Net-Centric Operations Supplement: A Networked NATO

By Ed McKenna | November 1, 2008
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The growing United States commitment to Net-Centric Operations and the rise of coalition military operations are driving the development of international net-centric initiatives.

Since the allied actions in Kosovo in the 1990s, several European nations and NATO itself have launched Network-Enabled Capability (NEC) programs, as the concept is called in Europe. The goal of NATO NEC (NNEC) is to develop technical and operational interoperability, including training and doctrine, among the member states and align the various national NEC-related programs.

An ambitious and difficult task, the NATO effort to forge these links among its membership has been hobbled by technical, cultural and political challenges, according to industry analysts and NATO itself. However, the 59-year-old multination alliance is working with members and industry groups to address these issues and press ahead with its net-centric vision.

"The NNEC effort was started about five years ago, following development of the Bi-Strategic Command (Bi-SC) Strategic Vision" that stressed information superiority and net-enabled capabilities among the key objectives in transforming NATO forces, said French Navy Capt. Denis Raguin, branch head for Information Superiority and NATO Network Enabled Capability at NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT).

Varying Capabilities

That transformation effort faces a fundamental test in trying to forge connections among the very different technology infrastructures of the NATO nations. In fact, there is significant technology inequality among NATO’s 26 member states.

"Besides the United States, only the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy consider network-centricity a priority in their military transformation efforts," according to a major NEC program review issued last fall by NATO’s Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers Europe Technical Center in The Hague, the Netherlands.

The sophistication of other members varies widely. For example, "Lithuania has six computers for the command and control of the entire country... all 1970s Soviet technology, (which) limits them in their ability to handle command and control data," said Ken Cureton, a senior engineering manager at Boeing Advanced Systems.

This inequality is being or will be reflected on the battlefield. "A coalition member that is unable to efficiently communicate situational information and other data electronically (will) exert an unacceptable drag on the collective operations of all coalition members," according to a report from the Congressional Research Service on Network Centric Operations last March.

NATO has been "struggling with this for some time" and is developing a modeling concept called the NATO Maturity Levels (NML) to assess the technical maturity of each member, Cureton said.

With NML, NATO can get "a rough idea of where the common grounds might be" between the countries. This will allow the alliance to organize its activities with an understanding of the capabilities different members "bring to the table," he said. "Not every nation has to provide the same capability."

The task of integrating all the legacy systems in these countries is yet another significant challenge. "It is not like you are starting with a clean sheet of paper," said Dennis Schwartz, manager, system of systems with Boeing Advanced Systems. "We’ve got a lot of legacy systems out there" that provide an "additional constraint" on the effort to implement net-centric capabilities, he said.

"Legacy systems are and will remain what NATO will have to work with for a while, and operations require solutions that cannot wait for all NNEC recommendations to be available and agreed upon," said Raguin.

This diverse environment has hampered information distribution on the battlefield, according to the NATO review.

"Even if military commanders were granted significant authority to release pertinent information in a timely manner, they may lack technical means for doing so," the report states. It cited one study that noted "in coalition operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) had to deal with more than 84 different coalition networks, of which only 26 had an acceptable level of security."

The upshot was that "interoperability and information exchange among coalition partners was often sluggish and virtually non-existent."

The U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) has sought to address this weakness by fielding the Combined Enterprise Regional Exchange System (CENTRIXS) in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"However, CENTRIXS lacks a comprehensive security system and is not connected to other classified networks," according to NATO.

On the strategic level, the United States has deployed a classified "Griffin" network for e-mail and chat communications among defense planners. However, "only a handful of states — the closest U.S. partners and those that develop network-centric capabilities — are authorized to access that network," the report said.

Network Security

Susceptible to an ever-growing number of threats, protection of networks is a paramount concern. The biggest challenge "is to find an optimal solution that would permit a seamless flow of information among authorized entities and personnel, at the same time preserving the integrity of the network," according to the NATO report.

One potential technology answer is Raytheon’s Compartmented High Assurance Information Network (CHAIN). Developed and refined over the last nine years, it is a "security architecture" designed to "deal with the intricacies of information sharing in a coalition type of environment," said Daniel Teijido, Raytheon C2/SAS technical director.

The system, currently being used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and intelligence community, can, for example, establish an e-mail or file sharing firewall determining what messages are appropriate to be sent from one user to another and from one location to another. Using advanced labeling technology, CHAIN can edit parts of messages in documents to prevent information from reaching unauthorized users.

The system garnered interest from some NATO countries at the 2007 Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration (CWID), an annual event sponsored by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Raytheon demonstrated CHAIN in several technology categories at the CENTRIXS Cross Enclave Requirement event, held as part of CWID in June.

This layer of security "is a particular challenge in that it is more of a cultural and policy [issue] than a technology issue," said Terry Morgan, Cisco Systems director of net-centric strategy, Global Defense, Space and Security Group. The question for the governments is what is the priority? "The need to share (or) the need to protect the culture? We know we can [provide security] with IP; we know that the technology is there."

Cultural Divide

In fact, the political and cultural arenas pose a greater challenge to Network-Enabled Capability than technical architectures and standards, according to Dag Wilhelmsen, general manager of the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A).

NC3A combines the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers Europe Technical Center in The Netherlands and the NATO Communications and Information Systems Agency in Brussels.

The cultural differences begin to surface in the names the different countries assign to their technology programs. "In Sweden it is called network-based defense," for example, indicating "their strategic view of the world is defensive," Wilhelmsen said.

By contrast, the idea started out as Net-Centric Warfare in the United States and is only now becoming more generally known as NCO, reflecting the view that defense involves more than just military action.

Generally, "the European militaries are home defense forces; they are not expeditionary in the way America’s military is, and they have not doubled their defense spending over the last five years in the way that the Americans have," said John Pike, director of

Pike sees this cultural gulf between Europe and the United States as growing, and he is skeptical about the potential for broad-based NATO interoperability. At most, "the Europeans may set up small rapid-action forces that are interoperable with the American forces," he said.

In addition, there are "political differences among NATO nations and between NATO and other European organizations," said Raguin. There is a kind of competition between NEC programs, with different nations, NATO and other European organizations all developing their own programs. "Because of political sensitivities, many parties cannot officially conform to another’s standard," Raguin said.

"The political challenge of net-centricity basically comes down to the question of trust between the United States and its allies," concluded the NATO review. "As the U.S. armed forces are becoming increasingly network-enabled, the security of its networks might become more important than cooperation with partners. Unless the U.S. has complete trust in its allies, it would be reluctant to grant access to its military networks."

In the meantime, Wilhelmsen has proposed the NATO C3 Agency could be "an unbiased coherent agent," providing members with workable solutions between national systems and international infrastructures.

Increased "communication within NATO and between NATO and the European Union and European Defense Agency [could also] help the process," said Raguin.

In addition, NATO has stepped up its involvement with the Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium (NCOIC), Raguin said. The organization is represented on NCOIC’s Advisory Council, "and at least four NATO nations are directly represented" in the consortium.

Alliance staff members also serve on three of the consortium’s Integrated Project Teams, including the NATO Interoperability team. These teams "are one of the ways NATO is trying to improve communication and collaboration among its many nations," Raguin said.

The growing international nature of net-centric initiatives is reflected in the overall NCOIC membership, a not-for-profit association that is committed to global deployment of network-centric applications (see

The consortium represents more than 100 members from 19 nations, including international companies and U.S. and other international government agencies. Among recent additions is Australia’s Department of Defense.

A number of international events and exercises have helped nations begin to address the cultural and technical issues.

The NATO First Wave exercise in 2004 — the first ever NATO-wide networked real-time simulation of Combined Air Operations — brought together seven NATO nations and raised the awareness of net-centric issues among participants, said Steve Monson, chief technologist for Training Systems and Services at Boeing.

The event led to subsequent "Mission Training Through Distributed Simulation" exercises between the United States and United Kingdom. In the last exercise, a non-U.S. controlled site linked into the U.S. Air Force Distributed Mission Operations network, which provides net centric training simulation for a number U.S. aircraft including F-15s, F-16s and AWACS.

The annual Combined Endeavor exercise, sponsored by the U.S. European Command, also provides a good international forum, Morgan said. The event brings together NATO and many of the 24 nations in the bi-lateral "Partnership for Peace" program, which includes Russia.

"We work very closely with the European Command to introduce current levels of commercial capability into the exercise," Morgan said.

Meanwhile, CWID allows vendors such as Raytheon to demonstrate the latest technologies to potential international customers. The event constructs a temporary global network over which advanced communications technologies interact to support a scripted scenario. The systems are evaluated for utility, interoperability with existing and new technologies, and security.

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