NATO Allies Get on Same Page During Biggest Exercise

By Sean Carberry

Sean Carberry photo

This is part of a multi-story series on the future of NATO as it marks its 75th anniversary.

BEMOWO PISKIE, Poland — The nation of Murinus has invaded Poland. Task Force Dragoon, comprising U.S. and NATO forces across Germany, Poland and Lithuania, is combating the lead battalion of the enemy force.

Three U.S. Army Apache helicopters emerge from the tree line behind the Red Diamond range in northeastern Poland. They launch a barrage of rockets and chain gun rounds on simulated targets hundreds of yards across the vast, muddy field.

As the echoes of chain gun fire fade into the raw air, booms from the guns of U.S. Abrams tanks and Strykers, German and Polish tanks and Italian infantry fighting vehicles rattle the eardrums and chests of onlookers gathered at the range.

The Apaches return and add to the cacophony of NATO integrated fires pounding the simulated forces from Murinus.

Maj. Jamie Holm, regimental fire support officer and lead of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment’s innovations cell, summarizes the live fire exercise to the senior officers from NATO nations watching in the control tower at the range.

“Through the scaling of the mission partner network, the forward land force brigade achieved a remarkable feat: the creation of a unified common operating picture,” he said, standing before an array of screens displaying drone feeds and battlefield and command data from positions in Germany, Poland and Lithuania.

“This achievement enables the synchronization of complex fires and maneuver actions, empowering the allied force to maximize effects downrange and operate as a unified and interoperable force,” he continued.

The April event was part of two overlapping exercises, Holm explained in an interview. Saber Strike, a recurring U.S. Army-led exercise to show presence in the region, started with U.S. and German forces conducting a tactical road march from Germany to Poland and eventually to Lithuania.

The objective of the other exercise, Griffin Shock, was to expand a NATO combat battalion into a forward land force brigade to conduct combined operations. Both exercises fell under the umbrella of NATO’s Steadfast Defender 2024, the alliance’s largest exercise since the Cold War.

For all the drama on the range, the real action was in a nearby tent. There, members of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment scurried about with troops from NATO nations and coders and techs from Palantir, Klas, Booz Allen, Juniper Networks and other companies. They were operating and refining the technologies that allowed allies to share a common operating picture and communicate in their own languages through real-time translation tools.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Payton Baker, targeting officer in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment innovations cell, said the experimental applications and hardware were designed to have NATO allies and partners able to plug in and interoperate on day zero of an exercise, or a conflict.

“What we found is we’re not going to have the space and the time to show up in a time of crisis and consolidate and spend weeks trying to get all of our systems to talk,” he said. “We have to build combat power en route and show up and quickly be able to perform whatever tasks that we might be asked to perform.”

The primary solution 2nd Cavalry Regiment brought to the exercise to get U.S., Polish, Italian, Spanish, Croatian and other troops on the same operating page was the Mission Partner Kit, which included portable Radio Integrated Communications Suite boxes — used to connect radios and provide cloud-enabled, real-time translation — and smartphones.

“We give them essentially … four apps — it provides persistent chat, persistent voice, collaboration tools and then the [Tactical Assault Kit] software,” Baker said. All the apps run on Palantir’s Tactical Mission Data Platform, which provides a common operating picture and functions as a data ingestion tool that integrates with program-of-record systems like the Army’s Integrated Tactical Network.

“Think about all the data the Army generates in general, most of it is unstructured and takes staff members hours of work to be able to put this on Excel documents and PowerPoints,” Baker said. The Tactical Mission Data Platform, or TMDP, allows data ranging from position location information of U.S. and allied forces to logistics and maintenance reports to ammunition levels to be collated in one place.

Holm said the ability to ingest and tag data from chats and log reports directly into the common operating picture facilitates better decision-making.

“When we do meetings, it’s less about reporting ‘I’ve got X of Y vehicles,’ and that’s just known,” he said. “And we can spend time talking about, ‘Here’s a decision I want to make, here’s my reasoning for it,’ which is what commanders should be spending time talking about.”

The 2nd Cavalry Regiment is heavily supporting the testing and development of interoperable technology under the U.S. Army Europe and Africa headquarters’ data-driven warfare initiative and its four pillars of becoming more survivable, interoperable, data-enabled and predictive, Baker added.

Capt. James O’Keefe, the regiment’s assistant S2, explained that TMDP operates at the unclassified level on program-of-record Army computers and also personal devices and can update in real time through “live layers,” he said.

“That means that if somebody else … in a different command post is working on the movement and maneuver map, when they make a change, it’s brought automatically into our common operational picture,” he continued. “You don’t have to dig into the shared drive, find version 17 and get somebody to update all 50 graphics.”

“That synchronization is small, but huge in terms of how much time and button clicking” is eliminated, he said.

Holm said Griffin Shock 24 built on last year’s exercise that had early versions of some of the interoperability tools. “We weren’t able to scale it at that level yet. … But we had a clear idea coming out of it what we’re going to need. So, we’ve spent a year working on that.”

The result was the proliferation of the Mission Partner Kits and Radio Integrated Communications Suite boxes that convert radio signals to internet protocol, which extends range and facilitates translation so troops can speak in their own languages.

The 2nd Cavalry Regiment provided the Germans with the Mission Partner Kits before they started their road march to Poland, Holm said.

“We’re obviously seeing our own existing position location information. We’re seeing theirs as well and greatly aided the ability to control their movement here. And when we arrived, we distributed those kits to the Spanish, the Italians and the NATO battle group here,” he said. “Everybody we gave it to absolutely loved it.”

One Polish officer, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of his position, confirmed that assessment.

“We know the movement of troops, and the situational awareness increased,” he said. “I think this system is a great improvement for the tactical level where the speed of information is crucial.”

The Mission Partner Kits are still a work in progress, officers said, noting that the first iteration the regiment received last November needed a lot of development. That’s why so many civilians from the vendors were on site during the exercise to continue troubleshooting and expanding the capabilities of the tools. The goal is to minimize the need to have contractors near the front lines, O’Keefe said.

“In terms of the close fight, I think we’re already close to the capability of not needing to have vendors there,” he said. “But they’re always going to be involved because there’s no end state where this tool or this collection of tools just stops development.”

Nor does the Army want to be tied to a particular contractor, he added.

“We’ve always got new vendors coming in who are looking to incorporate new tools. Even out here while we’re doing Saber Strike, we’re already looking on to subsequent and secondary and third objectives after Saber Strike,” he said, adding that large language models are of particular interest.

Another key focus is looking at “code as infrastructure,” he said. That means moving away from the approach of “you are getting a bespoke device, you are getting it from this particular vendor to perform this function. And then your command post is full of 30 different kinds of computers for all these different functions that you have to perform.

“We’re bringing it down to one device where we’ve got either thin clients or applications that are fulfilling those needs. And what that means is that the contractor can do a lot of support outside of being physically there,” he said.

That was another central aspect of Saber Strike and Griffin Shock, the officers said: reducing electronic signature and moving command posts outside of enemy reach.

“The regimental enabling command posts for this operation, they’re still in Germany,” O’Keefe said. “And there’s really no limitation on where we want to put them.”
It’s just a matter of having internet connectivity — whether through commercial internet, 5G, Starlink or Army satellite communications, he said.

Lt. Gen. Charles Costanza, who took command of Army V Corps shortly before the exercise, said the interoperability on display, with a U.S. cavalry squadron conducting operations with a brigade in Lithuania, another squadron operating in Poland’s Suwalki Gap and the live fire exercise in Bemowo Piskie, was his biggest takeaway.

“It’s 11 different countries that have been involved in this exercise,” he said. “The way they’ve done that is that the 2nd Cavalry Regiment has figured out how to get all the different multinational systems to actually at least form a common operational picture, they all have the same view” and the ability to communicate.

“I think that’s a great starting point. We know there are some things we’ve still got to work on,” he continued. “The logistics systems — we’ve got to get … those to communicate, we know it, and we’re working on that. And same thing with the air picture. So, with the multinational systems right now, some of them can talk to each other, some of them can’t.”

O’Keefe said one priority going forward will be getting TMDP operating at the classified level. And Holm said there is more work to do with the translation tools.

“We should have spent more time configuring the expected set” of translation protocols before the exercise, he said. “We didn’t really get a handle on what we needed until we got here. And so going back with the developer and having them make the corrections for that got us to be able to do basic translations, but it wasn’t as much as we could have had.”

Still, immediate reviews of the exercise and the interoperability tools were positive, he said.

“And an example of some degree of success — the Germans wanted to keep the Mission Partner Kits because it was useful for them. OK, probably some indicator that it’s better than unnecessary junk,” he said. ND

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Topics: International