STUTTGART, Germany — NATO is on a time crunch to develop new cloud technologies to help set interoperability standards for its members’ own nascent computing infrastructures.

One of NATO’s core duties has long been to establish technology standards and ensure interoperability across its member nations. Traditionally, that manifested in areas such as radio frequencies or data protocols. But with recent advances in cloud computing and storage in the private sector, the alliance also needs to move quickly to ensure standardization in that technological domain.

NATO members France, German and the United States began fielding their own strategies and directives for using artificial intelligence. Cloud technologies will enable AI systems, and achieving results in cloud platforms “can help accelerate AI development and use,” said Erica Pepe, a senior coordinator for research and a conflict, security and development analyst at the International Institute for Security Studies in London, England.

“Member nations are developing their own artificial intelligence strategies, and NATO plays an important role in establishing interoperability standards. In this context, showing results quickly is important for NATO to give a common direction,” Pepe said.

The field is already becoming ever cloudier, with countries setting up their own cloud-enabled technology hubs and joint-European programs developing separate combat-driven systems, such as the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System program.

Observers say these systems will need to be interoperable if they are to provide a full range of capabilities, and they see NATO as the natural lead to develop common standards across its members’ individual efforts.

NATO is well aware of its need to embrace cloud technologies and move ahead on tangible efforts — defense leaders were heralding its importance for in-theater operations back in 2015.

Since then, the alliance has invested in multiple cloud-enabled technologies — much of which remained in research and testing phases — and has begun developing policies and strategies to define NATO’s stake in this technology.

“We already have a cloud-first strategy in NATO. Now we need to live it and adopt it,” NATO Communications and Information Agency General Manager Kevin Scheid said at the alliance’s June 2020 virtual discussion on cloud computing, as reported by Mönch Publishing Group. “It’s time to adopt and stop admiring the problem.”

One program under the microscope is NATO’s Firefly effort to field NCI Agency’s first theater-level, deployable defense cloud capability. The system will enable troops working under the NATO flag to receive, analyze and transmit data in real time among static headquarters and across operational theaters. It will build upon and complement the alliance’s deployable communication and information systems, and provide a suite of command-and-control services in fewer, lighter hardware boxes.

French company Thales was selected in late 2020 to develop the Firefly system, and the team is expected to complete the design phase as well as perform factory testing this year, with production to begin in 2022 and finish in 2023.

The contract includes 42 million euros ($49 million) for up to eight expected systems, but no funds will be allocated until the completion of the preliminary design review, per the alliance’s NCI Agency.

The goal of Firefly is to bring “new modern technologies” to “the edge of our networks, in hostile environments,” said Antonio Calderon, acting chief technology officer at the agency.

Thales is performing the majority of the work in-house, but will use “best-of-breed solutions” from the commercial sector for features such as cloud storage and firewalls, said Jean-François Connan, the company’s sales director for institutions, network infrastructure and group strategic alliances.

While NATO may have recognized the benefit of such a system years ago, the cloud technology itself had to mature enough to make a system like Firefly a reality — and to convince government customers that cloud solutions are indeed viable. That confluence only happened over the past two or so years, Connan noted.

“Cloud providers have been offering solutions that today are satisfying more of the criteria of the customer: scalability, sustainability, security and, of course, price,” he said.

Time is of the essence to field this system before the technology becomes obsolete and requirements must be reset. Connan noted that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Firefly’s schedule for contract negotiations. “We had to reconsider and reevaluate, [and] the technical solutions had to be refreshed to be up to date.”

It is crucial for NATO to have a cloud-based system in the near term to ensure operators have secure and rapid access to information, Pepe noted.

“It is important to show that the technological edge is still kept within the alliance,” she said.

Firefly’s all-in-one system architecture, which includes application management, IT networks and security, represents a “holistic” approach to NATO’s deployable C2 assets, said Lauren Speranza, director of trans-Atlantic Defense and Security at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington.

The Firefly program is “exactly the type of approach NATO should be moving toward — away from having different platforms and [toward] building an overarching system-of-systems approach that we hear so much about,” she added.

But as member nations and other stakeholders develop separate cloud solutions, the key for NATO is ensuring these systems can communicate and interface among themselves.

“Even though NATO has adopted [a system] that should work across all of the nations, if there are other capabilities out there at use in the national context, we still have limited interoperability,” Speranza said. “So that, I think, is going to be the challenge going forward.”

NATO will need to develop more rigid guidelines and standards for cloud solutions as well as ensure those guidelines resolve the inevitable disagreements related to intellectual property sharing and data sharing between member nations, she noted.

“As we get into more dual-use technologies, like the cloud, there’s going to be a whole bunch of regulatory and governance issues [related to] how we actually gather and store and share the data that’s needed to power these software systems,” Speranza said.

For Thales’ Connan, interoperability and open standards are part and parcel with working on NATO programs.

“When you work with NATO, in terms of IP [intellectual property], it has to be very open and it has to be as standard as possible,” he said. “For me and for my company, the point is to make sure this solution will be the cornerstone of the coalition. I don’t want that at the end of the day we have a jigsaw [of systems].”

Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.

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