Interoperability Key to Multinational Operations

August 15, 2008
by Henry S. Kenyon

NATO is transforming itself as it approaches its 60th birthday. While change is nothing unusual for the alliance, the scope and nature of its military commitments shift from simple defense to peacekeeping, so the national armies operating under NATO’s banner must be able to function together harmoniously in the field. 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.

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

The NC3A operates in a spiral process to develop capabilities from their inception until they are deployed. Because the agency represents no individual nation or industry, it has the ability to serve as an unbiased adviser to NATO nations.

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 (MAJIIC) (SIGNAL Magazine, October 2004, page 27). This effort combines data products from national ISR sources and allows nations to access and share those products. Over the past several years, the nine nations have worked together to bring this system to a stable, deployable operational capability that will be deployed to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan this year.


One of the key roles of the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A) is to develop and promulgate interoperability standards.

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, which 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.

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 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, which interconnects national facilities and 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 (NCSA) (SIGNAL Magazine, September 2008, page 25) 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 systems over 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.

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, pursuing their own national industrial solutions instead. Wilhelmsen shares that the NC3A’s job is to find ways these various systems can interoperate in a coalition environment by implementing service-oriented architectures that are independent of proprietary technologies and systems. In addition, the nations can use best practices from information technology and Web 2.0 firms to build interoperable and practical solutions for information sharing.

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. First, it 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 verification to cross domain borders. Wilhelmsen admits that developing such an application is a major challenge because of the technology, process and policy issues that must be addressed.

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.

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.

“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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