Georges D'hollander discusses the work of the NATO C3 Agency at the agency's field office at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. (Ben Iannotta / Staff)
Georges D’hollander is leaving NATO after 10 years with the alliance, the last three spent as general manager of the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency.
D’hollander, a retired Belgian army major general, led NC3A through development of the Afghanistan Mission Network, a multinational information sharing initiative that challenged the allies to share intelligence they once guarded jealously.
D’hollander met with C4ISR Journal Editor Ben Iannotta and reporter Rupert Pengelley of Jane’s International Defence Review at the NC3A Field Office, a set of low-slung modular buildings located at the highly fortified Kandahar Airfield. D’hollander was in Kandahar in late May to meet with the agency’s staff one last time before his departure from NATO on July 1 – the end of his three-year term and the same day that the NATO C3 Agency was scheduled to be wrapped into a new organization, called the NATO Communications and Information Agency, or NCIA.
D’hollander talked a lot about the need for trust as Afghan forces take charge of their country, and NATO looks to its technology future, including implementation of its Smart Defence procurement initiative.
How do the three years that you’ve been general manager rank among on your career experiences?
It’s been the best period in my professional life. The most important thing for me is the quality of people you have in NATO. Sometimes it’s not always easy to lead them in some way because all of them have very good ideas. But it’s really a situation that we can only dream of.
In your visit here over the last week, what have you learned?
I have a very good view of how NATO, in its support to the Afghans, has developed, and how also we have improved certainly in the C4ISR area.
So how have the Afghans improved? Are they more technically savvy than they were?
I visited the CIS [Communications and Information Systems] School, and one of the messages that I received from the [Afghan] commander over there, is that he receives equipment mainly sponsored by the U.S., as we all know, but he doesn’t feel supported enough by his own government.
He would expect that they would send him young people, being aware or at least open for new technology, etc. On the contrary, he receives older people for whom really this is a revolution. I’m not sure whether they will be able to capture all the possibilities of the new technology. So that’s a lesson learned for us. And the kind of expression that I used in conversation with somebody this week is, “Do we realize enough that you can bring in the newest technology — somebody will always find the sponsor for doing this — but do you really then help them by doing this?”
What can you do to solve that problem?
They only can solve the problem.
What does the acronym AMN stand for? Is it Afghan Mission Network, which would imply the Afghans get it someday? Or is it the Alliance or Allied Mission Network, which implies it could apply in different geographies?
Well, it’s the Afghanistan Mission Network. I know that they call it Alliance Mission Network, and there is a good reason for it, but officially it’s the Afghanistan Mission Network.
Should AMN eventually go over to the Afghanistan government?
No, because it’s serving the current NATO headquarters, so it doesn’t make sense. Interoper-ability has always been an issue [within NATO] because all the capabilities are delivered by the nations, or a majority of the capabilities. Under the pressure of operations, you have to be very inventive and find solutions, and that’s what we did. That’s the Afghanistan Mission Network. But it’s not necessarily NATO who has to do that. Which brings us in terms of thinking to say, “Well, the model that we have now and deployed in Afghanistan could maybe serve as kind of model, or let us at least take the lessons learned.” That’s what we have demonstrated with the Afghanistan Mission Network. That’s why people start to say Alliance Mission Network. It could be the model for the alliance.
What happens to AMN after 2014?
I don’t know, and I can tell you that people don’t know. It’s the kind of question I also asked yesterday when we were still in Kabul, talking with the CJ6 [coalition communications chief] from IJC [International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan Joint Command]. I’m aware that in Chicago, nations have decided they will continue to support, but what it exactly means we don’t know.
There’s also support that’s purely sponsored by the U.S. for the moment to support what they have in the [Afghan] IT department. The ministry responsible for telecommunications in Afghanistan, which is the civilian part, [have been working] for some years building a fiber optic ring, which is physically following the highway we are building in Afghanistan.
But the ring is not closed yet. They cannot do it because of security reasons; because companies cannot go into the area, mainly in the southern part of Afghanistan. The aim is to use this fiber optic to connect then also their provinces.
If Afghanistan remains largely an agrarian society, is that compatible with a very high-tech information technology mission?
I think it is. And the reason why I say I think it is, because when you see people in the street in Kabul, one of two, they have a cellphone. The penetration of cellphones in the population is around 50 percent already. It’s huge.
Does that mean smartphones?
Yes. They buy the latest models here. They don’t buy those that we used 10 years ago.
How much is illiteracy a problem?
That’s a problem. I come back to the training issue. The methodology they use is not using papers, because they cannot read it, but using pictures and continuously repeating so that the picture — like you would operate a car or drive a car — instead of reading the manual, that’s not the way they work; they show the picture and say “That’s the button you have to touch.” People are clever enough, but literacy is an issue, that’s for sure. So it will take time.
What are some of the action items coming out of Chicago NATO summit that NC3A would need to work on?
First, all nations will withdraw their combat troops by the end of 2014, and it will start very soon. Support to Afghanistan will continue mainly in the area of training. There, I think, I hope and I feel confident, that the future [NATO] CI Agency will have a very important role. We could play a very important role in helping Afghanistan — bringing new technology [but] knowing and realizing that one should not push too much because they will not be able to follow. It will take time. Also to train people, to help them with applications that we can give them for their operations center. The other outcome is about capabilities. The initial operational capability for missile defense, the territorial missile defense, has been achieved. We have a program office for that. We as an agency are very proud that we could achieve this. Cyber defense continues to be important. By the end of the year, we [will] have the operational capability that we should have. We are doing things in record time, really.
In your three years, what are the things you are most proud of?
At the most strategic level, I would use the word trust, because it’s group work. Before I arrived in the agency, NATO agreed on the notion of, “Hey guys, now it’s time to share information and not to withhold information.” The next step is when Gen. McChyrstal was commander of ISAF, McChrystal realized here in Afghanistan that he needed to share information. I was part of the network-enabled capabilities story since 2002, and I was also part of the people implementing this through the capabilities we have in theater now. You can only do that if there is trust.
So you were there from the beginning of AMN?
That is correct. The pure requirement [for the] Afghanistan Mission Network was initiated; it was triggered, the requirement was triggered by Gen. McChyrstal. We were there to realize it.
I still find it strange that where the Afghans are notionally in command, and there are kinetic operations going on, there remains a disconnect in the network.
We are still providing the glue for them.
Is there no intention of bringing them more closely together?
I don’t know, to be honest, but I would hope that this would be part of what’s agreed in Chicago. The nations agreed we need to continue to support them, but at the moment, it doesn’t exist.
Currently, information is shared between ISAF and the Afghan Army. We — NATO — we have liaison teams in their national operational center, which I visited also. And what was not the case a year and a half ago is that they, too, have a liaison team in the operational center of IJC. There’s no real electronic connectivity. The two networks are not connected — for reasons of security, I would imagine — but my hope would be that more and more, we should be connected. The key word is trust.
Is trust really on the rise if you have these green-on-blue incidents?
I think so. By exchanging now already these liaison teams, this is a first step and an important step.
What is Smart Defence, and how does it affect NC3A or the merged organization?
The idea is that what you cannot afford yourself as a nation; if you combine with other nations, you can maybe now afford that capability. They [at NATO] are saying, “Well, is it necessary that all nations should have this capability? We are an alliance. We should trust each other.” If we have one nation that is developing this capability — counter-[improvised explosive device] or whatever — that nation will offer this capability. That has a highly political dimension because, again, it’s trust: You can be in situations where not all the NATO members agree on operations. [If the disagreeing nation] is the sole provider of that capability that you need, then you have a problem, of course.
The idea which was brought to the table already in Lisbon and discussed between the two summits in Lisbon and Chicago, is to ask a nation to be the lead nation [for a particular capability]. I understand this notion at the political level, but when it comes to real execution, then in my view it’s better to use a third party for doing this. It’s also again related to trust. If a lead nation would also be responsible for implementing the capability, there is a risk that nations will use their own national [industrial] capabilities for doing that, their own national procurement agency. Then there is risk that another nation will not have sufficient trust in this capability to join the multinational initiative. You could have politically, a lead nation, yes, but my plea to the [secretary general] and to NATO and to nations is to use a NATO agency to be the executive agent for doing that.