-military picture, so that both military judgement and political decisions are drawn on the basis of the same indicators and analyses of the operating environment. NATO needs a more comprehensive understanding of the long-term trajectory of adversaries and must develop strategies to influence them. This requires boosting in-house research and analysis capacity across the Alliance. The political and military authorities of Allied countries need to have more and deeper conversations about long-term strategic objectives vis-à-vis main threats, including by wargaming hard and unpalatable scenarios.

In conclusion, NATO has work to do. Complacency in the face of ambitious adversaries is untenable. As former US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis aptly put it, “Engage your brain before you engage your weapon”. This is true for individual soldiers; it is even more true for a formidable, nuclear-armed political-military Alliance which is seeking to safeguard the security of one billion people in an increasingly volatile world. Despite complexity, NATO’s future does not need to be uncertain. With right choices, long-term thinking and prudent investment, some of which is sketched out in this article, the Alliance can actively shape it. After all, human ingenuity, underpinned by the freedom of critical thinking, is NATO’s only infinite strategic resource that is not available to its authoritarian rivals.

(Source: NATO Review)

Dr. Kestutis Paulauskas is a Senior Strategy Officer at NATO’s Allied Command Transformation. The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of NATO or Allied Command Transformation.