Center for Strategic Decision Research



Does NATO Meet the Challenge of the Information Era?

Lieutenant General Ulrich Wolf
Director, NATO CIS Service Agency

Before I start with my remarks, I think I should explain the perspective from which I deliver them: As the Director of NATO’s Communications Agency I am responsible for the provision of communications support to NATO’s static and deployed command structure. This brings me in close contact with the political and policy authorities in Brussels as well as with the operational commanders and planners.


When I first saw the topic of this panel, I thought that we had missed a question mark at the end. However, I am convinced that no one in this room is in any doubt that NATO is on the move into the information era. The recent organisational restructure of the Alliance has even created its own strategic headquarters with the one and only aim to manage the transformation of the Alliance into the future.

Therefore, what I would like to do in my remarks is to answer the question of whether or not NATO really meets the challenge of the information era and, if not, what should be done to bring it up to standard.

I think there is no need to underline again and again that the most important feature of today’s defence planning and running operations is decision superiority based on information superiority. This aim is laid down in the Bi-SC Strategic Vision as well as in all publications related to NATO Network Enabled Capability (NNEC). Information superiority needs to be based on a capable and secure communications network utilised to its full capabilities by users who fully understand the game of effective networking. This applies to governments, humanitarian organisations, and civilian companies as well as to military structures in peace and operations.

The main characteristics of the information domain are high-speed technical developments and hard competition between security measures and cyber attack.


At first glance, the situation is not so bad:

NATO has a communications network, which spans the static Headquarters structure as well as the current operational areas worldwide. There is a Consultation, Command, and Control (C3) organisation in place, which manages requirements, developments, implementation, and control of the physical dimension of information support.

Part of this is a developing capability in cyber defence. The Alliance has a published Vision and Concept for Network Enabled Capability (March 2006). There is a huge potential for synergy to be drawn from the experience and efforts of the 26 member-nations. This is one of the reasons NATO is of high interest to the communications industry, despite its limited equipment. NATO sets standards as a prerequisite for interoperability and most importantly the Alliance has success in operations.

However, a second look from an insider’s perspective reveals some serious weaknesses:

NATO lacks some of the necessary flexibility, speed, aggressiveness, and resources and the appropriate level of common interest, which might endanger successful transition into the information era. This may sound a bit too harsh a criticism. It needs to be explained:

Although we have made considerable progress in speeding up the development and procurement process, in particular in the field of meeting urgent requirements of current operations, it has to be said that NATO’s bureaucracy is still too slow in bringing operational speed and the necessary communication support fully in line.

The planning and decision making process is still very much geared to the procedures that grew over decades of successful deterrence. This leads to procurement circles, which produce communications equipment designed up to ten years before introduction into service. This is one of the reasons why NATO’s standard communications software is on the average two generations behind the actual versions.

Strict risk avoidance rather than risk management mainly drives NATO’s information security regulations. In addition to that is the transition from the traditional “need to know” to the network enabling “need to share” culture severely hampered by the complicated structure of the information security community of the Alliance. This results in three or more physically separated communications networks: NATO Secret, NATO Restricted, NATO Unclassified, and Mission Secret for integrating Non-NATO-Members into an operation —certainly not a suitable environment for efficient networking and collaboration, in particular with industry and non-governmental organisations.

NATO’s basic rule for providing resources is the minimum military requirement. This needs to be agreed to unanimously by 26 nations, all of which have their own understandable political and economical interests. This approach works reasonably well as long as the Alliance is predominantly involved in peacekeeping and relatively low-intensity operations. However, we will face considerable difficulties in a high-intensity environment if we plan only for the minimum instead of robust support with sufficient reserves for the unpredictable.

A difference between the operational level of ambitions and the provision of the necessary resources was to a certain extent acceptable during the deterrence-based Cold War but it cannot be afforded anymore if one strives for information superiority today and even more in the future.

An example of the deficiencies of the Alliance is the manning situation within the NATO’s communications support organisation. Based on the minimum military requirement commonly agreed to by the nations in 2005 it should have about 3.700 personnel. About 1,100 of them have not yet been provided.

At this stage, I should avoid painting the situation too much in black and white. We have developed an interim solution for the communications support of NATO’s response force, which was operational after less than one year. The Alliance is currently taking a second look into its level of ambition and new priorities in communications support. A solution for the manning problems is currently under revision within the relevant committees in Brussels. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of room for improvement.


I have five suggestions to make:

  • We need to strengthen the common interest of the Alliance and reduce the influence of national interests and agendas.
  • We need to invest! Why not reverse the rule of minimum military requirement to an approval of a maximum operational requirement that incrementally can be adapted to the actual needs?
  • We need to share! The technically most sophisticated communications system is not efficient if the users do not share all of the necessary information. This is in particular true in the fields of intelligence and cyber-defence. The latter is a good example of a chance for a new kind of partnership between the military and industry. For the security of our networks, we all have to fight the same enemy. There is an opportunity for cooperation beyond commercial interest but of mutual benefits.
  • We need to implement! The Alliance is always in danger of missing the point where concepts need to be translated into action. NATO’s Network Enabled Capability may serve as an example. The concept has been developed; we should now utilise the NRF as a catalyst to realise practicable solutions, which drive network development from the bottom up. Let’s find, for example, for each rotation of the force, technical solutions for the communication interfaces between NATO and national force contributions, which are still on a swivel-chair basis. This could be a common project for nations, industry, and NATO.
  • We need to reform the planning, development, and procurement process of the Alliance. There must be a solution that efficiently combines national interests, budget control, and operational requirements. This is of particular relevance in the fields of information technology and communications support.
  • NATO has great potential to master the challenges of the information era. It just has to be utilised a bit more efficiently.


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