At the same time that NATO prepares to develop biotechnology or artificial intelligence for military use, Czechia is also looking for ways to contribute to the development of weapons for modern combat.
“What is new and what we must prepare for in the future is to reduce the active participation of people on the battlefield. This is a topic for autonomy and artificial intelligence,” says Tomáš Kopečný, deputy minister for defense for industrial cooperation.
For several months, he has been mapping companies and research centers in the Czech Republic. He has been looking for candidates who could collaborate on the research and development of new solutions for the military with partners in other NATO countries.
“I would like to bring them [in NATO] a range of skills so that they can choose as many Czech companies as possible to involve them in their supply chain and the development,” added Kopečný.
But Czechia will also set on its own journey. In the coming months, the Czech Ministry of Defense will announce several research projects worth hundreds of millions of Czech korunas focused on emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT). Although the details are still confidential, Kopečný suggested that, for example, the plans involve using biotechnology.
Biotechnology uses living organisms to produce or modify products. Armies could use them to improve the thinking, sensory perception, or movement coordination of soldiers so that they are not so limited by the possibilities of the human body. For example, biotechnology could extend the vigilance of snipers or speed up the training of special units.
“It is a temporary or even more permanent modification of the human organism,” describes Kopečný.
Nowadays, for example, it is important for a patient who receives a prosthesis after amputation of a hand to be able to control his fingers.
“When you adjust a person, it doesn’t have to be just about cognitive capacity. It can be a connection between the central nervous system and mechanics. In the future, this could be used not just for treatment or rehabilitation, but for improving the individual,” Kopečný explains.
For example, powered exoskeletons are already used to support muscles when walking or working. Thanks to them, soldiers can carry heavy loads. The exoskeletons work based on nerve signals transmitted by the brain.
But the new projects are not about creating genetically modified super soldiers like those in action movies.
Biotechnology is one of the seven main areas of NATO’s EDT development strategy, which was approved by defense ministers at their meeting in February this year. It also includes space, artificial intelligence, autonomy, big data, hypersonic and rocket technologies, as well as quantum ones. Thirty member states are now mapping their capabilities in these areas. The next step will be an alliance plan to develop them.
“In the Czech Republic, we have a lot to contribute to every area, especially at the level of research and development,” says Kopečný.
Czechia could be successful, for example, in biotechnology. The ministry’s market research shows that 25 Czech companies could be involved in this area. Five universities and the Academy of Sciences also deal with biotechnology.
“But the strongest suits are artificial intelligence and space. In those areas, we have developers and industrial skills at a high level,” notes Kopečný.
The main project of the Czech Ministry of Defense planned for this year will seek to connect artificial intelligence and biotechnology. It will aim to create an autonomous system that can track down a wounded soldier on the battlefield and treat him quickly on the spot.
At a meeting in London two years ago, presidents and prime ministers of NATO countries declared space — alongside earth, air, water, and cyberspace — as the fifth operational domain in which it could face enemies. The Czech government believes it could also succeed in this area. The Czech Defense Ministry and the SATCEN satellite center are now finalizing software that will allow data to be read from satellite imagery with the help of artificial intelligence with the plan to offer the program to NATO allies.
“Artificial intelligence is currently used on the battlefield to process large amounts of data that we obtain from various sensors. These can be satellite images, geolocation information, or audio information. It used to be done by hand,” said Kopečný.
Technologies that can read and evaluate information on their own are essential in combat.
“For example, every tenth of a second plays a role in air defense. This is even more important in cyberattacks. When an opponent breaks through your defense, you lose the decisive moment to respond to the attack. The consequences can then be physical damage,” says Kopečný.
NATO is not the only one who pays attention to the development of tools for modern warfare.
“China is overall the fastest in terms of development. It was the first to start investing heavily in EDT. The United States has the largest lead because it has been focusing on development for the longest time and, historically, has also had the highest military budget. Europe is behind the most,” Kopečný points out.