WASHINGTON — The future of European military power isn't in a next-generation jet or a specialized unmanned system, according to a pair of top incoming NATO officials. Instead, the future is in that nebulous, if crucial, technology commonly referred to as the cloud.

Gen. Denis Mercier, who will soon shortly depart his post as chief of staff of the French Air Force to become the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation at NATO, said European forces and their US ally need to focus on networking systems together to keep up with current and future threats.

"The future combat system is not an aircraft," Mercier said at an April 29 media briefing. "It is a C4ISR [system] with the cloud ID and platforms that are either piloted or unpiloted. We will have to be able to link on this. This is what we have to be able to build for the future, but we have to start it now."

The idea of a combat cloud – essentially the ability to link various assets up together and have them share information – is not a new one. Indeed, many militaries have been experimenting with it for years. But when it comes to NATO, there are extra complications given the vast number of airplanes and sensors being used, replete with different tactics and procedures.

Getting those to all work together in a cloud-based architecture involves means developing interoperability among NATO partners – Doing so is both a technological and political challenge, said David Deptula, a retired three-star with the US Air Force who now runs the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

"We're still having difficulty sharing levels of classification with countries that have already been approved … the bureaucracy gets in the way, and we have to get past that," he said. "The technical side is, if we're flying in a coalition activity that has Rafales, Typhoons, F-22s, F-16s, how do we do that? How do we share the sensor information that is gathered on one of those planes with all the rest?"

While existing systems like Link 16 provide some of that capability, they are quickly being overwhelmed dwarfed by the sheer volume and kinds of data that are collected by modern jets. And while those systems will be around for a while, the work needs to begin soon on developing replacements, Deptula said.

A key will be development of for both the technical and political problems lies in developing what Deptula called a "multilevel security" system that automatically identifies the relationship between two nations and acts accordingly.

For example, imagine a US F-35 that collects high-end sensor data. The data may be safe to transmit to a UK partner, but not to a Romanian jet nearby; the security system would automatically understand that and control the flow of information.

Mercier said that having flexible security levels with data links will be "absolutely important" for an interoperable combat cloud so in order to allow each nation can maintain its own sovereignty. But at the same time, he said, that challenge should not be an excuse not to develop the technology further.

Mercier said that pushing an interoperable combat cloud that can tie together different systems is a priority for him as he heads to NATO.

"In my next job, I think this is something we will promote within NATO, because we have to be sure that if we go this way – and I am very convinced this is the right way to go – we have to work on the interoperability," he said.

When Mercier arrives at NATO, he will inevitably end up working with Alan Shaffer on that very issue. Shaffer, the principal deputy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense Research and Engineering at the Pentagon for the last seven years, is moving this summer will become to become the director at the NATO Collaboration Support Office.

Like Mercier, Shaffer emphasized the necessity of interoperability that for any NATO cloud-based system to work. for NATO, it has to have serious interoperability baked in.

"NATO has to bring together weapons and platforms from 28 nations," he said in a May 4 interview. "Fundamentally, more than anything else, NATO needs interoperability, it needs defined standards so we can pass data very quickly between NATO countries."

The US has a leading role to play in developing these systems, Shaffer said.

"We are still the largest military in the world," he noted. "So basically, if we go in that direction, as long as we are open about it, other nations will try to follow it because they get more bang for the buck being able to interoperate with us.

"It is in our best interest that to those nations be able to come and operate with us," he added. "So yes, we should take the lead where applicable."

However, that doesn't mean this should be a US product that is then pushed out to the NATO partners with limited input.

"It could be something that NATO drives, at least conceptually," Deptula said. "With the globalization of technology, the US in the past had to be the driver. It does not necessarily have to be that now."

Deptula said it was "exciting" to hear how Mercier has already begun implementing his vision of cloud computing and decentralized control through operations in Africa. Eventually he wants to see it tied into all aspects of military warfare, but for now the Air Force has the lead.

"Speaking simply from what I see in France, the other services are not ready to do that. What I am telling the chief of the Defense Staff is let us go this way, the Air Force, and we will prove that it works and we will keep working with the other services on this issue," Mercier said.

"There are difficulties and there are going to be complications. But with that said, if you look at the world now, technology and information is a global commodity," Shaffer said. "If we cut ourselves off from the global marketplace in the name of national security, then we are either going to have to spend a hell of a lot more money or we are going to see some of our capability advantage erode."

"At some point, we are going to have to be willing to take risk to be able to operate in that world," he added. "I think that is a very important nuance."

Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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