An agreement to build what is being billed as the first joint military internet has been signed by German and Dutch officials. The internet, which aims to see internal networks and equipment shared by the pair, has been named “Tactical Edge Networking” (TEN).
According to a story on ZDNet, the deal was signed on Wednesday June 26 in Brussels, Belgium, where NATO defense ministers met this week.
It is thought to be the first time that two countries have integrated parts of their military networks. But it must be noted that the nations have worked very closely together since 1995, so this latest deal builds upon that.
Integration is a grand aim of NATO, but it has not yet happened despite the availability of the technology to do so. This latest move will therefore be a test that will be watched closely by other NATO members. In the future, NATO hopes that members can share military networks and shared standards can be implemented across states.
Headquartered in Koblenz, Germany, TEN’s design and prototype center will reside at the Bernard Barracks in Amersfoort, the Netherlands.
As the first part of the integration, communications between the German army’s Bundeswehr land-based operations (D-LBO) and the Dutch Ministry of Defence’s ‘FOXTROT’ tactical communications program will be unified.
The integration includes physical hardware too: As part of TEN, troops from both nations will use the same computers, tablets and radios. It is expected the cost will reach millions of euros because it requires tens of thousands of soldiers and vehicles to receive compatible equipment.
The agreement to build a joint network for the German and Dutch militaries was initially agreed in May last year.
This is a tactical and operational cooperation, says Philip Ingram, MBE, a former colonel in British military intelligence. “It makes sense and is the way many nations are going. It’s a more cost-effective approach and sees integration of three levels of military tactical communications systems–Link16 UHF and VHF comms–not higher-level military classified networks.”
This contrasts to the way things are done currently, says Ingram, where a lead nation puts nodes into another nation’s HQ where interoperability can’t happen and the ‘feed’ is provided. “This is just one step further and is building on the DE/NL Corps relationship established in 1993–activated in 1995–and is part of the NATO reaction framework.”
NATO has been “at the game of interoperability challenges” since its formation in 1949, says Ian Thornton-Trump, security head at AmTrust Europe. “All of the missions they have undertaken place a heavy burden on communications. Perhaps this is more of an experiment to look at a path forward: a NATO cloud like communications-as-a-service model.”
At the same time, both the German and Dutch army are known for professionalism and efficiency, Thornton-Trump says. “Both have worked on operations in a NATO and UN context. The question to ask is: what spawned this idea? German and Dutch forces frequently train together and have a number of pieces of equipment in common.
“Maybe high-level formation communications at a divisional or battle group level or higher have been challenging but operationally, these are mature armies and are used to operating and communicating together. I think this is more of a research project and less of a massive technology improvement.”
Indeed, Ingram says the reality of this deal will be challenging. “It has been aspiration of militaries to do this for many years and they have the technology to do it, but no one has got it right yet. They are very big agreements on paper but can be difficult to implement because of political agreements.”
According to German newspaper Handelsblatt, it is hoped that by 2030, the armies of both countries will be networked at all levels and be able to communicate with each other electronically without any restrictions.
“It’s a really big step, we’ve never done so before,” said Dutch Defense Minister Ank Bijleveld-Schouten on Tuesday, talking to Handelsblatt on the sidelines of the meeting of the Nordic NATO defense ministers in Berlin.
Dutch and German soldiers usually deploy troops together in foreign missions, but the digital exchange of information across national borders has so far been a major challenge. “Today we cannot even communicate across borders with our radios,” said Bijleveld-Schouten.
As ZDNet points out, the Dutch/German approach is very different to that taken by China and Russia. China is developing a custom operating system that replaces the Windows OS on its military computers. Russia is replacing Windows with a custom Linux distro called Astra Linux.
There is a growing fear among those nations that US-installed backdoors may be used to spy on their militaries.
“There is recognition by Russia and China that if they buy American software, the NSA have got some way of operating a backdoor,” says Ingram. “NotPetya and WannaCry showed clearly the vulnerabilities in Windows-based systems that aren’t patched properly. It makes sense for their OS to be bespoke for a military environment and not to have Windows from the U.S. in use by the Chinese military.”
There is a global movement towards “patriotism and security” being used for market protectionism, says Thornton-Trump. He thinks the latest news could be “a bit of NATO PR spin” rolling out the cyber threat danger: “Chinese Russian Iranian and North Korean (CRINK) boogie man is always good messaging.”
Thornton-Trump thinks this is a movement towards “as-a-service models” to “make future integrations easier” and vanquish technical debt of existing systems. He adds: “Having a strategic plan for future network communications: that’s something NATO should be good at.”
Ingram thinks that in the long run, there will be greater integration across NATO. “Some through commonality of equipment, some through commonality of connectivity protocols.”