Joint Experiment Bridges Interoperability Gap

January 2009
By Henry S. Kenyon

The Joint Live Experiment on Network Enabled Capabilities demonstrated data interoperability between NATO and Swedish military and civilian organizations. The event simulated a national-level event that required information sharing in real time.
Multinational effort focuses on information sharing between civilian and military agencies.

Network-centric data transfer capabilities are swiftly moving from the battlefield into areas such as national emergency response and homeland security. A recent joint exercise between NATO and Sweden demonstrated how coalition nations and local civilian authorities can link their networks together to share information in real time.

The goal of the Joint Live Experiment on Network Enabled Capabilities, held in September 2008 in Enkoping, Sweden, was to validate solutions for future coalition operations with live data exchanges between Sweden and NATO. The experiment also demonstrated Sweden’s Network Based Defense (NBD) and NATO’s Network Enabled Capabilities (NNEC) concepts.

The scenario for the two-day event involved Swedish military and civilian government organizations working with NATO to protect a high-profile event in the city of Gothenburg. Including civilian agencies was important to demonstrate that interoperability was achievable and important for both sides of Sweden’s government, explains Lt. Col. Krister Arnell, SAF, commander of the command and control battalion based at the Swedish Air Force’s Uppsala Air Combat Command School. “That’s the reason we invited them [civilian agencies], so they could actually see the military development side for themselves,” he says.

The experiment relied heavily on civilian standards to link federated systems and to share a common operational picture, notes Kurt Veum, a principal scientist with NATO’s Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A), the Hague, Netherlands. He contends that the NNEC architecture permits this data exchange capability because NATO standards are based on commercial standards. Another key part of the exercise was verifying that the NNEC and Sweden’s NBD could be merged. 

Veum concedes that there have been few multinational experiments of this scope. The event incorporated Swedish government and NATO core services into a single network. This connection allowed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other military-specific data to be shared on Swedish civilian government systems. Such military-civilian information transfers are new to NATO, he admits.

According to Veum, the hypothesis driving the experiment was that civilian and military organizations could share data in an NNEC network. Besides providing interoperability, the systems allowed civilian public safety agencies to access NATO ISR data. Likewise, NATO operators could access data from Swedish civilian air and sea sensors, and the event combined the Swedish air picture with data from NATO airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft. He adds that tactical data was transmitted between Swedish and NATO platforms via Link 16.

To facilitate interoperability, radar track data was exported across the network as services instead of its original format. Veum notes that this process made it easier to demonstrate the architecture to civilian agencies and to use it in an ad hoc manner. “It [the architcture] allowed us to show how we can assemble services from various organizations for a particular mission on the fly,” he says.

Veum adds that although NATO can federate services, for the exercise it was the Swedish government’s responsibility to determine what applications to include in the network. “The challenge was to bring this message to the audience,” he says. 

Another challenge in launching the event was persuading Swedish civilian agencies to participate. Col. Arnell relates that agencies were reluctant to join because they felt they would be forced to purchase software. He recounts that the military had to convince the civilian agencies that no acquisition was needed and that they were only invited to participate and use the solutions provided by Swedish military and NATO.

The colonel adds that another goal was demonstrating to civilian agencies that they could fit these software innovations into their future networks. “By that approach, we got them on board. After that it wasn’t a real problem for them to share information as long as it was open, because in Sweden we have legal aspects on sharing certain information, even between agencies,” he maintains.

An important part of the exercise is a coalition network where all of the partners agree on the nature of the information they will share. The civilian agencies were never forced to expose more information than they were comfortable with, Col. Arnell remarks. He observes that if the event had been real, the situation would have forced the agencies to examine or reconsider the types of information they release to each other.

The results of the exercise are still being assessed and will be collated by an evaluation team. Veum believes that NATO must continue to experiment with network services on a national-level scale to verify that the NNEC approach is correct. “We have demonstrated that technically we can do these things. We can fulfill the objective with NNEC and probably prove that it is achievable over the years to come,” he says, adding that civilian standards were key to assuring interoperability.

The most valued operational lesson, and one recognized by the director of the Swedish Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), was the ability to exchange information in ways that civilian agencies had never been able to do before, the colonel says. However, cultural issues remain. Col. Arnell notes that before the experiment, agencies could say that they wanted to share information but could not because of technical limitations. “Now it’s not possible to hide behind that barrier, because now we have demonstrated that it is possible to share information and services on the common network, even though they were still working on their legacy systems,” he says.

Although it was a national-scale exercise for Sweden, Col. Arnell notes that the number of personnel involved was relatively small. Participating agencies included the police force of Gothenburg, the Gothenburg rescue service, naval personnel and radar sensors from the military garrison in the city, and some 20 officers from different Swedish military regiments who served as operators in the event’s joint information environment. The event attracted some 700 attendees from the Swedish government and military.

The live event lasted two hours in the morning for two days. “From a method point of view it [the duration] is not sufficient. But from the point of view that we can actually demonstrate that this NNEC concept works, it was quite adequate,” Col. Arnell reports.

NATO is conducting other NNEC exercises. Veum notes that the alliance recently concluded a 14-day Multinational Aerospace Joint ISR Interoperability Coalition exercise. This event involved technical processes and applied peer-to-peer networking. However, this exercise is still within the ISR community.

In contrast, for the Swedish exercise, the NC3A gathered what Veum refers to as “islands” of expertise from within the various NNEC groups. The Joint Live Experiment involved communities working on core services, command and control services and the support of NATO’s ISR community. The event federated all of the services from these different groups and combined them with the Swedish armed forces. “We had two hours to bring together all of these live assets to an audience of 700 people watching events unfold in real time. It’s something the audience could relate to. For them it was like watching a movie,” Veum explains.

A key part of the event simulated the loss of Swedish airspace coverage. The Swedish military and NATO then demonstrated how the system reconfigured itself with a Swedish military configuration tool and then imported AWACS data to rebuild the air picture within two minutes. The rebuilt air picture combined Swedish ground radar and NATO AWACS track information.

Veum adds that the loss of the air picture was chosen as an example of multinational information sharing. However, he adds that any system could potentially go down during the exercise, making it important to dynamically reconfigure the network to avoid a single point of failure.

Col. Arnell admits that the Swedish military was not overwhelmed by the demonstration because of its own network-centric warfare efforts (SIGNAL Magazine, September 2007). He notes that many of the military services are wrestling with their own stovepiped networks. However the civilian agencies were very enthusiastic. The colonel shares that SEMA’s director general told the audience that the event was one of the best data sharing demonstrations that she had ever experienced. Her deputy added that when a major event occurs, all of the necessary crisis management information often is not classified, but still difficult for first response and mitigation organizations to access.

Veum adds that during an emergency management mission, it is typical for 80 to 90 percent of the available information to be nonclassified and accessible. The difficulty is that nonclassified data becomes “contaminated” by sharing databases with classified information. He explains that if networks are properly designed, data contamination is not a problem.

With the exercise complete, the project team delivered a joint final report at the end of 2008. Col. Arnell notes that Sweden’s military is designing NNEC capabilities for procurement, and he hopes that the joint report will include provisions to continue similar joint exercises. The colonel also hopes that the report highlights the advantages of federated NNEC networks to Sweden’s civilian leadership, because they do not quite understand what the capability allows them to do. By involving executive level decision makers, events such as the Joint Live Experiment can demonstrate the advantages of interoperability and communications between civilian and military agencies, he says. 

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