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NATO Wrestles With Technology

September 2001
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Interoperability for 19 nations takes more than just system commonality.

The march of technology is improving interoperability and increasing capabilities among NATO and Partnership for Peace nations. New systems and bridging components are allowing forces to share information to a greater degree and under more circumstances than ever. However, the same new technologies are spawning a new generation of capabilities that are complicating efforts for true alliance interoperability.

More information in a greater variety of forms can flow to more levels of command than was possible during the Cold War. Differing data formats, however, can prevent accurate and assured information from reaching the appropriate customer. Frequency issues continue to vex planners; bandwidth remains in high demand and short supply; and security concerns are complicated by the number of alliance nations with different requirements and laws.

Working to overcome these challenges is the NATO Headquarters Consultation, Command and Control (C3) Staff. This group supports the NATO C3 Board, which is responsible for the NATO C3 Agency and the NATO CIS (communications and information systems) Operating and Support Agency (NACOSA). A.T. Cooper is the executive coordinator, NATO Headquarters C3 Staff, and deputy to the director, NATO Headquarters C3 Staff. He describes the NATO C3 Board as the policy maker, the NATO C3 Agency as the engineer and NACOSA as the operator.

In keeping with the NATO definition of C3 as consultation, command and control, representation on the NATO C3 Board involves all the member nations. The board’s chairman is the deputy secretary general. The permanent chairman is the assistant secretary general for defense support. One of two co-vice-chairmen is the director of the C3 Staff.

Each of the 19 nations is represented by a civilian member and a military member. All are voting board members, and they are joined by nonvoting members from the strategic commands—both Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic and Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe—and from several other boards at NATO Headquarters. All issues must be solved by consensus with all 19 nations agreeing. “There may not be a perfect program; there will have to be concessions made to ensure that everyone’s concerns are answered,” Cooper explains. “Consensus is getting everyone to agree not to disagree. But, when you reach the final agreement, it is something that will be lasting because it is binding on the nations—they have all agreed to it.”

Supporting the board structure is the NATO C3 Representatives, an organization comprising two people from each nation. The C3 Staff acts as a secretariat for the board, under which are eight subcommittees and 45 working groups. The eight subcommittees deal with joint C3 requirements and concepts, interoperability, information security, frequency spectrum management, information systems, communications networks, navigation and identification.

Four major programs currently occupy the organization’s slate. SATCOM (satellite communications) Post-2000 is the replacement program for NATO’s on-orbit satellites. A C3 expansion to Partnership for Peace (PfP) nations entails establishing a wide area network, with all of the inherent security ramifications, that can be plugged into all 26 nations. Radio spectrum issues involve more efficient bandwidth use. And, connectivity to the NATO capitals must be effective to permit necessary consultation using capabilities such as document distribution, message handling, videoconferencing and secure digital voice.

As always, interoperability is high on the NATO C3 issue list. Cooper notes that even having common concepts, common doctrines, common procedures and common technical procedures still can result in different equipment.

Cooper offers that interoperability is not as much of a problem at sea because the equipment has been in use for some time and the navies have built their C3 around the same types of equipment. The navies also have tended to upgrade as a group instead of as individual nations. The air picture has moderate problems, he notes, but the Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo operations have shown that existing equipment can support an air operation successfully.

The biggest interoperability problem lies with land forces. Cooper relates that each nation “went its own way” in putting together land forces. NATO is trying to address the land interoperability problem in its TACOMS (tactical communications) Post-2000 program. This effort, which Cooper says is weighted heavily toward the land interoperability problem, is developing acceptable standards so that nations can achieve interoperability by buying the next generation of equipment.

This program has been underway for the past five years, and technical standards may emerge from it soon. Cooper adds that it is not an easy question and it will not be easy to implement, as nations already are purchasing equipment that likely will be in operation for five years. It may take another six years, he warns, before nations employ common equipment that fully meets the interoperability standard.

A key element in the search for interoperability is the annual COMBINED ENDEAVOR EXERCISE (SIGNAL, September 2001, page 21). With all but two of NATO’s members joining 21 other coun tries, forces work with already fielded equipment to ensure communications among these nations.

When it comes to frequency allocation, Cooper states that the problems at NATO are no different than they are anywhere else. All users want more spectrum, and commercial companies are seeking return on their investments by exploiting frequencies traditionally employed by the military.

Solutions remain elusive for a number of issues. These include whether nations will charge each other for spectrum use, which portions will be chargeable, and whether the visiting forces—or the host nation—will be required to pay the bill. Cooper allows that discussions on these issues are ongoing, “and they will be continuously ongoing for quite some time.”

Commercial communications providers are eager to exploit existing military spectrum. Cooper notes that the military has been wedded to existing frequencies because that is what it had to work with at the time. The military can expect commercial applications to enter portions of the defense frequency domain in the coming years.

Long-range search radars, for example, operate in the middle of a frequency that is highly desired by global system mobile (GSM) providers. Ceding this portion of the spectrum will adversely affect the ability to control aircraft, both military and civil. “We really must have an open mind when we go into this or we will wind up with everybody losing,” Cooper warns.

One answer may lie in better use of existing spectrum allocations. Neither the military nor the commercial sector is using available spectrum as efficiently as possible, Cooper believes. For example, the U.S. Navy used to employ a frequency pool approach to its high frequency communications. When finished, a user would return the frequency back to the pool for the next operator. Cellular telephony employs the same approach with individual units, and Cooper suggests that the same pool approach could be applied in ultrahigh frequency, very high frequency and other bands.

GSM and wireless application protocol (WAP) as well as other new technologies that are emerging offer considerable potential for military users. Cooper suggests that military customers might have to encrypt signals or tunnel through the frequency, but commercial wireless has the potential for changing the way the military operates. However, he warns, the military operator might not be looking at this kind of new technology as a way of advancing the ability to wage war.

Cellular telephony was used in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, but the signal traffic was unclassified. The challenge is how to arrange for the commercial sector to allow the military to use these technologies. Encrypting these signals raises technical, legal and procedural questions, all of which would have to be answered before implementation, Cooper maintains.

A related problem is bandwidth. Customers never have enough bandwidth available, and NATO must deal with this issue on a multinational front. During the Gulf War, for example, NATO made extensive use of satellite communications. Cooper believes that if a similar situation arose today, the alliance would not have as much military satellite capability. Using commercial assets would require changing operational rules, and commercial satellite operators would have to permit encrypted traffic through their satellite systems.

Cooper relates that the alliance is leasing more landlines, working to increase satellite capacity, and has re-evaluated traditional high frequency and other links. It also has discovered techniques that increase the amount of information that can be transmitted by microwave. And, efficient use always is a goal.

Another significant challenge is security, which Cooper states may be the toughest issue facing NATO. The alliance now has a public key infrastructure (PKI) doctrine for the 19 nations, and PKI now is being implemented in NATO. However, this begs many other questions such as who should be in charge and whether security is a function that should be under the purview of the operator, NACOSA.

As with military, government and commercial information system users worldwide, NATO wants security that is designed into a system from the onset. Building in security instead of having it as an application or an appliqué represents a new way of thinking for many nations, Cooper offers. A management group and an advisory cell currently are working through PKI issues, but many ramifications have emerged that are beyond original expectations.

For example, many NATO nations have strong communications laws that forbid encrypting information that passes across their territories. Other laws permit encryption only for military users. Each country approaches information security regulation differently, Cooper notes, which makes it challenging to find common legal ground for moving forward on security.

Information sharing also presents some difficulties. The alliance’s challenge is to enable the same kind of data to be reflected in the same way in the same type of databases for a user to extract diverse data into a common set for effective display. Not everybody must be on the same program, Cooper allows. Instead, each program must be evaluated and mapped back into a display system for an accurate picture.

Cooper continues that NATO has a lot of information in many databases, and much of it is duplicative. The alliance is still sorting through how this data can be handled efficiently. Individual nations face this problem, he notes, but again the alliance’s 19-nation size intensifies and complicates the issue. Which information may be shared by each country remains to be determined, and moving into PfP nations—many of which are prospective alliance members—increases the difficulty substantially.

“If you want someone to join NATO, you must tell them what are the technical specifications, the STANAGS [standardization agreements], and the reference documents,” Cooper observes. “Each one of those may carry a classification on it, and you must get 19 nations to agree with the nation that has requested it. That can be a challenge.”

Even strict adherence to STANAGS does not always produce interoperability. Cooper cites one example of two NATO nations that built separate pieces of equipment according to the appropriate STANAG. Once in the field, however, the two systems would not interoperate. Extensive experimentation revealed that both nations had executed the STANAGS perfectly, but each interpreted a couple of sections slightly differently. As a result, it took another three days of trial and error before the equipment would interoperate.

As NATO continues to address interoperability problems, Cooper notes that the alliance may find a solution in the past. “You may, in fact, have to go back to the old-time way of a liaison officer,” he suggests. “He was interoperability. You will not be able to get all 19 nations to come up with systems that will interoperate with other systems perfectly.” Cooper continues that U.S. troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina worked with foreign troops through each country’s liaison officers. “It’s not fast. It may not be convenient, but it is something that in fact can work,” he offers.

Cooper believes that industry can play a significant role in ensuring effective NATO C3. It must look at ways to use spectrum efficiently; techniques to move research and development forward and into production at a reasonable cost; and methods to use bandwidth more efficiently in landlines, especially for the next generation of fiber.

“There has to be a sharing of information and technologies across the Atlantic,” he says. “The United States has to talk to Europe; Europe has to talk to the United States. It is happening to some extent because of the mergers and the partnerships that have been formed, but it has to continue and it probably needs to expand.”