Agency Smarts Nurture NATO Innovation
The technology push includes big data analytics, agile software development and a software factory in the cloud.
Trident Juncture 2018, a large-scale NATO military exercise, wrapped up late last year. But in the weeks since, the alliance has been doing something it has never done before by using big data science to help inform lessons learned from the exercise.
The exercise, which took place between October 25 and November 7 in Norway and the surrounding Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea, involved more than 5,000 people, 250 aircraft, 65 ships and about 10,000 vehicles. For many years, NATO has been occupied with international conflicts, but recent developments have led to a renewed focus on the core of the alliance. The massive exercise—the largest conducted in Norway in a decade—tested the alliance’s ability to conduct that core defense mission.
NATO collected vast amounts of data during the exercise and is using big data analytics to sift through that information for insights and lessons learned that it may not obtain through traditional means, reports Michael Street, innovation manager for the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency.
“There’s a lot of conventional exercise assessment that gets done for any exercise, but this is the first time that we collected all the data and now we’re analyzing it. It’s giving us a different perspective on what we can learn from the exercise, what we can use from the exercise, how we evaluate and assess the exercise and how we can improve in the future,” Street says. “We’re in the early stages of some interesting things.”
Street lists data science as one of his top priorities for 2019 and beyond. NATO began exploring the capability as part of its innovation program a couple of years ago and has rapidly expanded the ability. Trident Juncture is only one example.
“We’re now working with NATO colleagues from headquarters to the commands and within our own agency, using data science tools and techniques to really bring some value and bring some insight and understanding to a whole range of NATO uses and the data that they’re dealing with on a daily basis,” he says. “That’s something that’s going to grow this year, next year and beyond. It’s such a key area, given the way this technology has moved, the potential that it has and the way it’s being used by a number of nations.”
He goes on to explain why big data is important to the allied organization. “NATO obviously needs that kind of capability given the sensitivity of the data that we operate on. We have to have that expertise. That work has transitioned from being an innovative technology and an infant application into almost mainstream use,” he adds.
Big data analysis isn’t NATO’s only area of innovation. Its software factory in the cloud also is expanding. The initiative began as a way to distribute NATO software—primarily command and control and mission planning technologies—along with software verification and testing tools to the nations. Some countries have since adopted NATO software for their own use.
“Having put the [software tools] in a cloud environment where people can connect in an authenticated manner, download the software and download the test vectors and the like has made it a much more efficient, much faster process for the nations to get hold of NATO software tools,” Street offers.
But now, NATO is expanding the capability to allow the actual development of software in a secure cloud computing environment. “We’re working now with a whole range of colleagues to move that, not just to distributing software, but to developing and testing the software in the cloud,” he says. “We can work with partners in the nations, and we can work with industry, all in an appropriate, protected environment where we can collaborate remotely. It’s a much faster, more economic, more efficient way to do software development.”
The NCI Agency is helping NATO take advantage of other software development innovations as well. Agile software development, a process that allows technologies to be developed and deployed more rapidly, has become another priority and already is reaping benefits. “Sometimes the innovation isn’t just about the technology. Sometimes we’ve been able to innovate processes. It’s changing how we specify and procure some of our future software systems, and it recognizes that in some environments the traditional approach that had been used is not necessarily the most effective or the most appropriate mechanism anymore,” Street reports.
The innovation manager lists the HeliOps program as one of the major systems his office has helped to shepherd through the development process. Designed for helicopter pilots operating in Kosovo, it is the first mobile app the agency deployed to theater.
In Kosovo, air operations happen on a regular basis. However, before these operations begin, the helicopter crews must complete meticulous preflight planning. For example, a pilot needs to know where it is safe to fly and land in relation to natural or man-made obstacles.
Traditionally, planning for air operations is done by using a variety of hard copy maps, charts and documents, meaning that for one air operation, pilots would have to study several different charts and maps. If for any reason the situation changes in-flight, the helicopter crew would have to pull out their maps, charts and documents and come up with an entirely new plan, according to an article in the 2015 issue of Communicator, a NATO publication.
“HeliOps wasn’t impressive because we developed an app. There are many other applications that commercial pilots can get to do similar things,” Street says. “But this one is pulling information off of our classified networks, mixing it with our unclassified information and displaying all the things that pilots need to have at their fingertips in order to conduct their missions more effectively. To do all of that and to receive security accreditation for it, that is something that hasn’t been done before,” he says.
The effort provided valuable lessons learned as well. “It taught us how you should go about building apps that operate in that kind of environment, that straddle the world between our operational classified networks and the data there and the convenience and mobility of mobile devices and the apps that sit on them,” Street elaborates.
Street’s team also organizes hackathons to help identify creative technologies. In November, for example, the NCI Agency hosted the Hackathon for Peace, Justice and Security. The event gave teams from around the world only one weekend to develop technologies capable of identifying images or text used for propaganda purposes. He describes the environment at hackathon events as “energetic” and “a little bit gung-ho” and says the events offer innovative solutions that are “tangible” and “realizable.”
The hackathons allow NATO to work with programmers outside of the traditional military community of contractors. “One of the key drivers, or key benefits, is to have a diversity of views and experiences that allows you to make those innovative leaps rather than just the slow, incremental change you may get if people have been working in a particular environment for many years,” he says. “In some ways, it has been quite inspirational because we work with people and teams from nations, from industry, from academia, and generally, they’re much younger. Maybe they have less experience, but they have fewer built-in assumptions about what will or will not work and what is or isn’t the right way to go.”
In some cases, the hackathon teams will take the basic technologies provided by NATO and provide something utterly unexpected. “They are taking information that’s coming from command and control tools, from mapping tools, from modeling and simulation tools, to augmented reality engines, and giving us something we haven’t seen before, which really gets people excited and starts to show a step change in what’s possible to put in the hands of our soldiers in the field.”
Street cites the rate of technological change, the complexity of the systems needing to be defended and the “combination of targets” as some of the top challenges in the cyber arena. On the latter, he explains that the same tools used to attack NATO systems can be used by different groups to attack a variety of targets, such as industry, financial institutions or other critical infrastructure systems. “There’s a mixture of actors who are interested and involved in supporting some of the technology threats and how they get used and who they are used by and who they are used against. It’s the surface of attackers rather than the attack surface,” he states. “Very often threats are going to be exploited for financial gain by one group of players and maybe to attack governmental organizations by different groups of players,” he adds.
For that reason, NATO is working not just with the defense industry, but also with the critical infrastructure community, such as the financial technology industry. “It is interesting to work with companies from that kind of background, who bring very different approaches in some cases but always addressing the fundamental issues that are near and dear to our hearts: information security, trust, protection, resilience and reliability,” he says.
Street describes his office as a coordinator or facilitator for creative solutions. He credits others, including warfighters, operators and data scientists for the actual innovation. “Our role is to explore the ideas, look for hidden challenges or opportunities, prioritize which initiatives we will implement and then work with a range of colleagues to turn the innovative idea into reality,” he says.
Smart ideas come from across NATO, the nations and industry, he adds, but sharing, collaborating and partnering help bring those ideas to fruition. “There is no shortage of ideas for innovation, but I don’t think we’ve had any innovation that came from just one group of people.”
The NCI Agency’s flagship annual industry conference and AFCEA TechNet International, NITEC 19, will be held in Oslo, Norway, May 20-22. The event will focus on advancing technological solutions and business practices to strengthen NATO operations from the south to the high north.