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Unified Services Strengthen Network Service, Defense

September 2008
By Henry S. Kenyon

 
The NATO Communications and Information Systems Services Agency (NCSA) is responsible for managing and operating the alliance’s global networks. The agency maintains several companies of personnel in Afghanistan to support NATO forces and to ensure connectivity to headquarters in Europe and North America.
Consolidation of alliance management, maintenance capabilities increases efficiency through synergy.

NATO has centralized its computer support services to better provide warfighters with battlefield data and to effectively manage and protect alliance networks. By combining management, maintenance and network defense capabilities in a single command, NATO seeks to benefit from increased efficiencies and reduced manpower requirements.

The organization responsible for managing the alliance’s distributed communication and information systems (CIS) is the NATO Communications and Information Systems Services Agency (NCSA), headquartered in Mons, Belgium. The NCSA was established in 2004 to centralize NATO’s CIS support, which previously had been divided among the alliance’s major commands, explains the agency’s director, Lt. Gen. Ulrich Wolf, GEA. The general notes that NATO followed the example of private industry by modernizing and centralizing its internal CIS support.

The NCSA consists of 10 sectors located at major NATO command centers across Europe and the United States. Among the NCSA’s assets are two battalions of personnel to support exercises and operations in Afghanistan and the Balkans. The general’s command also includes the NATOCISSchool in Latina, Italy, which provides internal communications training for the alliance, and two depots responsible for CIS logistics and support to NATO deployed operations.

Gen. Wolf notes that the NCSA is one of the two bodies providing NATO CIS support. The agency’s sister organization is the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency, or NC3A located in Brussels and The Hague, which is responsible for CIS development, research and procurement. The NCSA is responsible for managing NATO’s network and in-service capabilities for alliance CIS support.

The NCSA has roughly 3,400 personnel; 85 percent of them are active military. Its main mission is to provide secure end-to-end communication services, which Gen. Wolf describes as connectivity between any NATO desktop computer in Afghanistan to any alliance desktop computer in Europe or the United States. The general notes that the NCSA also is responsible for managing NATO’s operational cyberdefense. “NCSA manages NATO’s network, which knits together all static NATO headquarters and the operational areas throughout the world,” he says.

Organized across four separate security levels, the NCSA manages a closed NATO secret network that is not connected to the Internet; a NATO-restricted network that can be tunneled through the Internet; a NATO unclassified network providing nearly unlimited Internet access; and mission-secret networks in deployed operational areas. The general explains that mission-secret networks bring in non-NATO partners during an operation.

By centralizing NATO’s CIS services, the agency eliminated the need for 1,000 support positions. The NCSA’s structure and mission also allow it to provide more efficient network security. The general says that centralization also is reflected in the agency’s enhanced technical services and network operations. “We now have far better opportunities to centralize the management of all the elements of the network,” he says.

The NCSA can remotely control all facets of NATO’s worldwide network, such as cryptography management, from its headquarters in Mons. Centralization offers other advantages such as standardized procedures, equipment and customer interfaces. The general says that the NCSA’s customers are the major NATO commands with which it maintains service-level agreements, making the agency comparable to a civilian communications services provider.

For military exercises and operations, the NCSA is under the direct control of the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), also located in Mons. Gen. Wolf explains that this command structure makes the agency a hybrid organization within NATO because of its multiple spheres of responsibility. The agency’s doctrinal, technical and procedural aspects are governed by NATO’s C3 board in Brussels, which has representatives from the alliance’s 26 member nations. They serve as a board of governors for the NCSA and the NC3A.

Another advantage of the agency’s centralization is that it permits more efficient use of existing posts and qualifications. Assigning personnel to specific tasks can be done more precisely, avoiding duplication of posts and capabilities. This precision is important because some jobs can be performed only at certain locations. Gen. Wolf notes that the NCSA has the most modern financial control system in NATO, and it is based on the agency’s centralized approach. The NCSA also has centralized the alliance’s computer supported budget system, which has reduced personnel billets by some 60 percent through staffing efficiencies.

Centralization also helps training and development. Gen. Wolf explains that a centralized structure is more capable of ensuring standardized training, following a common program, and ensuring that training resources are used in the most efficient way.

“The centralization has the big advantage in that we can utilize the scarce resources NATO has,” says Gen. Wolf. The NCSA only has two battalions under its command to provide strategic-level communications during operations, which limits the number of personnel that can be devoted to an operation. When the NCSA was launched, alliance operational commanders found it difficult to work with this new arrangement because they wanted to have every resource necessary to succeed in their mission.

Over the last three and a half years, the agency has developed a system to provide centralized, flexible communications support tailored to specific missions and     operations.

One example of this new capability is the NCSA’s support for NATO troops in Afghanistan, where communications support is a mixture of alliance-owned capabilities, leased services, outsourced services and national support. The NCSA currently has roughly two companies deployed in theater with the major part of the network built up as an outsourced capability with a civilian service provider (SIGNAL Magazine, September 2007). Satellite connections are established via a three-nation consortium composed of the United Kingdom, France and Italy.

Afghanistan is extremely challenging. Not only because of the security situation, it’s the climate and the distance. It is what is available in the local area in terms of civilian and industry support,” Gen. Wolf says. But he adds that the NCSA is utilizing Afghan firms to provide services such as parts for the NATO terrestrial communications network.

Another difficulty of operating in Afghanistan is that below the level of regional commands, there are numerous allied national networks that must be integrated into the NATO architecture. But managing coalition networks is difficult. The general shares that even in the 21st century, the alliance still struggles with the correct technical solutions to provide users with the sense that they are operating on a single network. This continues to be the NCSA’s goal, and Gen. Wolf says that in the past five years, the alliance made considerable progress in the area of information sharing, although room for improvement remains.

But creating a unified communications network within NATO and allied nations remains difficult. Beyond technical challenges, doctrinal differences between the alliance nations must be addressed. The general notes that the difference lies in the readiness of participating nations to share information. “The best communications systems are worthless if the users do not utilize them by fully exchanging the necessary information,” he says, adding that achieving this technical goal lies with NATO’s stakeholders, not his agency.

The general admits that his command does not have enough leverage to affect NATO doctrine and policy concerning CIS services. He explains that the alliance’s CIS support begins with NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT) or Allied Command Operations (ACO) developing operational requirements. That is followed by a host nation or the NC3A creating a technical solution for the capability, and producing and procuring the solution before handing it over to the NCSA.

The challenge is managing the entire life cycle process as a smooth, continuous, coordinated and controlled effort, says Gen. Wolf. He notes that the major stakeholders involved in managing capability life cycles have formed the NATO Capability Management Board, which serves as the top-level life cycle management organization. The general adds that considerable improvement has been made in this area, but much room for progress remains.

Another area under the NCSA’s responsibility is network defense. NATO began efforts to protect its computer networks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, says Gen. Wolf. The goal was to develop the alliance’s computer security architecture into an efficient cyberdefense. The general believes that the alliance chose correctly to approach this process from the bottom up by first establishing a technical and operational capability in parallel with developing doctrinal and high-level management capabilities for cyberdefense. The core for NATO’s cyberdefense is the NATO Information Security Technical Centre (NITC), located within the NCSA at Mons. The NITC reached initial operational capability in late 2007 and is currently preparing to achieve its full operational capability.

Basing his experience with the NITC on other similar international organizations, Gen. Wolf maintains that the NITC is a state-of-the-art facility. He notes that the results achieved so far in terms of detection, forensic, repair, defense and monitoring capabilities are of the highest quality. “NATO definitely needs a capability like that,” he states.

Gen. Wolf notes that a recent European summit at Bucharest, Romania, highlighted the necessity for NATO cyberdefense. The heads of state of the alliance partner nations agreed to build up NATO network defenses to a world-class level. The alliance also has established the Cyber Defence Management Authority, located at NATO headquarters in Brussels. This organization is tasked with bridging the alliance’s high-level political requirements with its operational needs. It ensures a transition of authority if a routine cyberdefense becomes a major incident requiring high-level political and policy decisions. He explains that the procedures for this organization are currently being developed. As a part of this new organization, NATO will form cyberdefense crisis reaction teams that can be called on to support member nations that have come under attack. In late 2008, NATO will launch a regular cyberdefense exercise to train its personnel.

The 2007 cyberattack on the Estonian government, a NATO member, demonstrated the need for such an organization. “We have carefully evaluated what happened and have drawn our conclusions. The further development of our capability will see the creation of a closer relationship with the member nations, with the aim to build up a NATO cyberdefense network, because cyberdefense works best and most efficiently if it is centralized, multinational and multi-organizational,” the general says.

Now that the NCSA has been established, Gen. Wolf says he wants to see more reliance on industry standards and best practices. A key feature of this effort is increased centralization and providing additional outsourcing. On the alliance’s operational side, a plan is in place to nearly double the agency’s deployable capabilities while saving manpower in the static organization. On the organizational side, the goal is to develop the NCSA into NATO’s main service provider. This is an important step because the alliance currently is supporting the ACO and the ACT, but there are still several areas of NATO that might benefit from the NCSA’s service capabilities.

The agency’s last goal is to further develop its partnership with industry, which is based on how industry conducts business with NATO and on mutual interest. Gen. Wolf notes that information security is the best example of mutual interest. “Because here we can share—even on a noncommercial basis—new solutions [and] assessments, and provide mutual support. But this is not something dreamed of in the future. This has been good practice now with nearly all of our major vendors during the NCSA’s last three and a half years of existence,” he says.

Web Resource
NATO Communications and Information Systems Services Agency: www.ncsa.nato.int