The NCI Agency provided the Interoperability Test Director for this exercise, who is responsible for ensuring more than 8,000 separate tests are carried out during Steadfast Cobalt. These tests were an opportunity to identify any gaps in services and to test all of the different services Allies require for mission success. This meant confirming all systems could recognize each other, and that the networks were properly set up to deal with the flow of information, from operator to operator and system to system.
"When it comes to interoperability, standardization is key, which is why we help build and test suitable networks our NATO Allies can rely on to command and control their forces in any operational environment," said Andres Bulk, Interoperability Test Director, NCI Agency.
For the first time, exercise Steadfast Cobalt 2021 provided the event where the in-preparation rotation (NRF2022) could join the standby rotation (NRF2021) in the same mission network federation. The Mission Network Service Management Authority team from the NCI Agency led the technical aspects of this effort. This single mission network provides the NRF commander confidence that the NRF operates to a single baseline and can seamlessly rotate.
During all phases of the exercise, subject matter experts from across the NCI Agency prepared all of the NATO-owned equipment for the static and deployed elements, operated and monitored all of the services that they provide, resolved incidents and managed changes as they arose.
The units and headquarters drawn from NATO and the Nations taking part in Steadfast Cobalt 2021 would have normally have deployed to a single location to execute the exercise. This was the second year that this exercise was conducted remotely from peacetime locations in individual NATO Nations due to COVID-19 restrictions. This has brought a unique set of challenges, as the majority of the exercise pre-planning needed to take place via emails and video calls. The exercise was planned and executed in record time, halving the time used to prepare and execute last year's STCO20.
"Restrictions brought about because of COVID-19 have meant some parts have become more realistic. In previous years, when someone got stuck or couldn't figure something out, you could walk into the tent and help them out. You cannot do that now, but participants now have to prepare better and work harder to problem solve any issues that they face," said Nicholas Lambert, NATO Response Force Service Management Authority Team Lead, NCI Agency.
Led by the Interoperability Test Director from the NCI Agency, all units and headquarters who took part in the exercise were required to conduct a setup and verification phase in their peacetime locations. A set of joining instructions, including a dedicated test programme was provided to all participants, requiring them to test and configure all of their equipment before connecting to any mission networks. This helped to minimize any time wasted at the beginning of the exercise.
Some 22 NATO Command Structure and NATO Force Structure units and headquarters participated in this year's exercise, involving an estimated 1,000 personnel at sites and units across Europe including both military and civilian. Approximately 300 staff from the NCI Agency have been involved in planning and supporting this exercise, with some remotely and some deployed.
By the end of the exercise, the mission network had all been tested and certified, giving the commanders of the NATO Response Force the confidence that their force is well on the way to becoming mission ready, and is able to deploy.