Compared to NATO’s nearly seven decades in existence, the NCI Agency seems very young, having been established on 1 July 2012. But our roots reach as far back as 1951 and we should be proud of our DNA. This year’s special anniversary is an opportunity to take an express ride through the rich history that makes us who we are today.
Always at the soldier’s side
1995 was a special Christmas. For the citizens of Sarajevo, it meant being able to walk to get water without being shot. For NATO, it marked the start of the first peacekeeping operation of the Alliance since its creation, a significant departure from its previous missions.
On 20 December 1995, NATO, an organization designed to protect a well-defined territory from members of the defunct Warsaw Pact, was put in charge of leading a force of over 50,000 troops from 32 countries to enforce peace accords. The Alliance’s top commander at the time otherwise known as Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), US General George Joulwan, considered it critical for the troops to arrive swiftly in unison, in what would be a powerful ‘show of force’.
"It was clear to me that if we did not show strength at the outset, parties opposed to the peace, snipers, might be tempted to attack our forces, trying to weaken our resolve," he reflected several years later.
The historic deployment included Russian peacekeepers, who had until then only ever practiced how to maneuver against – not with – NATO. Logistics were further complicated by the harsh winter and an infrastructure decimated by conflict and the heavy use of landmines.
General Joulwan turned to a precious resource, the SHAPE Technical Centre (STC) in the Netherlands. Established in 1955 as the SHAPE Air Defence Technical Centre (SADTC), it was responsible for providing technical advice to the operational community. The team proposed leveraging advanced software to plan, stage and execute troop movements. It worked so well, that SACEUR invited CNN to visit the offices in The Hague, proudly saying: "I could not have done Bosnia without the SHAPE Technical Centre," he added.
"We are pushing the envelope but it’s working. Even in the worst part of the year, and the worst part of Europe to deploy a force, it’s very reassuring to know what you [the Shape Technical Centre] have done."
What started in Bosnia continued; the NCI Agency’s predecessors went on to support NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) after the Alliance received its mandate from the United Nations in June 1999.
Two years later, our technology allowed NATO’s AWACS radar aircraft to patrol the skies in the US, contributing to the Alliance’s first anti-terror operation. The Agency’s expertise extended to creating a mission operations centre for NATO in Afghanistan, and improving the commander’s situational awareness off the coast of Somalia as part of a counter-piracy operation. And then, there were special missions. For example, when NATO airlifted African Union peacekeepers to Darfur in Sudan, in a bid to end the violence there.
By then, NATO’s technical community had grown. But what did not change was the fact that our technicians were in lock-step with NATO’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and women.
"Whether the mud of Kosovo, the searing heat of Somalia, the story of NATO operations is also our story, the technical community being there side by side with the soldiers, frequently first in and last out," said Bernd Kremer , Chief of Network Services and IT Infrastructure at the NCI Agency.
"I think this is an important element that our customers should remember. We were with you on all those operations, that knowledge helps us be ready for the next challenge."
Breaking the rules
"Yesterday six people died, I need you to fix secure voice now," said General McChrystal in Afghanistan, speaking at an urgent meeting to representatives of two organizations: the NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCSA) and the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A).
The Commander of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan was speaking in the middle of an intense counter-insurgency campaign which relied heavily on CIS to be successful.
This sense of urgency, driven by the dangers facing military staff every day, precipitated technological breakthroughs for the Alliance time and again.
"When you are working on the ground with the operator, the tempo is different, you are constantly pushing the envelope. Sometimes it’s never been done before, and then you simply have to be creative to satisfy the operational needs for the sake of the soldier in the field," said Detlef Janezic, Chief of Service Engineering and Architecture at the NCI Agency.
In the early 1990s for example, NC3A and NCSA introduced for the first time a network for secure email and data exchange between headquarters, while the rest of the world was still predominantly using insecure faxes to transmit important information.
This secret network, first called ‘Echo’ and later ‘Cronos’, revolutionized military communications. It provided a resilient planning tool, and gave commanders vital and rapid situational awareness.
It also inspired the creation of a mission network, later evolving into a federated mission network concept, which today ensures the interoperability of NATO and non-NATO forces in multinational operations. Operation Joint Endeavour in Bosnia was not the only catalyst for technology leaps, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan also raised many challenges which could only be overcome thanks to the expertise of the Agency’s talented staff.
In 2007, the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps notably started using chat prototypes which had been developed by Agency scientists to support critical, time-sensitive tasks such as medical evacuations.
This allowed medical staff in theatres to report casualties and evacuate them more quickly, saving hundreds of lives in the process.
"Our history is a history of ‘firsts’," added Mr Janezic, "Driven by operational demands, sometimes by the pace of technology, we often have been stretching the rules in terms of what can be done. That has sometimes made us not too popular with the Committees."
Part of this journey was close partnership with Industry, and pushing the boundaries of that partnership.
From 2007, the Agency outsourced part of core CIS services for the ISAF mission to Industry. This marked the start of a new type of symbiotic relationship between the organization and the private sector, with Industry providing IT support to NATO forces, while the Agency focused on complex, interoperability work.
Two years later, a contracted Industry partner went on to establish ISAF Joint Command in Kabul under our direction, turning a social centre with a gym into a fully-fledged, secure operations centre within weeks.
People – at the heart of technology
There’s only so much technology in our story. First, not all our work is about technology, one of the Agency’s key assets is a team of operational analysts that provide everything from analytical support to deployed forces and analyses of a mission’s progress, to more unusual work such as the development of a fog dispersal machine which was trialed at Tuzla airport in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But there is also an important wider point. "We are not about factories or robots. Every challenge has come down to a group of people deciding to do something about a problem," stressed Mr Janezic.
"It’s the human network that makes NATO strong. Partnership with Industry and Nations is key," said Michael Stoltz, Acting Director of Air Command and Control (AirC2) Programme Office at the NCI Agency.
NACMA, the Agency which was established to manage NATO’s air command and control system (ACCS), is another founding member of the NCI Agency. Worth over 2 billion EUR, ACCS is one of NATO’s largest technology programmes to date and it will soon be playing a key role in NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defence. The system combines the planning, tasking, and execution of all air operations both over NATO European territory and out of area when deployed.
When fully rolled-out, ACCS will interconnect more than 20 military aircraft control centres, increasing the effectiveness of NATO air operations and covering 10 million square kilometres of airspace.
"Air defence is a classic example where the Nations can do more together than most Nations can do alone," Mr Stoltz added. "The technology landscape evolves, and at the core of being able to respond to this evolving landscape is close connection to the operational community, dialogue with the Nations."
Today, the Agency’s various locations host over 20,000 visitors a year with discussions ranging from standards on information-
sharing to evolving doctrine and cyber innovation.
"What is impressive to see is what a determined group of individuals can do. Soon, NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance fleet of Global Hawks will take to the skies, providing the Ambassadors with unparalleled additional information.
The basis for the data information-sharing started as a group of nine Nations who worked with the technical community to drive forward standards, which have now been adopted in NATO," said Joe Ross, Principal Scientist of the Agency’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance team.
Similar multinational projects have changed the face of NATO cyber cooperation and relations with Industry.
In the wake of the 2014 Wales Summit for example, the Alliance launched the NATO-Industry Cyber Partnership (NICP), which now boasts 12 information-sharing agreements between Industry and NATO.
"The trust we have built through this programme has proved essential during incident response, resulting in faster communications and sharing of more contextual information that bolsters our collective cyber defences," stressed Ian West, NCI Agency, Chief Cyber Security, "That human network is precious."
Another Christmas, another challenge
The NCI Agency flag was first raised on 1 July 2012 in Kabul. It was a Sunday but a normal working day in Afghanistan and perhaps a symbol of our enduring commitment to operations.
Shortly after the Agency was established came another Christmas challenge. The conflict in Syria was escalating and cities in nearby Turkey came under threat of Scud missile attacks. The Netherlands, Germany and The United States offered Patriot batteries to augment Turkey’s air defences.
The Agency had two weeks over Christmas to connect these Patriot batteries to NATO’s command and control networks and the Alliance’s air commander in Ramstein, Germany. In one of the cities, 3 million people were at risk.
"There is something about Christmases in NATO," said Alessandro Pera, the head of the missile defence programme at the time, "There is frequently a present in the form of a mission."
The connection was done on time, leveraging the first ever operational use of cloud computing to reduce the amount of hardware (and therefore logistics) needed, giving SACEUR the speed of response he needed. Given the sensitivity, this time there was no CNN visit.
NATO today is very different from the Alliance in 1955 or 1995. So is the technology community. In 2012, five key pillars of that community merged into one.
But just like the Alliance’s fundamental values have endured, the core of what made NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe so proud in 1995 has not changed – a group of talented people determined to rise to any challenge in support of NATO’s soldiers, sailors and airmen and women.