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Next-Generation IT Systems Are Needed for NATO Operations

In securing Europe, advancements in geospatial information and big data are necessary to aid military mobility, logistics and operations.

The strategic importance of NATO’s military forces in Europe remains high, especially in the rear area of Europe, as NATO works to strengthen the alliance and improve deterrence measures against adversaries, including Russia. Because deterrence relies on situational awareness, data and information that feed a clear operational picture are critical components, say Leendert Van Bochoven, global lead for National Security and NATO, IBM, in The Netherlands; and René Kleint, director, Business Development Logistics & Medical Service, Elektroniksystem-und Logistik (ESG) GmbH, in Germany.

Van Bochoven and Kleint were keynote speakers at the virtual AFCEA Europe Conference and Exposition held jointly with NATO’s new Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC).

“It depends on if we have situational awareness across a very wide geographic area,” said Van Bochoven. “Because we are talking about the whole of Europe, including landing, staging places, roads and bridges, there's a large situational awareness needed based on just geographic information. Deterrence and defense really depend on having viable options for the Supreme Allied Command Europe (SACEUR) to execute.”

As a host nation, Germany fields thousands of requests each year from other NATO countries seeking support and information for exercises and deployments, Kleint noted. The Bundeswehr—the German military—coordinates: airport services; infrastructure needs; freight management across air, sea, land, rail and barge; warehouse logistics; water and fuel; containers for living or storage; armed or unarmed security services; salvage and disposal; port services; and camp operations and tents.

“It requires very strong relationships and partnerships worldwide to support the German Armed Forces in the area of host nation support,” he said. “This, of course, is driven by information and technology (IT) and, a whole bunch of data. It is process management and IT infrastructure that help manage the logistics. And it is always about the data.”

Germany has looked to the Kingdom of Norway and its military for guidance as a host nation, Kleint continued. During operations, Norway maintains a 24/7 coordination cell that is the key interface between the Norwegian logistics operations center and the commercial delivery capabilities. For an IT platform, Norway developed the Host Nation Support Ordering and Billing System, also known as HOBS, which has been key to its success as a host nation, Kleint observed.

They also employ the related NATO standards. “And this is a very, very beneficial way to deal with and handle all that data, which you have to take into account to support a lot of nations who are training in your country,” he explained. “The HOBS system manages all parties, all nations. You can manage the exercises you have created in the system. You can handle every request from the beginning of the initial planning phase up to the exercise. You can do the reporting, you have transparency with the invoice management, which is a very, very important topic and everything is based on the NATO regulations.”

However, the HOBS system is a just the start of IT solutions that needed, Kleint noted. 

“We think a holistic IT approach in this area is beneficial,” he stated. “We have the HOBS system, which is capable of connecting the nations. But during the Trident Juncture exercise in 2018 it handled a volume of about €230 million in transactions. That is a huge amount of data.”

Van Bochoven suggested that NATO increase its use of geospatial information, temporal information, structured and unstructured information from the open source domain, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Quantum computing, in particular, will play an important role to operating at the speed of relevance.

“Quantum, as a new generation of computing, can help with these complex logistics problems,” he noted. “It is not so much the speed in the computation. It's the complexity of optimizing the logistics networks that requires this type of computing. Although quantum computing in general can be used for linear algebra problems, machine learning applications, or physical modeling, one of the most interesting use cases for quantum computing is optimization.”

The geospatial capabilities, in particular, are critical to decision making, Van Bochoven continued. Geospatial information can include: Internet of Things-related data—connected machinery, devices, equipment and vehicles—public data, and weather data, including soil data topology, elevation information, as well as private data sets and imagery from satellites and drones. However, organizations and the military are not using it to their full advantage.

“Many organizations, both on the commercial side, but also in government, aren't using data to the full advantage, that is why we see a need for the next generation of GIS platforms that are can support operations,” he stated.

Traditional spatial, vector-based data is used in existing GIS systems, mostly for planning purposes. Instead, NATO needs advanced GIS technologies that can harness additional incoming data sources, especially in real time from satellites and drone imagery.

Any technologies that can conduct geospatial temporal analytics must be able to move large amounts of data, given the size of the data. And the solutions need to be scalable, for the large data sets to be used in operations, to optimize situational awareness.

“It goes back to how to give [leaders] a decision space, in this case to SACEUR, to deter any actions from adversaries,” Van Bochoven said.

And the advanced GIS technologies need to be built on cloud principles, where artificial intelligence and deep learning models can extract information from to create models and predictions.”

“That doesn't mean, by the way, that it all needs to be off premise or as a service,” he noted. “It could also be on premise. But the approach to unlocking the data and working with the data must be based on cloud principles.

“Because we're operating in a gray area, given that the [incidents] that are happening across Europe are all below that threshold of Article Five, we are talking about a situation of hybrid threats,” Van Bochoven continued. “So, speed is a key factor."