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."