The planners of the NATO exercise Steadfast Cobalt 2020 were attending their final coordination meeting in March, in Italy, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
After last-minute flights back to their peacetime locations, the planners, from across the headquarters of the NATO Command Structure and units of the NATO Force Structure together with engineers from the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency, were faced with the need to make a decision to completely rethink how the exercise would be conducted.
Rapidly adapting to an unprecedented situation, they re-planned the exercise so that it could be conducted from participants' peacetime locations. Thanks to these efforts, Exercise Steadfast Cobalt 2020 is in progress.
Steadfast Cobalt 2020 could not be cancelled, because it is used to establish and test the systems the Commander needs to command and control the NATO Response Force in 2021, including the mission network. NATO Response Force 2021 will be on standby for potential missions next year.
"This exercise could not be cancelled or postponed to another year," said Nicholas Lambert, NATO Response Force Service Management Authority Team Lead. "The exercise is essential to NATO's defensive posture and to maintain its readiness to respond to crises."
The mission network needs to be prepared and tested to ensure it is "mission ready" before being used at the certification exercise Steadfast Jupiter Jackal 2020, and then placed on standby.
The NATO Response Force's mission network is made up of several networks provided by NATO, together with those provided by the national and multinational units and headquarters. This year each Nation is connecting to the network from their peacetime locations. NCI Agency engineers played a key role in developing a way forward for Steadfast Cobalt that would still maintain the way the systems would be configured in a real-life crisis scenario.
Cristina Palacios Camarero, the NCI Agency Director of Interoperability for Steadfast Cobalt, is leading the effort to provide the Commander of the Response Force with a systems assessment, which requires more than 12,000 tests this year.
"This target is proving to be very challenging to achieve, as participants are dispersed across all Europe," Palacios Camarero said. "Our processes also have to be drastically readjusted. We are accustomed to placing all of the testing staff in one big room to improve communication and foster human interoperability. This was not possible this year, so we moved all our processes to a virtual setting."
Palacios Camarero manages a team of subject matter experts that assist with the planning, execution and reporting phases of the exercise. To take advantage of every minute of testing time available, the team used a phased approach to test the mission network.
"The last couple of years we put a lot of effort in designing a more consistent and repeatable way of performing these interoperability assessments," Palacios Camarero said.
In addition to developing the design and issuing joining instructions for the network federation, the Agency also helps the National units resolve any issues during the exercise.
"In this remote setting there is no possibility to go simply to the tent of the unit and talk directly to them or have a look to their systems," said Mareno Ackermann, Deputy Head for the Engineering, Scientific and Exercises Section at the NCI Agency.
The Agency's Mission Support Services Group also plays an important role in the exercise, supporting certain NATO applications used during the exercise. The group supports technical teams in the majority of NATO operations and exercises all year round.
"Support for Steadfast Cobalt begins at the planning and design phase, a year before the execution," said Tibor Kruty, the NCI Agency's Mission Support Services Group Head. "Our missional thinking allows us to remain operationally focused even amidst COVID-19. Nevertheless, the pandemic has changed how we work, where we work and how we communicate."
Steadfast Cobalt 2020 is also testing two new capabilities, including one that provides satellite communications with links that are resistant to jamming conditions.
"This exercise is not only important for testing the systems, but for encouraging human interoperability. It is critical that we exercise regularly together to ensure we can work effectively as one NATO team," said Ramunas Stankevicius, NCI Agency Project Manager for the exercise.