Improving Training at NATO a Bureaucracy, not Technology Problem

By Sean Carberry

Air Force photo

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — And then there were 31. The ranks of NATO grew with the recent addition of Finland, and while bigger might be better from a security standpoint, it makes the challenge of realizing the next generation of modeling and simulation for joint training that much more complicated, officials say.

While NATO has legacy simulators, building a persistent, synthetic training environment for geographically separated commands requires agreement on standards and protocols, which is not easy to achieve in a large, deliberative organization, NATO officials said during interviews at the IT2EC conference in Rotterdam.

“The big simulations we use for exercises are capabilities that were started to be developed 30 to 40 years ago,” said U.S. Army Col. Mark Madden, head of NATO’s modeling and simulation learning technologies branch. “They’re very specific in what they can do. And what we need to do in NATO is we need to move on beyond just having a capability for one thing and a capability for something else.”

Today, NATO members have a range of simulation systems and tools that don’t interconnect or represent the full picture of current, let alone future, warfare, he said.

NATO networks can link live ranges to vehicle simulators or indoor tactical simulation systems to facilitate joint training, said Wim Huiskamp, scientific advisor to NATO’s modeling and simulation coordination office.

“Constructive simulations are sometimes added to the game to, for example, play the opponents, and they are sometimes fully autonomous, or they have like an instructor or role player that gives some directions every now and then to the computer-generated players,” he said.

“But it’s very much ad hoc,” he said. “So, we plan for an exercise, it takes quite a long time, you do the exercise, and then you tear down everything. And then next time around, you basically start from scratch again. It needs to be a persistent capability, persistent network, between the nations.”

“Persistent” is one of the key requirements of NATO’s Next Generation of Modelling and Simulation program. Other requirements are web-enabled, modular architecture, data-centric and a single synthetic environment, according to slides presented at the conference.

Madden stated that the future tool needs to not just run exercises, but have planning and wargaming capabilities, facilitate experimentation and work into what NATO calls “strategic studies.”

“When I talk about exercise planning, there are lots of tools out there,” he said. “Some of them are here today. … There are tools in nations right now that have that planning tool. And they’re building that integrated piece into a simulation as well.

“So, I haven’t seen it fully put together yet, but there are definitely industry and nations that are close to actually having that whole piece together,” he said.

Putting it all together, building the next-generation modeling and simulation capability for joint training, is a journey NATO started in earnest in 2019, he said. The alliance developed a capability requirements brief, which NATO’s Military Committee is currently reviewing. The alliance has a $150 million pot of money allocated for the next 11 years.

While that isn’t much money compared to what the Defense Department is spending on simulated training capabilities, NATO doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, Madden said.

“I would venture to say that 90 percent of what we want already exists within industry or government capabilities,” he said.

“Where we get into the interesting part from a NATO perspective is that … there are unique things that NATO may need that a nation doesn’t,” he said. In such cases, it would have to turn to industry or a member government to have something built. “But we can’t build that until we understand what the architecture that we need is, because we have to be able to give the developers the parameters to how they build it.”

Madden noted how much more complicated it is to arrive at a NATO capability and architecture compared to a national one.

“We have to be able to model 31 different nations’ combat capabilities,” he said. For example, several NATO nations fly F-35s, but they differ in capabilities and parameters from the F-35s the United States flies, he noted.

“There are little nuances to each of those,” he continued. “But those parameters within the simulation are important that you’re not over replicating one nation or under replicating it.”

Which leads to another critical challenge for building a NATO simulation environment: agreeing on a data set.

“A lot of the nations have their data sets. And even though we’re in an alliance of 31 nations, not everybody shares all that information,” he said.  

“So, one of the complicated things we need to do, in my opinion, is get to a NATO data set that the 31 nations agree on is good enough to use for NATO replication of strategic studies or simulation capabilities.”

Another challenge of similar magnitude is agreeing on a common architecture so all nations can buy or build tools that can plug and play together, he said.

Currently, the simulations world only agrees that capabilities should be integrated, not how they should be integrated. The landscape resembles the Wild West, with industry, nations and military branches pursuing a range of protocols and architectures, he said. And not all nations are following the standards and protocols NATO has identified to this point, he added.

“But imagine the ability for someone like NATO to come out with an architecture … that says, ‘Hey, this is the architecture we have, this is what you need. So, if you want to use your national simulation to get into the event, this is how you need to build or change your current capability to be inherently interoperable,’” he said.

To get to that point, NATO is going to break the high-level requirements down to eight to 12 project proposals, said U.S. Army Maj. Stephen Nelson, program director for NATO Next Generation of Modelling and Simulation.

The first project is to build the data set, he said. “We also have a proof of concept that we’re going to develop to supply [a modeling and simulation] driven solution for NATO’s wargaming capability. … And we’re looking to demonstrate that for our stakeholders, that proof of concept in early 2024.”

Part of moving forward with that will involve modifying the U.S. foreign military sales case with NATO to get a government-off-the-shelf solution as the capability baseline, he said.

“The U.S. Joint Staff has used a company to develop a solution, but they own that solution,” he said. “So, ideally, we’ll amend the FMS case and get the Joint Training Tool as the baseline for NATO, and then build on top of that with some of the other solutions” that could come from U.S. or European companies.  

Going with a government solution for the overall architecture is also less expensive, Madden said. “If I need one uniqueness, some unique-ism for something that NATO needs, I can pay a developer or a nation to bring that into the eco-structure, the architecture of that capability. And it’s already integrated because you already know the architecture, and it’s built to specifics. So, it’s already interoperable. That’s really where we’re trying to go.”

And this gets back to the central challenge for NATO, agreeing on a common data set, on standards and protocols and on an architecture. Agreement doesn’t come easily for an organization of 31 nations with sovereign interests.

“I would say, right now the technology is there,” said Huiskamp. “The governance aspect is like 80 percent of the problem. And that’s what we’re working on. And that needs a change of mindset also.”

“Mindset” was another word frequently used by NATO officials at the conference.

“We need to get this sort of change of mindset, building more on the simulation capabilities, the technology that we already have, and nations are working on it,” he continued. “But NATO is a big beast. So, it’s moving relatively slowly, much more slowly than I think technology can already support.”

Italian Navy Rear Adm. Placido Torresi, deputy chief of staff joint force development at NATO Headquarters Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, said one of the barriers to progress is intellectual property rights.

“Nations tend to protect the standards of their own companies,” he said. “We need to overcome that. We need to be more flexible and generous as an alliance and make sure that we overcome the royalties, the industrial properties, to make sure the standards apply to whatever we produce,” he added.

“I will say in a very positive way that we are on the right path,” he said. “We are not there yet. But it has to do with the difficulties we have in applying new technologies, in buying new things, and acquiring new capabilities takes time.”

The war in Ukraine has added urgency, said John-Mikal Størdal, director of the NATO Science and Technology Organization’s collaboration support office.

“A major game changer is what we learn from Ukraine. And let’s say the need for speed and multi-domain operations, new ways to operate, how to use technology,” he said.

“And if this can bring us from a situation where we are in, let’s say, deep peace to be more agile, I think that will also help in this area, because these things are not new. But we need to start moving,” he said.

Topics: Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Internation Cooperation