Zero Day, Plug and Play

NATO’s 2022 STEADFAST COBALT exercise kicked off in May. The month-long initiative will test the communications networks supporting NATO’s Response Force.

As far as codenames for military exercises are concerned, they don’t come much better than STEADFAST COBALT.

Starting on 16th May STEADFAST COBALT tests the interoperability of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) communications. Specifically, it focuses on communications systems and networks supporting the alliance’s NRF (NATO Response Force). The NRF is a multinational force comprising sea, land and air forces that can deploy quickly wherever needed.

As one can image, with Ukraine tragically aflame, this year’s effort has added resonance. STEADFAST COBALT is no stranger to strategic dislocation. Last year’s exercise was, for the first time, held virtually, the Covid-19 pandemic pre-empting the alliance’s course of action. In the words of a NATO press release “The NRF is deployed to respond to crises or incidents”. Crises and incidents are seldom more complex than the pandemic. Crucially, this virtual approach relied on satellite communications and extended backhaul networks, much as it would in the ‘real world’.

Run the numbers

This year’s STEADFAST COBALT once again occurs in the virtual realm, but this makes it no less less impressive scope. The numbers speak for themselves. According to an alliance press release, 34 NATO units and headquarters from across the alliance will participate. These include elements from NATO’s command structure. Up to 1,000 personnel from NATO’s 2023 NRF contributing nations are taking part. The exercise is led by NATO’s Communications and Information Systems (CIS) group and is taking place in Naples, southern Italy and Bydgoszcz, northern Poland.

The press release continued that up to 8,000 separate tests will be performed during the exercise. In addition, 280 staff and experts from the CIS group assisted the planning, preparation and execution of the month-long exercise.

What will STEADFAST COBALT test? Unsurprisingly, NATO is completely reliant on communications to ensure the NRF can perform its missions. Alliance members, and the alliance itself, use a bewildering array of tactical, operational and strategic communications networks. As NATO is a supranational organisation it is imperative these can all easily share traffic, be that voice, data or imagery. It is important to ensure that networks all mesh nicely in peacetime, rather than finding out they do not in a crisis.

During the exercise, NATO’s Mission Network Service Management Authority (MNSMA), furnished by the NCIA, connects national communications systems into NATO’s networks. It would perform the same role during war or crises. This process is facilitated using the MNSMA’s Federated Mission Network framework.

Networking event

“We test deployable and static communications systems and networks,” Colonel Murat Özkılıç, NATO CIS group J3 exercise branch head and STEADFAST COBALT 2022 exercise director, told Armada. This can include everything from tactical Very/Ultra High Frequency (V/UHF: 30 megahertz/MHz to three gigahertz/GHz) networks used by individual armies up to strategic systems like NATO’s Sixth-Generation SATCOM Services. Thrown into this mix are multinational NATO networks like the Link-11 (2MHz to 29.9MHz, 225MHz to 399.975MHz) and Link-16 (960MHz to 1.215GHz) tactical datalinks. Alliance warfighting waveforms like SATURN (Second Generation Anti-Jam Tactical UHF Radio for NATO: 30MHz-400MHz) and HAVEQUICK-I/II (225MHz-380MHz) are also put through their paces. Col. Özkılıç pointed out that STEADFAST COBALT is an all-domain exercise encompassing sea, land, air, cyber and space assets.

Col. Özkılıç says these different networks will connect upwards to NATO’s Combat Cloud. This allows nations to control their networks while sharing traffic between themselves via the cloud. This is a key part of the exercise ensuring that NATO and its members can connect virtually in wartime. The goal is “zero day, plug and play,” says Col. Özkılıç meaning that NATO and its members should be able to instantly connect and operate seamlessly.

Off to Jupiter

Once STEADFAST COBALT is completed the focus will shift toward drawing lessons from the exercise. The network architecture forged as a result will then be stress tested. This will occur during a follow-on exercise codenamed STEADFAST JUPITER to occur six months hence. Further lessons learned from this exercise will be folded back into the network architecture. Once this process is complete, the architecture will be declared fit and ready to support the NRF in 2023.

by Dr. Thomas Withington