NATO Shapes its Enterprise For Conflicts of Tomorrow

May 1, 2015
By Sandra Jontz
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The alliance embarks on its own JIE-type effort to secure networks and build interoperability.


The cyber attacks that threaten the United States are just as intense and worrisome for NATO, which comes under persistent strikes by nation-states, terrorist groups and criminal organizations all assailing with denial-of-service malware, organized criminal incursions, cyber espionage and website defacements. As the U.S. Defense Department toils at creating a unified and secure network, so too does NATO.

“The modernization program in NATO is the flagship for the future of our network as we work to achieve our objectives of having a secured, connected force and being able to support NATO in its rapid deployed content,” says Gregory B. Edwards, NATO’s director of infrastructure services in Mons, Belgium.

The U.S. Defense Department in 2012 started its development for the conceptually based Joint Information Environment (JIE) framework, a unified defense information architecture that began with a knocking down of silos that hampered progress of the epic effort to boost collaboration, efficiency, interoperability and security. The department is doing that for one military, one nation. Edwards, on the other hand, has taken on the task of tackling the same for 28 sovereign states.

“In essence, JIE in the United States is about interoperability, but it is also about security and efficiency and effectiveness. ... [The NATO Information Technology] Modernization initiative, similar to JIE, has the same basic goals,” Edwards says.

That means ensuring known optimization and efficiency processes throughout not just NATO’s core infrastructure, but also the 28 member nations that today make up the alliance. “It’s putting that robust infrastructure in place to provide that support in a secure manner, but it’s also optimizing and upgrading a lot of the infrastructure—all the way down to the desktop,” explains Edwards, who took over the post in December to lead the organization’s life-cycle aspect of the telecommunications networks, the information technology infrastructure and the core and enterprise services, in addition to the comprehensive solutions for cybersecurity management and control for the entire NATO alliance. “It includes providing new desktops with the latest operating systems so we have performance all the way from the desktop up to the core enterprise service. Efficiently and effectively providing enterprise services throughout that core; those enterprise services being voice, video, data and collaboration services.” Edwards previously led the architectural engineering and design to develop the U.S. Defense Department’s JIE effort, orchestrating activities with combatant commands, the services and agencies.

Two factors spurred NATO’s aspiration to modernize its information technology effort: the U.S. JIE initiative and the construction of a new NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, to replace the aging Cold War-era building with a modern complex of steel and glass that will cost $1.05 billion.

“So some lessons learned were taken from JIE and brought forth, but not entirely,” Edwards affirms. “As NATO shifted from being more defensive-minded to a readiness posture … it recognized that it had to have a more and truer interoperability capability throughout [its forces] as we push from the static to the tactical area.”

The U.S. Defense Department is aiding NATO in the alliance’s modernization effort by sharing its own information technology modernization and implementation experience with NATO, including the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Board and the NATO Communications and Information Agency. The collaboration also centers on a “train as you fight” approach, whereby the various command and control exercises are used as a continuum in information technology training and certification of NATO forces for a seamless connection for operations, according to the Defense Department. Nation leaders fine-tuned much of the blueprint for NATO’s information technology modernization effort following the NATO Wales Summit in September, including language to reverse the trend of declining national defense budgets and plans to further a more balanced sharing of costs and responsibilities. To that end, leaders agreed that allies currently spending less than 20 percent of their annual defense budgets on major new equipment, including related research and development, would strive to increase those investments to at least 20 percent over the next decade. Information technology modernization is one of those investments, Edwards declares.

The JIE in the United States, though a laborious and prolonged process, falls under the purview of one centralized department, while the NATO modernization project requires 28 sovereignties to agree. “That’s an everyday challenge,” Edwards concedes. “We like to say first that the standards that have held NATO together for some time are still there.” Standards of the 66-year-old alliance serve as the fundamental foundation upon which change happens. For more than six decades, the member states grew from what was a political alliance into a coalition, united in the military response to any attacks perpetrated on any one partner nation by external parties or entities. If they can agree on that, information technology modernization should fall into place, Edwards offers.

Not only must the opinions of nation leaders agree on the way forward of the modernization effort, but also the countries’ defense budgets must be comparable, at least on spending initiatives. “So you may have to stay a notch or two below leading edge technology to make sure you can communicate with the 28 nations together,” says Edwards, whose office focus areas include cyber, core enterprise services, network infrastructure and systems management.

“That too becomes a challenge for us with the 28 nations. ... Our scientists and engineers work with them to translate those requirements and to make sure that they fulfill the standards, and then represent the 28 nations through various working groups to take all of their concerns before we’re able to provide a solution.”

When it comes to networked systems, it is not an all-or-nothing option for the alliance nations. Their entire military infrastructure does not need to be connected to or interoperable with NATO. However, most nations, when developing their networks and fortifying their forces with information technology platforms, have adopted a “NATO first” approach, Edwards explains, knowing it is easier to build based on a common solution rather than go rogue and work to interface at a later time. “We’re still working with interfaces, but there is a broader recognition now and some acceptance for, ‘You know what, we’ll just buy the entire 28-nation NATO solution.’ You can see that there could be some savings if 28 nations are paying for a solution.”

Edwards says there is no firm time line for completion of the modernization effort. “Our vision would be where we have core enterprise services and most of the services that NATO consumes come from that core. When we get most of the core services and enterprise services that are used by all of the nations, we will have greatly reduced the individual need for them to go out and purchase their own. If we got to a 70-30 ratio there, that would be wonderful.”

Another driver behind the modernization effort comes from the Connected Forces Initiative 2020, outlined by leaders at the 2012 Chicago Summit to ensure the alliance uniformly addresses the dynamic range of threats. “I have a challenge and an objective of ensuring that as part of the NATO Forces 2020 connectivity, that those goals and objectives that have been set by the North Atlantic Council are carried out. They define those as enterprise information technology infrastructure, being robust and survivable,” Edwards says. Paramount among NATO’s needs is a requirement to be connected to the enterprise, whether forces access from a headquarters location or from a deployed environment, he adds.

As NATO embraces the massive modernization effort, it also is tackling methods of incorporating rapid deployment of capabilities, Edwards adds. “Developing a very coherent architecture, similar to JIE and somewhat following that same concept … that’s helping us ensure coherency as well as standardization and interoperability as others perhaps want to build capabilities that match.”

As does the U.S. government, NATO grapples with a sluggish acquisitions process that sometimes stymies rapid investments from private industry on which the alliance relies for part of its modernization endeavor. “We’re trying to find an effective way to reduce that cycle to make it more agile,” says Edwards, adding the alliance is relying on the concept of incubator projects to devise innovative ideas unencumbered by slow bureaucratic processes. Selection is restricted to businesses within the 28 NATO nations, giving equal competition opportunities whether companies striving to do business with the alliance hail from Germany, the United States or Lithuania.

The competition can be stiff, Edwards adds. “The U.S. is quite advanced, but I wouldn’t say that, as far as technology in general is concerned, that the U.S. is far ahead of NATO. We have Microsoft in NATO and we have Microsoft in the U.S. and they are the same. From that perspective, NATO is able to reach out and get similar capabilities that exist around the world.”

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