Put to the Test

NATO’s annual Steadfast Cobalt exercise tests an array of communications and information systems supporting the alliance’s response force.

The annual Steadfast Cobalt exercise tests the interoperability of military communications systems and networks supporting the NATO Response Force.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO’s) Reaction Force, better known as the NRF, is a multinational grouping comprising sea, land and air forces that can deploy quickly wherever needed. This year’s exercise kicked off on 11th April and will run until 5th May. According to a press release published by NATO, the exercise validates the connectivity and interoperability of participating NRF units. Participating units for this year’s exercise are drawn from the countries which will provide forces to the NRF in 2024. This includes France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom. Other NATO participants in the exercise are Belgium, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden and the United States. Several non-NATO partner nations are present as observers. Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Jordan, Sweden, Switzerland Tunisia, and Ukraine will be participating to this end. NATO expects an estimated 1,000 civilian and military personnel to support Steadfast Cobalt. What does the exercise test? Alliance members, and the alliance itself, use a bewildering array of tactical, operational and strategic communications. As NATO is a supranational organisation it is imperative these can all easily share traffic be that voice, data or imagery.

At its core, the exercise “gives an opportunity to connect systems and make sure that they are fully interoperable. It improves readiness and increases speed by ensuring that all contributing units are ready and prepared to deploy CIS (Communications and Information Systems) in support of NRF missions on land, in the air and at sea,” NATO told Armada in a written statement.

As with previous years, Steadfast Cobalt is performed in a virtual fashion. All units participate from various locations during all phases of the initiative without a specific host nation: “Participants will utilise their fielded deployable CIS capabilities in the same manner as they would if they were deploying on an actual mission.” This “allows us to train the same standards and multinational configurations” according to the security challenges the NRF maybe called upon to respond to.

During the exercise, participants’ communications and information systems “will be subjected to simulated jamming and cyberattacks,” and operationally evaluated and tested. The actual systems tested during the exercise include “national tactical, operational and strategic communications systems and networks.” These same capabilities are complemented by “NATO’s own dedicated communications networks.”

Onwards to Jupiter

Once the exercise concludes, “a team will analyse and assess lessons identified during execution.” NRF participants’ CIS systems will then be tested during NATO’s Steadfast Jupiter exercise later this year. This field exercise will evaluate these communications and information systems “within a contested and congested, denied and degraded environment,” the statement continued. “Additional lessons learned during the operational certification 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 2024.”

Given the heightened tensions NATO now faces following Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine in 2022 “it is imperative to ensure that networks are interoperable in peacetime, rather than finding out they do not during conflict,” the statement concluded.

NATO Steadfast Cobalt
This year’s Steadfast Cobalt exercise involved over 1,000 people and 15 participating NATO members. A further eight countries attended as observers.

by Dr. Thomas Withington