Ships from nine NATO countries took part in live-fire air and missile defence drills off the coast of Scotland in May 2019.
Exercise Formidable Shield 2019 is an important test of allied interoperability. And the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency played a critical role in making it a success.
To conduct the exercise, the 13 ships that participated needed to be able to communicate and share information with each other, and with NATO Commands. The "system of systems" the Agency delivers as a part of its Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Programme makes that possible.
"These exercises are critical to train people, and to help them transition delivered services into operations, so they are all ready for the real mission if needed," said Sibe Wassenaar, Project Manager for the NCI Agency’s support of the exercise.
The BMD Programme is responsible for the capability that automatically connects sensors and assets contributed by the Nations. National sensor data is all compiled in a centralized hub at the Ballistic Missile Defence Operations Centre (BMDOC) in Ramstein, Germany, providing situational awareness to enable command and control.
Nations within NATO can contribute to, and access that technical data, but to do that, they need the Agency's help.
Two Nations had not been previously connected to the BMD capability, and needed new connections for Formidable Shield 2019.
"It's a complex process to organize and build one connection for one Nation," Wassenaar said. "It really requires many services within the Agency: We need network infrastructure experts, we need boundary protection experts, we need BMD experts and command and control application experts. So I can name five or six service lines that need to be involved."
To integrate the expertise from the various service lines, a contractor team of eight companies supports the BMD Programme in an integrated project team.
Between January and March, the Agency created and tested the Nations' new connections to the BMDOC.
"Everything was prepared in advance," said Walter Fercala, a Routing Engineer at the NCI Agency. "This is our role because we cannot wait until the last moment to bring network connectivity."
Fercala's team connected the Nations to the architecture before the exercise began.
"We are the main point of connectivity," Fercala said of the Agency's role in the exercise. "We are doing the translation for all the Nations in order for the Nations to talk with each other."
The NCI Agency delivers Nations a gateway into the BMD architecture, but it does not have visibility into Nations’ defence networks. Fercala needed to coordinate closely with the Nations to understand how their services were structured to better integrate their services with NATO’s.
"The most difficult thing is to understand what is on the national side," Fercala said.
The exercise was conducted by Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO on behalf of U.S. 6th Fleet.
The Commander of Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, Vice Admiral Lisa Franchetti, thanked the NCI Agency for the outstanding support it provided before and during the exercise. She said the NCI Agency provided an excellent operational communication architecture.
LT Michael McDonald of the 6th Fleet was the exercise’s Joint Interface Control Officer.
"This year's performance was far superior to FS-17, with few (if any) trouble tickets being generated," LT McDonald said. "Essentially, the solid performance of the infrastructure during the event is a testament to their efforts before the event."
The scope of support the Agency could offer, and the information exchange requirements for the exercise, were well-defined before Formidable Shield began, LT McDonald said.
"Because it was clearly understood what was (and was not) within the scope of the agreement, I knew what the team could do for me," LT McDonald said.
The Agency built on lessons it learned from supporting exercise Formidable Shield 2017, said Christophe Le Devehat, Test Lead from the contractor team.
For example, the Agency designed, coordinated, integrated and verified architecture views for each Nation. These views specify all the connections required to establish end-to-end communication services between the NATO sites and national units.
Formidable Shield 2019 relied heavily on chat, joint range extension and tactical data link services. Chat is used to coordinate operational procedures. Tactical data links are used to share situational awareness data between the units (such as locations of blue forces, sensor data and engagement status). Joint range extension extends the data shared locally within line-of-sight to all relevant operational sites beyond line-of-sight.
To ensure service support for these products, the NCI Agency prepared in advance a catalogue of points of contact (including subject matter experts) for each Nation and for each relevant service line in the Agency, Le Devehat said.
"Whenever something was happening, an issue in the architecture, we were able to directly contact the relevant expert for efficient troubleshooting," Le Devehat said.
After some issues with chat rooms and connectivity in 2017, the Agency improved the chat architecture and integrated and tested Nations further ahead of the exercise to ensure reliable connectivity.
“Service support of the BMD system is spread in many units in the NCI Agency that are around Europe,” said Italian Air Force LTC Riccardo Di Valerio, BMD Service Line Management Section Chief. "Among these units it is necessary to have big coordination. Everybody has to know what the other people are doing, when we have to escalate the incident, problems, and so on.”
LTC Di Valerio played a secondary role in the exercise, so he merely extended his working hours during the event to be available if needed. The exercise ran smoothly, LTC Di Valerio said.
"What we verified in this exercise is that the NATO infrastructure that was made available for this exercise was very, very reliable," LTC Di Valerio said. "So there were no incidents that caused delays or postponements."
Overall, Le Devehat described this year's exercise as "well-prepared, coordinated and well-executed."
During the exercise itself, a quick response team also supported LT McDonald on the ground at the BMDOC.
"FS-19 provides a good model for future interactions, and I hope that follow-on events yield like success," LT McDonald said.