In Washington, D.C., Allied lawmakers focus on Ukraine, energy transition, technology developments and supply chain security

15 June 2023

NATO Allies face a new strategic era in which competitors share neither their democratic values nor respect for the rule of law. Reinforcing the Alliance in the face of a revanchist Russia which started an illegal war against Ukraine, identifying and responding to shared trade and technology challenges rife with geostrategic implications, particularly those emanating from China, ironing out outstanding transatlantic trade disputes, reinforcing NATO’s deterrence and defence posture and safeguarding the rules-based international order were all on the agenda at a series of consultations by a delegation from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) held in Washington from 5 to 9 June.

John Spellar (UK), the Chairperson of the NATO PA’s Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Economic Relations and Kevan Jones (UK), Chairperson of the Sub-Committee on Technology Trends and Security, co-led a delegation of 31 lawmakers from 15 countries in discussions with the US Congressional delegation to the NATO PA, senior administration officials as well as diplomats, experts and scientists.

Challenges to the Allied technology innovation and defence industrial base

How best to meet a burgeoning technological challenge to the security and economic well-being of the community of democratic countries was a key theme of the discussions. In a meeting with the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and its Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), delegates were reminded of the importance of the changing paradigm of technology development, with so much innovation now coming from the commercial sector. James Lewis, a Senior Vice President and Director of the Strategic Technologies Program, discussed challenges in the US innovation ecosystem. One specific problem he addressed was the length of procurement cycles, which are typically three years or more. However, many start-ups need funding decisions much faster to avoid going bankrupt. He also argued that a proper balance needed to be struck between privacy concerns and regulations to avoid obstacles to competitiveness and technological development. 

Cynthia Cook, Director of the CSIS Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group, noted that a country or coalition might have superior weapon systems and still lose critical battles. The key is wedding technology to the right strategy - something that Russia, for example, has thus far patently failed to do in its war against Ukraine. Ms Cook underlined the growing importance of artificial intelligence (AI) in managing the contemporary battlefield and warned that strategic rivals and competitors are unlikely to tie themselves to ethical constraints about the use of AI in the military sector. China has made important advances in AI, quantum computing and hypersonic missiles, becoming a near peer competitor in these sectors. However, they have used economic espionage to acquire these capabilities, she said, while making overtures to companies on both sides of the Atlantic to encourage technology sharing, even in sensitive sectors.

The United States and its allies and partners will need to revamp their defence industrial and procurement systems so that they are not relying on “yesterday’s defence industrial base”, Ms Cook suggested. This will not be easy, given the complex purchasing processes in place in the United States and myriad bottlenecks to meeting today’s mounting defence needs. Both Europe and the United States are challenged, for example, to boost munitions production for their own national defence and to support Ukraine at a critical moment of the war. Investing in surge capacity will be a critical priority for Allies over the coming decade, and this will be easier to manage if Allies better coordinate defence industrial policy.

Energy security was also on the agenda of the visit. Russia’s war on Ukraine has exposed the danger of overreliance on strategic competitors for energy. Robbie Diamond, the CEO of Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), a group promoting the energy transition for security reasons, told the delegation that this argument helps make the case for the energy transition in the United States.

Challenges for the transatlantic partners: Supply chain issues and access to critical materials

A key obstacle to many of these challenges, however, is that China controls the production of many of the critical metals and minerals needed for clean electricity generation, advanced military weapons and other key sectors. Mr Diamond warned that the energy sector could soon be competing with the military sector for access to these inputs, arguing that a transatlantic effort is needed both to diversify the supply of these critical inputs and to develop mining and processing facilities in more reliable friendly countries. If this effort is not successful, Allied countries will simply trade reliance on autocratic governments for oil and gas to reliance on autocratic countries like China for critical minerals and processing.

The Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) addresses many of these concerns but it did not adequately recognise the importance of transatlantic cooperation, several speakers told the delegation over the course of the week. The administration, however, is now working with its European allies to address European concerns about US subsidies aiming to hasten the energy transition. In discussion with US trade negotiators, the delegation also explored efforts to lower security risks in the global trading order, make trade more worker friendly, foster deeper transatlantic cooperation in mineral and technology trade through the US-EU Technology Council and the Critical Minerals Agreement as well as resolve outstanding transatlantic trade differences, for example, over US subsidies for the sustainable energy sector embedded in the IRA. The delegation further explored these themes at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and at SAFE.

Russia’s war against Ukraine, Allied support for Kyiv and the role of China

At discussions on Capitol Hill, former NATO PA President and current head of the US delegation, Mike Turner, and other US members met with the delegation. They underlined that Allied support for Ukraine will prove critical to Ukraine’s effort to expel the Russian aggressor. They expressed appreciation for European efforts to back Ukraine and noted that this collective effort would make a significant difference on the field of battle.

The delegation also discussed the state of the Russian military and the impact of sanctions on it. The Russian army currently confronts serious personnel, equipment and morale challenges. The economy is also starting to face costly bottlenecks as access to critical technologies has become more difficult due to increasingly stringent international sanctions, said CSIS’s James Lewis. The Russian government seems increasingly brittle, and reports of infighting between Russian regular forces and the Wagner Group militia illustrate the depth of the problem. Russia’s capacity to regenerate its forces has been seriously degraded by sanctions, and Ukraine’s military has decimated some of Russia’s elite forces. The Kremlin now faces a shortage of soldiers and materiel and has been compelled to mobilise older people and criminals to fill the ranks while deploying aging equipment on the battlefield. Speakers at RAND provided a general assessment of the latest developments in Russia’s war against Ukraine and options for the reconstruction of Ukraine after the war. Issues discussed included the personnel issues the Russian and the Ukrainian sides are facing. Reconstructing Ukraine will not be like a Marshall Plan, it was argued. Given the experiences of the past, it would make sense if the United States would take the lead in security assistance while Europe should lead in economic assistance, it was suggested.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has also put China in a very difficult and unwelcome position, the delegation learned during the visit. Beijing has leaned hard into its strategic relationship with Russia, but that relationship should be seen more as an entente than an alliance. China does not want to be dragged into directly supporting the Russian military effort. The West, for its part, has communicated that Beijing will face serious consequences if it begins to send military equipment to Russia. China has always adhered to a rigid view of non-interference in internal matters and an absolutist view of national sovereignty. Russia has blatantly violated those concepts with its war on Ukraine and undermined China’s narrative. It now is in the unenviable position of having to square what cannot be squared, it was noted.

The war has also exposed Western commercial and supply chain vulnerabilities, and this has altered risk calculations surrounding trade with China. That said, there are real gaps between how the United States and Europe approach this problem, and it could prove difficult to sustain a united transatlantic front in the face of Chinese efforts to open markets for its companies, even those trafficking in sensitive technologies, interlocutors argued. Briefings at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) focused on the technological challenges Allies face from China. Rob Atkinsons, ITIF President, emphasised that China had made considerable progress in several key technologies. The rapid advances of the People’s Republic are due to a mix of Western technology transfer, massive financial investments and widespread technology theft, he suggested. In contrast to Europe and the United States which want to obtain a good market share, China wants to dominate key technology areas and commercial markets. Moreover, China's strategy is sucking up data everywhere, delegates heard. The United States, Japan and Europe need to wake up to this challenge. One way to tackle China’s predatory approach is to harmonise export controls, he noted.

Advancing technological progress for the development of military capabilities and national competitiveness

The delegation also visited several critical US technology research centres, including the US Army Research Laboratory, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the NASA Goddard Space Center. The presentations and discussions focused on how the US operationalises cutting-edge science to meet tomorrow’s strategic, economic, climate and societal challenges. The members learned how the US government acts as a catalyst for scientific advances in the United States by funding research and engineering efforts to innovate solutions in missile technologies, cyber operations, new materials, energy, robotics, radar, sensors, biotechnology and other fields. The delegation also discussed future space missions and earth observation efforts at NASA and had an opportunity to see the next-generation Nancy Roman space telescope under construction at NASA Goddard. The delegation also visited BAE Systems US where it obtained a comprehensive overview of the company’s activities in the range of advanced electronics, security, information technology activities.

The need for close transatlantic cooperation

The need for close transatlantic cooperation was another key theme during the visit. During meetings at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), Visiting Fellow Bruce Stokes noted that the challenges posed by Russia, China, cyber and climate change are too great for countries to face alone. While both sides of the Atlantic are committed to strengthening the relationship, he cautioned that it needs to be fireproofed against future political turmoil on either side. Issues of burdensharing, securing democracies in Europe and North America, including against technological threats and challenges, and other issues were also addressed with a view to strengthening the transatlantic relationship.

About the NATO PA

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly provides a forum for national legislators from across NATO to discuss Alliance security as well as a range of issues shaping the transatlantic relationship more broadly. The Assembly is institutionally separate from NATO, but serves as an essential link between NATO and the parliaments of the NATO nations. It provides greater transparency of NATO policies and fosters better understanding of the Alliance’s objectives and missions among legislators and citizens of the Alliance.

Photos of the visit courtesy of © NASA/GSFC/Tabatha Luskey

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