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06 16 2020

NATO tech agency supports maritime exercise during COVID-19

Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (STRIKFORNATO) executed the United States-led exercise known as Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) from 7 to 16 June 2020.

Even before the arrival of COVID-19, BALTOPS 20 was facing a daunting schedule. The health and safety concerns around COVID-19 necessitated a big change in plans, and the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency rose to the challenge to deliver the technology needed for the exercise.

NATO tech agency supports maritime exercise during COVID-19

"Part of the nature of BALTOPS is to be flexible, so we immediately revised our plan after STRIKFORNATO's operational decision to lead the exercise from the static headquarters at Oeiras, Portugal – rather than aboard a vessel at sea," said NCI Agency Project Manager Jeffrey Wilcox, Lieutenant Commander, US Navy. "This is the first BALTOPS to use this particular type of HQ."

Normally, the exercise is directed by personnel aboard the USS Mount Whitney, but there were space limitations onboard the vessel due to COVID mitigation procedures. Changing to a headquarters on land allowed for social distancing.

"This ability to push through a crisis demonstrates the true value of a close STRIKFORNATO – NCI Agency relationship," said LCDR Wilcox.

The Exercise Branch of Directorate Service Operations, in the NCI Agency, begins their role in exercises during the earliest planning conferences. The goal is to capture the intent of the exercise and determine what technical equipment, software and expertise will be needed. Different teams from across the Agency provided software and services, including cyber security, to the exercise participants.

In particular, the Agency's Communications and Information Systems Support Unit (CSU) in Lisbon led the support for the exercise. Artur Santos, the NCI Agency Exercise Coordinator, arranged and organized all of the many technical aspects of the exercise to ensure things ran smoothly.

"The Agency and its CSU in Lisbon were very flexible and even offered new services to enable home office interaction and added more tools for collaboration," Santos said.

One of those new tools was installed as a proof-of-concept for the exercise, and was a huge success. The tool supports real-time data exchange between various Command and Control elements, including navy vessels, NATO Airborne Early Warning (NAEW) aircrafts, headquarters and even fighter aircraft using standardized NATO data links.

Supporting the exercise from a static headquarters on land was not only a first necessitated by the crisis. It is also now a proof-of-concept for how exercises can be conducted in the future, if needed.

"The difference between afloat and ashore is quite obvious and was remarkable, right from the setup," Santos said. "A well-known working environment, already operational, made the build up a smooth process. Troubleshooting is also so much easier on the land environment, then being afloat."

Though the exercise isn't over yet, STRIKFORNATO is "already convinced" that operating from static headquarters works very well, said German Navy Commander Juergen Peter, Communications Information Systems Department Assistant Chief of Staff.

"This positive conclusion is to a good degree based on the Command and Control capabilities we set up together with the CSU," Commander Peter said. "The CSU Lisbon support is outstanding and based on long years of experience."

Every year, BALTOPS brings together people, ships, aircraft and submarines from across the NATO Alliance, as well as NATO's Partnership for Peace. BALTOPS has its long history, and this year's exercise was the 49th iteration.

"It has become one of the most powerful examples of multi-national maritime readiness within NATO, and even incorporates regional non-NATO partners as well," LCDR Wilcox said. "The exercise demonstrates interoperability, joint operations and agility in planning in a maritime environment."