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02 11 2019

Inside a NATO maritime change of command

Imagine completely dismantling and re-installing an entire communications system every four to six months, in as little as three days. The tight schedule and continuous rotation is a challenge, to be sure, but it is one the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency is prepared to handle.

When the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 completed a change of command in January, the NCI Agency's Customer Support Unit (CSU) in Northwood did the behind-the-scenes work to power down the communications system on the outgoing vessel, relocate it, install it, conduct all required maintenance and updates, and test it. In as little as three days.

It's a routine the Unit conducts every four-to-six months when the ship that carries the commander rotates out and a new one deploys. The Unit visited 13 different ports in nine different countries last year to support 17 Communication and Information Systems (CIS) operational handovers.

This particular rotation at the Port of Copenhagen included a change of command from Commodore Anders Friis, Danish Royal Navy, to Rear Admiral Edward Cashman, United States Navy.

Each handover presents its own unique challenges, be it the weather delaying ships or space constraints making it difficult to place equipment. In conducting its work, the Unit has learned to adapt.

CSU Northwood includes 18 military or civilian technicians who carry out different aspects of the handovers. They are grouped according to their skill sets and sent out in small four-person teams. In addition to these handovers they also support other tasks at MARCOM Headquarters and across the U.K.

Chris Taylor, Head of the Automated Information System Core for CSU Northwood, led a four-person team in conducting this time-pressed transfer.

"We're typically doing, in effect, a system refresh every four to six months because we're dismantling it, we're powering it down, we're picking it up, we're moving it, we're transferring it and we're powering it up again," Taylor said.

Training between the two staffs took place aboard the Danish Royal Navy's ship, while the Unit conducted maintenance on the equipment.

Using a crane, the Unit successfully transferred the equipment to the United States Navy's ship and installed it, completing the work on time.

Inside a NATO maritime change of command

The US Navy played a big part in ensuring the work was completed in the three-day window. Sailors pre-installed more than 3,000 feet of network cabling in the ship to connect the server rack to the staff rooms.

The communications system is important, as it helps different NATO vessels communicate with each other up to the NATO Secret level. It includes email, chat, web browsing, secure voice and formal messaging between commands.

And a new feature has been added to the portfolio recently: a way for the vessel to communicate with non-NATO nations called SEMARCOMM+. The additional system was installed on the US ship as a part of the package.

"Because these ships are sailing around the world, as these ships approach different coastlines the navies of those coastlines may want to join the operation for a couple of weeks to do some training with the NATO ship," Taylor said. "So this gives the Commander the ability to speak with these non-NATO nations and possibly engage in training opportunities."