As Montenegro became NATO's newest Member Country this June, the NCI Agency connected the Balkan Nation to the rest of the Alliance.
It was the Agency's responsibility to ensure that Montenegro's capital Podgorica would have a direct link to NATO's political and operational hubs, the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, and Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium.
Jonathan Copner, who managed the 'CIS for Montenegro Accession' project, explained that every new Ally is offered a 'Welcome Package' when they gain membership. This includes basic CIS capabilities that are required to participate in NATO consultations.
However, Montenegro was a special case. "Most of the Nations that have joined so far have had their own national capabilities, and all we have done is establish a gateway to allow their secret networks to interconnect with NATO, and then they handled the rest of it.
Montenegro is slightly different. Being a small Nation, it doesn't currently have its own secret network capabilities. So we proposed a multiple phase approach for Montenegro."
Sharing NATO expertise
The Agency provided a basic secret Communications and Information System (CIS) to Montenegro, as well as two Air Command and Control capabilities integrating NATO's new member in the Allied air picture.
"The first phase was to simply extend NATO services, to provide them with a basic capability. So, we didn't interconnect their own networks, what we did was extend NATO's secret network to a limited number of positions in Montenegro within the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and their Air Operations Centre."
It only took several weeks for the 29th Ally to be ready to participate in NATO consultations, but the Agency's support didn't end there. NATO's newest member is already preparing a request to extend this initial setup with further workstations and sites.
"The Welcome Package was funded by NATO, but Montenegro is responsible for paying the Agency's ongoing support costs. So, NATO paid for the entry points, but all further capability development will be funded by the Nation itself.
When conditions are right and when Montenegro is ready to support its own national secret network, the Agency will deliver the second phase of the project.
This will allow Montenegro to transition to the model used by other NATO Nations.
For now we have no anticipated date for the second phase, we will take our cue from the Nation."
The Project Team has been working with Montenegro since last year to ensure a smooth transition from Partner to Member Country.
"My first involvement with Montenegro was in September 2016, with initial site surveys and participation in an ongoing Accession and Integration Working Group. These Working Group meetings have been taking place throughout the last two years, and will continue after the accession, because
it is not only about establishing Montenegro within NATO, but also looking at developing their capabilities, and integrating them as they move forward. Accession is only the first step of that",
Mr Copner added.
"We received the project authorization in November 2016, and delivered the CIS required for accession ahead of the formal ceremony. The project was delivered on time and within budget."
Montenegro became a full member on 7th June 2017, but the journey of defence capability development is just beginning.
"It became clear that we needed to share with Montenegro our experience and NATO's best practices for protecting CIS, in terms of understanding the NATO policies and procedures for secure networks.
We have spent a lot of time working together on the procedural level. A representative of Allied Command Operations and myself headed back to Montenegro on the week of their accession to ensure that all went smoothly and to be certain that, before the secure networks went live, all of NATO's various security requirements were met."