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DIANA makes low-key entrance as NATO’s DARPA-style innovation hub

The new technology accelerator, known by an acronym that shares its name with a storied goddess, quietly began taking shape a year before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A NATO illustration of the dual-use technological solutions for greater security and defense that it is pursuing.
A NATO illustration of the dual-use technological solutions it is pursuing for greater security and defense. (AN/NATO)

TRIER, Germany (AN) – NATO’s architects of war call it DIANA but perhaps JANUS would have been more appropriate. Operating mainly under the radar, DIANA's handlers will pour more than a billion government dollars into developing new dual-use technologies that can be used to make war when needed and to make money from commerce the rest of the time.

NATO’s new technology accelerator shares its name with a Roman and Greek virgin goddess who was a patroness of hunters and the countryside and a protector of childbirth. The two-faced Roman god Janus presided over war and peace.

The Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic, or DIANA, launched at a June 2021 summit in Brussels, eight months before Russia's expanded invasion of Ukraine. Its charter was adopted in Madrid last year to build a “unique transatlantic innovation ecosystem” that keeps the upper hand in dual-use technologies – ones used for both civilian and military purposes.

Numerous such technologies already exist ranging from drones, global positioning satellites, and thermal imaging to missiles, chemical and biological tools, and night vision technology. But in 2019, NATO began keeping a list of the most critical emerging and disruptive technologies that might bring on the next generation of crucial war-making tools.

DIANA is intended to reverse a four decade-old trend of gradually declining R&D among NATO member nations that has left many of them dangerously behind the curve. In the race to build hypersonic capabilities, for example, NATO members such as France, the U.K. and U.S. are vying to compete with China and Russia.

NATO's Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges David van Weel told Arete News the focus of DIANA is "by definition dual-use" because NATO already knows how to make rockets and other purely military items.

"The key to these technologies is that most of the development and innovation comes from the civil sector, and it's being developed for commercial purposes. So what we're trying to do is to make sure that the defensive security applications of these technologies are not left behind," he said in an interview on Thursday. "Because most of these technologies will have civil applications and military applications."

Since the war broke out in Europe, however, DIANA has quickly spread to more than 100 research and testing sites at nearly all NATO members in Europe and North America. These sites are intended to help NATO maintain its international military technological edge by providing start-ups with financial support, guidance, material and test center capabilities. The Western military alliance, which welcomed Finland as its 31st member in April, said it also will support the program with a virtual marketplace to connect start-ups with trusted investors.

In June 2022, NATO launched a companion funding mechanism – what it calls “the world’s first multi-sovereign venture capital fund” involving 22 nations – with 1 billion euros (US$1.09 billion). Though not directly under DIANA’s directive, the new 15-year fund serves a complementary purpose. It aims to boost a slew of “nascent” dual-use technologies that beef up security for NATO’s 1 billion citizens.

It is investing in early-stage start-ups and other venture capital funds that are focused on NATO top priorities such as artificial intelligence, big data, quantum, autonomy, biotechnology, human enhancement, new materials, energy, propulsion and space. The military alliance not only wants to remain a pioneer in cutting-edge technology but also to focus on industries in smaller emerging technologies.

At the close of 2022, DIANA’s board decided it would focus on energy resilience, secure information sharing, and sensing and surveillance. A call for up to 30 participants to take on security “challenges” was sent out through mid-2023. NATO said the number of participants will increase each year until 2025, when it expects the program to be fully operational.

The first such challenges were planned for five accelerator sites hosted by Tehnopol in Tallinn, Estonia; Officine Grandi Riparazioni in Turin, Italy; BioInnovation Institute in Copenhagen; MassChallenge in Boston; and Pacific Northwest Mission Acceleration Center in Seattle.

"We're working on the basis of challenges. So we're not just asking people to bring their technology to NATO or to DIANA. No, we're asking for solutions for specific problem sets," said van Weel. "That creates more focus into the innovation you're trying to achieve."

The war in Ukraine confirmed that DIANA and the billion-euros NATO Innovation Fund are "crucial also in the face of this kind of warfare" that increasingly turns on commercial innovation repurposed for military objectives, according to van Weel. For example, the Ukrainians, inspired by the Uber app that connects people with drivers, developed the GIS Arta application that connects Ukrainian military units with Russian targets on the ground.

"Ukraine gives us a lot of insight into modern warfare and also into the role of technology in the future. But of course it's not the only thing we looked at," he said. "With energy resilience, you can say there's a link with the war in Ukraine. We've all seen the Russian convoys getting stuck with lack of fuel. We've all seen the difficulties when Ukraine's power grid got targeted by the Russians."

Monitoring for disruptions

Though DIANA hasn't yet fully proven itself it has gained strong political support from heads of state and government officials who "have endorsed it as our way of making sure we close that gap and maintain our technological edge," according to van Weel. And with its rapid expansion through accelerator sites, it has become a key part of the alliance's innovation efforts.

DIANA also monitors emerging disruptive technologies, or EDTs, for potential ethical concerns. As soon as a new or possible use of something for defense or security is found, said van Weel, "that is the moment we also take into account any ethical things that come into play."

Beyond artificial intelligence, for example, NATO is examining autonomous systems. "The next two technologies that we are tackling are quantum and biotech," he said. "And you can expect certainly in biotech that we will run into ethical questions."

This new approach is also laid down in the NATO Strategic Concept 2022 and is reminiscent of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. DIANA, governed by NATO's board of directors, includes representation by one person from all 31 member nations. It met for the first time in October 2022 and is chaired by Barbara McQuiston, an American defense official based at the Pentagon, and vice-chaired by Imre Porkoláb, a Hungarian defense official.

"Definitely we have to say that America has the most mature ecosystem when it comes down to handling innovation in a defense context and DARPA, of course, is a longstanding example of getting to groundbreaking new technologies with a government program," said Van Weel. "So we definitely looked at DARPA, but we also looked at other examples across the alliance" in France and the U.K.

Under the Obama administration, the Pentagon also established the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUX, as a tool to monitor technologies developed in the private sector and to consider their possible military uses. McQuiston's election as chair by DIANA's board "was not a push from the Pentagon, that was just a democratic process," van Weel said.

DIANA is expected to reaching full operating capability by 2025. Canada agreed to serve as its North American host, putting a regional office in Halifax's hotbed of "entrepreneurial science and technology startups, universities and research centers, and Canada’s Atlantic Naval Fleet," according to Andy Fillmore, a Canadian lawmaker who serves as his nation’s link between its Parliament and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry.

The promise and risk of dual-use technologies

All of the emerging disruptive technologies, or EDTs, that NATO focuses on – such as AI, blockchain, nano- and neuro-technologies – are by definition dual-use so they can be added to the military's armaments but also sold commercially.

Critical questions about ethics and a new era of rearmament in almost all fields of technology are becoming more acute, especially against the backdrop of increasing geopolitical tensions around the globe. Similarly, technical questions surrounding issues of industrial espionage, the seemingly boundless uses for AI, and protections for intellectual property factor into NATO's new innovation strategy.

"The risk is that this technology can be repurposed for harm. Or you can take two technologies that were developed for good and repurpose them. Like blockchain and cryptography: together you have ransomware," said the Geneva Center for Security Policy's Head of Global and Emerging Risks Jean-Marc Rickli, who also is an occasional policy advisor to NATO.

"EDTs, emerging disruptive technology, should be a major component of military policy planning," Rickli said in an interview. "The military are not in the driver’s seat, but are monitoring what is being developed and how EDTs can be used and what their effect on warfare are, and also how potential adversaries can leverage these technologies."

While DIANA's origins preceded Russia's expanded invasion of Ukraine, Rickli said, "what the war in Ukraine makes very visible is that the Russians are using legacy systems en masse, and the Ukrainians are also using legacy systems but are also finding ways to merge these with commercial systems like, for example, drones that are weaponized with small bombs and explosives."

Some nations, such as Switzerland, generally do not allow items to be sold that can be used for both purposes. But the monitoring process through export applications shows the risks.

In 2017, for example, Swiss government officials denied an export permit to a domestic manufacturer of valves for use in ventilation systems because of what it described as indications that the products would have supported the production of Pakistani nuclear weapons.

Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs based its decision on "information that these valves will not remain with the industrial plant declared on the final declaration of the end-of-life declaration, but will be passed on to a nuclear-relevant entity involved in the Pakistani nuclear weapons program."

The file to deny the export application cited two reasons under a Swiss law on dual-use goods. One was that the valves could be used to make nuclear weapons. The other was that the recipient of the valves intended to pass them on, apparently through the use of a decoy company or third-party country – which reflects a growing phenomomen involving the use of third parties, including non-government entities, to hide the real intent of dual-use technologies.

Rickli said "any serious military organization in the Western world" should be monitoring for EDTs. "What we see – and it’s not specific to NATO or to any specific nations – is that innovation in EDTs is coming from the private sector," he said. "It’s not only states that innovate in the field but also non-state actors, and also single individuals. So that has dramatically transformed the nature of international security."

John Heilprin contributed to this report from Geneva.