Virtual is a Virtue

Steadfast Cobalt
This year’s NATO Steadfast Cobalt exercise took place primarily in the virtual domain; a trend likely to continue into the near future.

Despite the pandemic NATO puts alliance and member communications systems through their paces.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) rounded off its STEADFAST COBALT exercise in late April. The exercise was hosted by NATO’s Communication and Information Agency. The exercise was mounted to ensure alliance and member Communications and Information Systems (CIS) can support the NATO Response Force (NRF). The NRF comprises sea, land, air and cyber forces capable of short notice deployment.

NATO’s CIS include the alliance’s Deployable CIS Module (DCIS). The DCIS deploys with the NRF. At the heart of the DCIS is Thales’ Firefly DROP (DCIS Points of Presence) architecture. DROP nodes allow communications between deployed NRF forces and back to NATO command. This is achieved with line-of-sight and beyond line-of-sight communications. NATO says DROP units also provide cloud-based services, email, text messaging and office applications.

A NATO spokesperson told Armada that this year’s exercise took place in both virtual and physical settings. They said that “during missions and exercises, NATO forces are taking concrete actions to ensure that the (Covid-19) health crisis does not become a security crisis.” 14 nations participated in the recent exercise. They included Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey and the UK. All participated in a virtual fashion from their “national peacetime locations” the spokesperson added.

The participants used their own communications systems during the exercise. These were linked together to demonstrate and enhance interoperability. This is a top priority when several nations may be jointly collaborating in the NRF: “Strengthening our NRF mission network effectively with the latest network configurations standards is a top priority for the Alliance,” the spokesperson emphasised.

Next Steps

Over the long term, NATO expects to perform future Steadfast Cobalt exercises in the virtual domain. This is imperative. The alliance needs to be able to deploy and fight as efficiently in a pandemic as it would in normal times.

The spokesperson anticipates that ‘lessons learned’ for NATO communications doctrine could include fine-tuning protocols and configurations for remote communications units. Performing the exercise during a pandemic was an invaluable opportunity for NATO to assess the performance of the alliance’s communications systems in supporting the NRF in a restrictive context. There is no immediate sign of the pandemic’s retreat slowdown within many alliance’s members. Virtual exercises will continue to form an important part of NATO’s preparedness for some time to come.

by Dr. Thomas Withington