Getting military forces from different nations to work together in Afghanistan is no easy task, but before multinational troops with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization arrive there, officers and others are often trained through an online Battle Labs computer simulation via the Internet.
The advanced online computer-simulation training, supported on a secure network hubbed through a classified link in Poland, gives participants a way to train in their own country before they arrive on the ground in Afghanistan.
The realistic interactive computer simulation, which can even create avatars of personnel, helps bring together hundreds of NATO staff who work in Afghanistan under the command of US Gen. Stanley McChrystal, says Rear Admiral Christian Canova, the French Navy officer who is deputy assistant chief of staff for future capabilities, research and technology at the NATO headquarters Allied Command Transformation.
The modelling and simulation through Battle Labs is just one way that networking and modern computer technologies are put to good use at NATO, the intergovernmental military alliance formed after World War II that counts more than two dozen nations as members.
Canova, who works with a dozen experts in various areas of research and technology to plan for future capabilities in NATO, thinks this era in some ways is proving more difficult than the long Cold War era, when NATO served mainly as a bulwark against Soviet Union expansionism.
"The Cold War threat was stable, the political guidance was stable," says Canova, who as a French naval officer spent 10 years in Combat Information Centres onboard destroyers involved in NATO operations and exercises during the Cold War and was eventually named a French liaison to NATO. He notes "the resources were high and the technology factor was mandatory," and industry responded with ever-newer high-tech advancements.
Today, the world is different, embroiled in an economic crisis that has led to shrinking budgets, and "the threats are diverse, there are regional conflicts," Canova says. This all contributes to what can seen as a more unstable environment for NATO to confront.
Military forces of nations are far more likely to acquire software off the shelf, but there are still significant obstacles in terms of interoperability when NATO has to grapple with. There's a need for greater interoperability in collecting and sharing intelligence assets collected by unmanned aerial vehicles, for example, Canova says, but NATO can't dictate to its membership what to do. "NATO cannot be prescriptive in asking countries to invest in specific technologies," Canova says.
But for Canova and his group in NATO's Future Capabilities Research and Technology arm, it's easy to envision a wish list where industry would focus on coming up with more powerful force-protection technologies, friend-foe systems and ruggedised and secure networking technologies for use in remote locations. In addition, modelling and simulation games are playing an increasingly important role in tactical training, and the NATO looks to input from academia on how to improve them.