Interview with Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation on Innovation and Adaptation

By Nadja El Fertasi, Chief Strategy Office, photos: Marcos Marin Fernandez 3/24/2017
Continuing to transform the Alliance by implementing innovation today to shape tomorrow is what the Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation (SACT) passionately pursues.

Continuing to transform the Alliance by implementing innovation today to shape tomorrow is what the Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation (SACT) passionately pursues.

NCI Agency representative, Ms Nadja El Fertasi sat down with General Denis Mercier to discuss his vision for NATO transformation.

General Mercier, you have an impressive career path in leading transformation and innovation. Could you please share some of the transformation efforts you led in the French Air Force?  Why was cultural change necessary?

The French Air Force saw many different reforms in the past, which brought discrepancies across the organization. This is why I led a huge transformation effort during my time as the head of the French Air Force. My objective was to ensure coherence across the organization and to focus on the strengths of our forces – reactivity and responsiveness.

At the foundation of this transformation were four main axes: the modernization of our capabilities, the consequences on the different organizations themselves, the human capital which is a key factor, and the consequences on partnerships. And I see the same method today in the approach to NATO's adaptation.

Cultural change is very important and a key is Command and Control (C2). C2 is the backbone of any decision-making process that enables all of our forces to work differently.

When I was the Chief of Staff for the French Air Force, we had several assets deployed under different commanders, because we had regional commands. This caused issues with transport aircrafts in one command as there was no possibility to use aircrafts from other regional commanders. We decided to establish one air component command in France because there was no reason to deploy it. It brought huge flexibility, adaptability and reactivity to our structure. This is just one example of one of the big adaptations. It required a big change of mindset, especially for all the commanders to understand that they would no longer have the ownership of any one asset.

And this is what we try to promote in NATO. More focus on the effect than on the capabilities themselves, which is really a big change of mindset. What is essential for me is to make everyone understand that innovation is about the implementation of concepts. Innovation is not an idea itself, but how we bring this into the field.

The people permanently stationed in [operational] theatres will not have ownership of capabilities, but will make a request and we will find the best way to deliver. This is why we need to ensure a robust command and control structure to deliver these effects.

IT is the Alliance's nervous system and lifeblood, the core of our ability to consult and rapidly make decisions.  It must be robust and resilient. 

As Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation, can you walk us through your key tenets of your vision?

This transformation vision is perfectly consistent with the huge adaptation that has been decided for NATO at the Wales and Warsaw Summits.

It recognizes that we were in a complicated world and that we have shifted to a complex world. Complex means that we now have so many parameters making it difficult to address all challenges simultaneously. So we need to think and act differently.

The key elements are first, the reactivity and responsiveness of our forces. If we have forces with the highest level of readiness, how will you deploy them if you do not have a robust and resilient C2 structure for decision-making? And when I say C2, I mean Command, Control, but also Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR).

Second is logistics and sustainability. We need to have a very robust concept in order to enable a swift deployment of our forces.

Third is training and exercises. We are an Alliance; if we do not exercise correctly, we will not be interoperable from day-zero.

Fourth is partners – we know we will never operate in the future without our partners, so improving interoperability with our partners is essential. And when I say partners, I mean Nations and international organizations.

Fifth, we need to have the right capabilities to cover the full spectrum of operations.

And finally the most important thing is our human capital. How do we train our future leaders to deal with this complexity? These six areas is how we have refocused the outcome of ACT.

Can you tell us how NATO ensures a robust and resilient Command and Control structure?

NATO's Command and Control structure is one of our Alliance's main strengths. Why? Because it is the only international organization that has a permanent robust Command and Control structure which enables military operations and responsiveness.

Currently, we are looking at modernizing the NATO Command Structure (NCS) to ensure we can address all the complex security challenges of today and tomorrow simultaneously. If the Alliance is organized differently, we will be able to find all of the capabilities to deal with these challenges in the Nations of the Alliance or our partners.

This is why I am a strong believer of the Persistent Federated Approach (PFA). PFA is how we link up the NATO Command Structure, the NATO Force Structure (NFS), national facilities and even sometimes the private sector, to have a permanent exchange of information and a very agile, flexible federated network.

This is an important aspect of my discussions with the Agency, as the key question is: 'How do we build these IT architectures?' We will rely more and more on IT architectures as they will enable the exchange of information and the distribution of operational control if necessary in a more agile structure.

If you have access to information more quickly than your opponent, you can make faster decisions with a robust Command and Control structure, and through secure IT, and you can act on it as a cohesive force rapidly and effectively defending the Alliance.

How can we better leverage partnerships with Nations, NATO Agencies and Industry in capability development?

The value of NATO is that we have clear political guidance. Based on this, the two Strategic Commands and the Military Committee define military requirements.

We survey what exists in the Nations and then define the shortfalls and ask Nations to develop these areas as priorities for their targets in their future defence development plans. And it works quite well. But we still have the tendency to define capabilities by equipment, instead of defining the effect we want to achieve.

The AWACS for example are delivering surveillance and control. So for the next generation aircraft in 2035, we are looking at how surveillance and control will look like by then, what effect we will want to achieve and based on this, we build the requirements. Think effect and architecture. And there is a strong role for the Agency to develop this architecture, the interoperability and link this together.

Technological developments are happening at an unprecedented speed. With this in mind, how can NATO better support capability development?

We need to think in terms of flexible and agile architectures, instead of capabilities and platforms. We will need to continue to shorten the cycles of the development. Otherwise we will be disconnected from the highly rapid change of technology.

We must win the battle for speed. We have the world's most powerful private sector, and yet we are so slow to implement technology, leaving us behind the curve.  This must change.  We have a lot of best practices in Nations, and we need to now introduce them to NATO.

Why are cloud-combat platforms so important for NATO operations and exercises?

When thinking in terms of desired effect, cloud-combat platforms combine the different domains - land, air, sea and cyber - to ensure we deliver the appropriate effect. For me, the key combat system is C4ISR and how we associate these different capabilities.

If we look at the single platoon for instance, they have many sensors on the ground. But how are we fusing this vast amount of information using artificial intelligence and re-distributing this intelligence at the appropriate levels? Interoperability standards are essential, which is why we are developing Federated Mission Networking (FMN) to ensure interoperability between the different national systems.

In Iraq for example, this is not a NATO operation, but all the forces can operate together because they use NATO standards.

That is the value of it, knowing that when we deploy together we will link up our systems, and it works.

Why are training and exercises critical enablers for NATO's defence and deterrence posture? How does Information Technology fit in this?

As an Alliance, if we do not train together, then we have difficulty operating together from day-zero. And this is why training and exercises are so important. SACEUR defines training requirements, and my responsibility is to put these training requirements into the exercises.

Together with SACEUR, we are reviewing this process as we need to shift the emphasis from the exercises themselves to focusing on training requirements.

In 2019, when the next process starts, we will have a prioritized list of training requirements and build the exercise programmes accordingly. We do this today already, but this approach will bring more flexibility in moving the requirements from one exercise to another.

NATO conducts roughly 100 exercises a year, and Nations conduct 200 that have a link to NATO through the Connected Forces Initiative.

We also need to be innovative to ensure we correctly exercise using very important new systems in complex threat-based scenarios. A key example is how we integrate cyber in exercises to ensure the objective of the exercises is not destroyed by cyber-attacks. 

Putting people at the heart of technology is now more important than ever. Can you tell us why?

We have no choice but to develop artificial intelligence and more autonomous systems in many different areas. That does not mean that we have decided that those systems will decide engagement forces. This is an essential question and we should not refuse progress; we just have to organize in the way that we decide where we can use autonomous systems and where it is not possible to do that.

We should not be afraid to address these questions at all times. This is why the human capital in different areas is so important in our transformation.

In the event of a crisis or conflict, NATO and its partners must be able to respond as one, immediately. How is this being done?

Over its 70 years of existence, NATO has proved it can implement huge interoperability between Nations and we can see the benefit of that today. But future interoperability and architectures will be a bit different based on the challenges we need to tackle. These interoperability standards will be at the heart of our combat-cloud systems. And I know the Agency has an essential role to play and it is important we continue to work together, based on operational requirements and on our vision for the future. But we need to remain agile and adapt accordingly as we implement the transformation vision in a phased approach. This is another part of the complexity of our work.

Partnerships beyond the NATO family are also essential. Can you tell us why these partnerships are important to NATO?

Partnerships are an important condition to bringing more stability to our world, and NATO has a large global network of partners. Together, we work on the same values and we enhance our interoperability to ensure we can all stay engaged.

Partnerships in the Mediterranean and Middle East are also critical to fight terrorism. I am thinking of the recent NATO training mission in Iraq for example.  Another key element in partnerships are the Individually Tailored Roadmaps. At the military level, these roadmaps simplify, optimize and synchronize the many initiatives that exist within nations, based on a three- to four-year perspective.

And the Federated approach is key again, because we need to be able to coordinate this with other international organizations or nations that are already conducting bilateral activities with those partners. It is very ambitious, but I am convinced we can do this. It will really enhance our capacity to project stability. 

How is the NCI Agency helping you implement this vision?

We need to share this future vision and it is very important to work closely together, both the Strategic Commands and the Agency in doing so.

As we define the future operational concept, we need to understand the technological limitations and opportunities. Which is why partnerships with both traditional and non-traditional industry is essential as well.

When I say non-traditional industry I refer to companies like Google and Amazon which are ahead of us in developing complex architectures and systems. I can't emphasize enough the close collaboration with the Agency, which is exciting as we are building something new which is consistent with our world today.

The value of our Alliance is looking at our 28, soon 29 Nations, if we associate all the competencies, including in our industry, we are the most powerful Alliance in the world, if we all work together.

What message would you provide to the staff of NCI Agency and NATO-wide? How would you encourage them to be part of your Transformation Vision?

This is not just an ACT transformation vision, we work for the Alliance. What is essential for me is to share the objectives and continuously innovate, and the key word is to innovate 'together'.

The implementation of short-term actions is absolutely essential, but we need to project them in order to anticipate the future. ACT has developed a campaign plan to ensure that we are not working in isolation, but understand how we are contributing to NATO's strategic objectives and share this information within and outside our headquarters.

For example, when someone in ACT is working on FMN he knows that he has to contact people in Allied Command Operations, in the NCI Agency and other NATO entities and ensure we all collaborate together. 

I am more than happy to share this campaign plan with the Agency, because developing architectures is at the heart of this. Together we will move forward and shape the future. And I am happy if the members of NCI Agency question us, because we need to be questioned. Maybe we are wrong. This mindset is important. We cannot promote a network approach, if we do not work in a networked way all together.

What would you like your legacy to be at the end of your mandate?

My legacy is to work for an Alliance that is adaptable and implements innovation.

We need to implement the short-term in the broader perspective and think 10-15 years ahead. Improve today, shape tomorrow and bridge the two. 

I will continue to promote this networked approach to work all together, with the Agencies, between the Strategic Commands, Nations, partners, and with all stakeholders. Because it is together that we are strong.

NATO is a wonderful organization for that and its capacity to adapt whilst operating is something that does not exist elsewhere. This is the value of the Alliance and together we can bring some bricks and build big walls and really make our Alliance stand up to any future challenge with the ultimate goal being peace and security.

 

 

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