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Digitization Defines Future of North Atlantic Treaty Organization

April 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

New missions and rapidly evolving commercial technologies lead to widespread doctrine changes, ease enlargement tasks.

The need to extend operations beyond conventional alliance borders is driving technology development in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The alliance is embracing digital technologies to pave the way for its new command and control infrastructure, which must be flexible enough for a variety of potential missions.

These changes are cascading as the 50-year-old alliance begins a new era in security. Cold War doctrine established alliance member nations as a defensive area facing a threat from a monolithic enemy. Planners now must expect that future missions, which may range from out-of-area peacekeeping to a response to armed hostilities, could force the alliance’s consultation, command and control (C3) to operate outside its conventional infrastructure.

Concurrently, an increasing reliance on commercial communications technologies is easing the entry path for the alliance’s three newest members as well as for other nations that aspire to membership. The necessary interoperability is more easily achieved as users apply the same commercial standards to their newly emerging communications systems.

The requirements of these new members and of many Partnership for Peace nations dovetail with the alliance’s changing mission. As it increasingly devotes its energies to peace support, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is forced to extend its C3 capabilities outside its infrastructure.

“Peace support has introduced a whole new set of requirements,” explains Loren Diedrichsen, general manager of the NATO C3 Agency. “NATO now operates, not just as a NATO structure, but as NATO plus partners.” For example, the Dayton Accords Stabilization Force in Bosnia comprises more than 30 nations in a composite force operating through the alliance command structure. This has accelerated the need for advanced communications technologies both for interoperability and for reachback capabilities.

To meet these urgent requirements, NATO has turned to commercial digital technologies. The alliance is in the process of changing its strategic telecommunications systems to an integrated services digital network (ISDN) mode. It has awarded contracts to replace its old analog switches with new digital equivalents, and electronic (e-) mail is becoming a preferred means of communication. “Clearly, NATO is moving into the digital age very rapidly,” Diedrichsen declares.

Commercial information technologies have been the most significant factor in improving NATO command and control, he asserts. The plethora of commercial products on the market allows the alliance to assemble systems with increasingly greater functionality.

Because NATO has a well-defined command structure that is not overly large, it is able move into the digital world quickly. In turn, commercial technology makes this move affordable, and commercial standards are progressing in an ideal manner, Diedrichsen says.

He offers that the future holds continued applications of commercial technology for NATO requirements. This trend continues to be driven by increased peace support operations, which often require forces to assemble C3 systems quickly in unfamiliar territory. Not only do commercial technologies enable the rapid establishment of capabilities, they also allow for easier and faster training, as these technologies are more familiar to users.

Multimedia also is coming rapidly, Diedrichsen suggests. When technology permits personnel to pass voice and video over Internet protocol using desktop equipment, they will be able to undertake more collaborative planning.

“NATO’s involvement in peace support has pushed it more rapidly into the digital world, which now permits us to implement systems that are capable not only for peace support but for the major role of collective defense as well,” he states.

The alliance can now assemble a recognized air picture that can be distributed over a network. Planners can develop and disseminate daily air tasking orders and receive mission reports from pilots over a common database system. This capability, which is already implemented, is being extended into NATO’s three newest members—the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

An operational headquarters deployed in Sarajevo, for example, can reach back into the static NATO infrastructure for vital connectivity. This is true whether it needs to communicate with the combined air operations center in Italy, a supporting headquarters at Allied Forces Central Europe, or even Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE).

Diedrichsen predicts a gradual shift in command and control systems to include the use of embedded decision support tools instead of just exchanging messages and updating reports. These support tools will help planners assess alternative courses of action and optimize decisions and their implementation. At this juncture, command and control will move from a message medium into an interactive role that allows commanders rapid interaction with their staffs.

Commanders and their staffs would be able to formulate a number of different courses of action and compare them by taking operational situations into account. This capability would be embedded in the same systems that have access to situational databases. “You can build various smarts into those databases so that you can select information, on the basis of various queries, that helps you formulate an assessment of a current situation or an assessment of potential alternative courses of action,” Diedrichsen explains.

“The old days of command and control, where we looked at databases and provided the commander with the information we thought he needed for a decision, are a thing of the past,” he declares. “Commanders today choose courses of action on an interactive basis. They do a lot of ‘what ifs’ and want their staffs to respond quickly with available data and assessments. Without decision support tools, the process becomes very long and cumbersome.”

A peace support mission can involve more tasks than assignable resources can accommodate, for example. Without decision support tools, too many resources might be allocated to a particular task at the expense of another task. Decision support tools would permit a user to foresee potential consequences of resource allocation, Diedrichsen suggests.

The NATO C3 Agency director general also foresees computer-assisted exercise capabilities embedded in command posts. This will allow local commanders to train their staffs and allow regional commanders to work with subcommands and eventually move into mission rehearsals with staffs at their regular headquarters.

These occurring and pending developments are enabled by NATO’s rapid move to digital technology, which is built on the application of commercial technology, Diedrichsen emphasizes. “We’ve come further in the past three years than I [previously] have seen NATO progress,” he says. For example, the technology now supporting command and control in Bosnia was first tested in a 1995 exercise and became operational late that year. In the intervening years, it has evolved to an increasingly greater functionality, he relates.

A key NATO effort underway is the development of a deployable headquarters built on an anchor station concept. This will permit more supporting functions to be performed in rear echelons.

“The physical location of a database doesn’t really matter,” Diedrichsen explains. “What matters is access. The man in a forward-deployed command post who clicks on an icon may well be remotely accessing a database held at SHAPE. It’s fundamentally extending the use of web technology.”

This also would allow forward-deployed forces to consist only of actual engagement personnel. For example, experts specializing in database management would be far away from the operational area, but forward forces would still be able to access these databases and remotely call on the specialists’ expertise as needed. A goal is to extend this capability beyond deployable command centers to vehicles that would permit commanders and staffs to access the same databases available from a command post. Diedrichsen cites advances in commercial personal satellite communications as a key enabler for this goal.

“The movement in commercial satellite technology opens up—if we get the corresponding implementation of personal communications systems—a whole new wide range of prospects for command and control in NATO,” he warrants.

Diedrichsen continues that emerging commercial satellite networks can play a major role in future NATO communications. Many of the low-earth-orbit personal communications systems under deployment offer significant capabilities. If NATO can operate with effective security in this mix of commercial networks, both voice and nonvoice terminals will have “a tremendous relay capability,” he says.

A key development will be a terminal that can take advantage of all the different technologies for end-to-end secure communications. This would provide “a powerful communications capability,” Diedrichsen declares. Jamming and denial of service would be reduced significantly. Many companies and national research laboratories are pursuing this development, and NATO seeks to leverage technology from these programs.

Despite the alliance’s full foray into digital technology, terrestrial systems still cannot provide enough bandwidth for all NATO requirements. Diedrichsen notes that Europe has “an excellent capability” for ISDN connectivity throughout the continent. By basing its systems on ISDN, NATO can implement a good terrestrial system. It runs into capacity problems when it goes out of area, especially when surge capabilities overwhelm NATO’s communications infrastructure. The existing solution is to lease commercial satellite capabilities, he allows. NATO currently is wrestling with defining the mix of communications capabilities among NATO-owned and -operated, national military assets and commercial systems. This is fundamentally a cost question, he adds.

Surveillance is another area that is key to future NATO operations, Diedrichsen offers. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles will take on greater importance in this area. “From a command and control point of view, ground surveillance remains a critical requirement,” he emphasizes. Improved alliance ground surveillance capability is the top priority of both the supreme allied commander Atlantic and the supreme allied commander Europe.

Currently, the alliance is dealing with a series of industrial and national issues as it tries to define its ground surveillance capability. The United States, for example, is emphasizing its proven joint surveillance target and attack radar system (JointSTARS), the United Kingdom is promoting its new Aster system, France is touting its heliborne Horizon, and Italy is offering its heliborne Creso . Again, the combination of NATO-owned systems and national military assets is among the many issues demanding resolution.

Diedrichsen adds that integrating this capability into NATO’s command and control system, together with the air command and control system, must be addressed from a counterforce point of view. This relates specifically to theater air defense, which is a high priority among NATO planners. A counterforce response would involve attacking both the launch vehicle and the resupply point, which relies heavily on ground surveillance. The alliance has employed “some very interesting prototypes” in exercises to prove some of these concepts. This especially involves integrating air command and control with its counterparts to conduct defensive counterforce operations.

Digital geospatial information systems (GIS) are another growth area. The agency, through its work supporting the Bosnia stabilization force, has been able to promulgate a standard approach across the allied command in Europe. A network of command GIS officers is now working in a collaborative sense, Diedrichsen says. Instead of a combination of different maps, users now have a common digital GIS background for all application systems in NATO’s command and control network. This allows users to accurately georegister images obtained through surveillance, he adds. Continued GIS development is vital, especially as it is built on evolving commercial international standards.

NATO’s greatest commercial needs center on communications advances that permit alliance forces to use larger amounts of bandwidth, preferably at lower cost. “We want to continue to evolve our information processing capabilities, while at the same time, extending our networks,” Diedrichsen declares. A deployed network and a deployed headquarters should not be at a disadvantage because of communications or information processing limitations, he emphasizes. The agency is looking to industry for advances in information processing and transfer.

This dedication to commercial systems and technologies opens the door for strengthened industry involvement in NATO planning. Diedrichsen offers that industry can keep active with the agency through its concept development work. The agency aims to exploit commercial technology, but it can exploit only what it knows, he explains. Industry must keep the C3 Agency up to speed about its developments. If NATO determines that a commercial technology has potential for alliance applications, it may integrate the technology into testbeds or prototypes for evaluation in exercises. A strong two-way dialog is vital to this approach, Diedrichsen emphasizes.