It is important that the NCI Agency moves as rapidly as the Alliance's operations demand. It is a badge of honour that our staff has directly supported every single operation and mission NATO has ever conducted. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that when NATO's 'Eye in the Sky', the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft were sent to boost the Global Coalition to counter the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), NCI Agency services played a critical role.
Thanks to technology and support provided by the Agency, NATO's AWACS aircraft can provide forces with an overall picture of the airspace over Iraq and Syria, making the skies safer. This picture is put together by flying over Turkey, a NATO ally, as the AWACS' sensors can detect activity hundreds of kilometres away from their location.
Shoulder to shoulder
Matt Roper, Chief of Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) Services for the NCI Agency, explained how his team is constantly enhancing the technology provided to the AWACS so they can be deployed whenever they are needed.
"The NATO AEW&C [NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control] Force, which operates the E-3A AWACS, has continuously used our services for over 30 years. They come to us when they feel they have a shortfall, a deficit or an emerging requirement, to help them continue to deliver their mission effectiveness.
We're in very close partnership with the NAEW&C force, we operate as a joint team that brings together the best of the competencies across the Agency, integrated with the customer team, with the users, the aviators at the Geilenkirchen airbase in Germany and their command headquarters.
Probably one of the most recent and relevant examples of our support is where we've worked with the force to provide them with an airborne IP (internet protocol) chat capability. In other words, the ability for mission operators on board the aircraft to engage within the command and control (C2) architecture, using airborne chat in a similar way as you and I may chat with one another using our mobile devices.
However, putting the equipment for this kind of capability onto an airborne platform posed a real challenge due to the need to meet stringent airworthiness requirements and information security protocols."
A different kind of chat
The airborne IP chat capability was first developed to facilitate particpation of the NAEW&C Force in the Alliance mission in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014. Since then, the Agency has continued to update the capability, to keep it as operationally effective and secure as possible. These efforts have also ensured the AWACS could contribute to the Coalition's efforts to counter-ISIL.
"The airborne chat capability was an important entry ticket for the NAEW&C Force to get into the mission in Afghanistan, as the theatre commander required all key command and control assets to be able to coordinate within a common communications environment. Essentially, he said: 'Unless you can get into the IP chat network, then don't come, because you won't be able to communicate with us'. It's the same now with their latest operation - in order to add real operational value, the AWACS must be able to share timely and accurate information collected with other players in the landscape," Mr Roper noted.
The AWACS do not coordinate Coalition air strikes or provide command and control for fighter aircraft. However, their surveillance function can make a huge difference to operations. Air Commodore Paddy Teakle, Deputy Commander, NATO AEW&C Force Command, previously commented: "There are Coalition assets flying in Syria who have no picture of the air traffic and the movement of aircraft around them. AWACS can provide that picture which will give those pilots a greater situational awareness to be able to use the airspace safely.
This is a true military capability and the coalition have been crying out for coverage in that region and NATO in direct support of the coalition are providing that picture in an area that previously has only been covered sporadically."
The Agency is also working with the NATO AEW&C Programme Management Agency (NAPMA) to help keep the E-3A AWACS platform relevant until 2035 - when it is likely to be replaced. "NAPMA and the NAEW&C Force have already identified a range of things they believe are essential to keep NATO AWACS operationally viable - some relate to the aircraft itself, others to the mission system," Mr Roper revealed.
"There is a need to ensure the air vehicle is able to operate safely and the mission system capability is operationally relevant in current and future NATO missions. Part of what we'll be looking at in the near future is ensuring the cryptographic capabilities are upgraded so all the information [from the AWACS] is protected. That's increasingly difficult in the cyber context of today's world".