Interoperability Key to Multinational Operations

September 2008
By Henry S. Kenyon

One of the key roles of the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A) is to develop and promulgate interoperability standards. The standards allow NATO nations’ equipment to share data and communications to better support deployed alliance forces such as these Italian troops examining a weapons cache in Afghanistan.
Agency manages the rules and standards that allow alliance nations to share vital data on the battlefield.

NATO is transforming itself as it approaches its 60th birthday. Change is nothing unusual for the alliance, which has recently accepted a number of new nations into its ranks. But as the scope and nature of its military commitments change from simple defense to peacekeeping, the various national armies operating under NATO’s banner must be able to function together harmoniously in the field. But while harmony is vital in the era of network-centric warfare, achieving it remains a challenge.

The agency responsible for planning and managing the alliance’s interoperability requirements is the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A), based in Brussels, Belgium. The NC3A serves the alliance by providing scientific research, supporting acquisition efforts, and spearheading initiatives to develop and approve interoperable software and hardware standards. It also works with Allied Command Transformation (ACT) to formulate long-term capability requirements. Looking 15 to 20 years into the future, these requirements examine technology perspectives as well as military needs and scenarios. These plans are formalized into a set of requirement statements that are transferred to alliance nations’ research and development organizations.

The NC3A also assists ACT to formulate force proposals, which consist of taking national and alliance requirements and requesting nations to contribute specific capabilities such as a unit or a warship. The agency also develops research tools to generate force proposals and to communicate these requirements to member nations. These requirements permit nations to develop, fund and implement their own national command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities.

According to NC3A General Manager Dag Wilhelmsen, the agency’s other major role is as the architect for NATO interoperability standards. He states that this is perhaps the agency’s most active responsibility. In this area, the NC3A works with agencies in NATO nations, national standardization bodies and private industry.

Besides delivering operational capabilities to NATO commands, the NC3A also supports warfighters in the field. Wilhelmsen explains that the NC3A has supported alliance forces in the Balkans and Afghanistan for more than a decade. He notes that this service represents a significant part of the agency’s responsibility as a supporter of military situational awareness capabilities. “It is immeasurably important for our people in the field to have a direct understanding of what is going on,” he says.

The NC3A operates in a spiral process to develop capabilities from their inception until they are deployed. Because the NC3A represents no individual nation or industry, it has the ability to serve as an unbiased adviser to NATO nations. “This is a very important part of our core culture, that we are using to the highest possible extent. … That we are not biased towards a specific solution or a specific country or company,” Wilhelmsen shares.

Another of the agency’s contributions is the ability to establish forums to rapidly develop and implement standards. Wilhelmsen emphasizes “rapid” because NATO has undertaken standardization efforts for more than 50 years. “Until recently, it [NATO] was not responsive enough timewise to what we need today. We are now starting to find models to cooperate with nations on a case-by-case basis to rapidly come to agreements on technical standards and operational standards that can be used in joint coalition operations,” he says.

Perhaps the best example of this strategy is the agency’s work on blue force tracking. The NC3A developed and defined a Web-services based Extensible Markup Language (XML) standard for the software format used for friendly force tracking by different national systems. This effort allows the creation of a technology- and system-independent interface that permits new nations’ systems to share force-tracking data across an interface. Wilhelmsen says that this effort epitomizes how a service-oriented architecture can be used for network-centric warfare capabilities.

The NC3A also is working with nine nations on an initiative called the Multi-Sensor Aerospace/ground Joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) Interoperability Coalition, or MAJIIC (SIGNAL Magazine, October 2004). This effort combines data products from national ISR sources and allows nations to access and share those products. A number of NATO standardization agreements (STANAGs) are being developed to define a range of applications from full motion video interfaces to moving target indicators using synthetic aperture radars, imagery and other data. Over the past several years, the nine nations have worked together to bring this system to a stable operational capability that will be deployed to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan this year. “This is a clear winner in terms of getting together rapidly to make sure that commanders in the field can have access to—on one information base—the releasable information necessary for this operation,” says Wilhelmsen.

The NC3A also is using service-oriented architectures to develop a joint common operational picture to create a single image of events on land, sea and air in a commander’s area of responsibility. Wilhelmsen notes that this work is being accomplished with existing standards. He explains that these new standards are so easy to implement that even the most stovepiped system can be opened up with an agency-provided Web service combined with a data translation capability. But information management remains a challenge because it is necessary to understand the quality of the data coming into a joint domain. “This is significantly better and more rapid than what we used in the old days, where our standards were basically prescripted with respect to system design,” he says.

The NC3A also oversees the implementation and validation of new standards. “You cannot just end up with a paper product. You also have to test it,” Wilhelmsen explains. This evaluation includes probability testing prior to deployment and the building of reference facilities to replicate the standard so that new services can migrate into an existing system without using the battlefield as a testbed.

 “It is immeasurably important for our people in the field to have a direct understanding of what is going on.”
— Dag Wilhelmsen, NC3A general manager

 Another important part of the NC3A related to vetting standards is the Integrated Battlelab. This is a reference facility where both technical and operational aspects of joint coalition interoperability can be validated. Wilhelmsen notes that the battlelab traces its origins to the 1990s, when the NC3A helped establish the prototyping and experimentation capabilities that led to many successful NATO capabilities, such as the Integrated Command and Control Capability. He adds that the agency is developing a capability that will allow more national systems to be brought into the battlelab for validation.

NATO also operates the Combined Federated Battlelab network that interconnects national facilities. More than 10 nations are now connected to the network, which is an open but secure environment that allows classified information to be run and shared. The network is being used on a daily basis to facilitate experimentation across borders.

The NC3A also works with the NATO Communications and Information Systems Services Agency, or NCSA to support NATO troops in the field. When systems are handed over to the NCSA, the NC3A continues to provide back-end maintenance and operational support. However, Wilhelmsen says that the NC3A works primarily on the front end, prior to handing over systems to the NCSA for operation and sustainment.

But rapidly creating and promulgating standards remains a major challenge. Wilhelmsen cites the example of a NATO commander in southern Afghanistan who noted that there is a plethora of useful national systems, but when forces come together in coalition operations, they must be disconnected to permit commanders to communicate and interoperate. “We have significant motivation and pull from the operational community to support interoperable system solutions across the system development [process],” he says.

The NC3A has helped develop a number of data-sharing systems, such as the Multi-Sensor Aerospace/ground Joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) Interoperability Coalition (MAJIIC). MAJIIC allows coalition forces to access data from task platforms such as this NATO airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft.  
The heart of the difficulty lies in national politics, which is partly due to the nature of NATO’s structure. The alliance’s member nations will not all agree to buy the same piece of equipment, instead pursuing their own national industrial solutions. Because this is how the alliance works, Wilhelmsen shares that the NC3A’s job is to find ways that allow these various systems to interoperate in a coalition environment. This goal is achieved by implementing service-oriented architectures that are independent of proprietary technologies and systems, and by using best-practice solutions from commercial information technology and Web 2.0 firms to build interoperable and practical solutions for information sharing. “The technology is no longer the challenge. The challenge is the willingness of the nations to implement these things because it opens systems up for information exchange. Opening your system up for information exchange puts requirements on you to feel comfortable about information you release into the coalition domain. You are losing more by holding information to yourself,” he explains.

Another of the NC3A’s key roles is promoting and providing cyberdefense for alliance computer networks. Wilhelmsen explains that an important aspect of cyberdefense in a coalition environment is maintaining trust by proving that information released into a network is secure.

The agency has promoted cyberdefense in two areas. The first is developing trusted information exchange gateways to permit information flow and services in a controlled environment. Examples of this capability are federated environments that require identity management to cross domain borders. The NC3A and several national research laboratories are studying possible solutions in this area. Wilhelmsen admits that developing such an application is a major challenge because of the technology, process and policy issues that must be addressed. Agency research is focusing on areas such as role-based access control and object-based security to ensure that any future multinational environment will protect data released into it.

The second area the NC3A is involved in is detecting external threats to NATO networks. NATO has established a Cyber Defence Management Authority mandated to establish a network that will allow all alliance nations’ computer incident reporting systems to share data when a cyberattack occurs. Wilhelmsen notes that the NC3A also is developing cyberdefense capabilities to protect networks and architecture and to connect them safely and securely.

Besides its mission to protect network infrastructure, the NC3A continues to focus its strategic initiatives on the validation and verification of interoperability. To meet this goal, the agency is implementing a capability called the ISAF Reference System (ICECAP) to support ISAF. Wilhelmsen says that it will serve as a virtual model of all NATO systems being used in Afghanistan. ICECAP will be used for a range of purposes, from troubleshooting to implementing training capabilities, developing operational concepts and bringing in new systems as they are rolled in and out of Afghanistan.

“The challenge is the fact that we are operating with 40 different nations in and out of Afghanistan, and we are rotating staff in and out of theater. It is very difficult to become effective on day one if day one is spent trying to find out who you can talk to,” Wilhelmsen explains. ICECAP will allow NATO forces to prepare their equipment and validate and verify if their current system configurations are interoperable.

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