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Geography Matters to NATO

As a geographically-aware organization, we have to be able to visualize things in all dimensions. The knowledge of where things are happening is very important to us and so data gathering and handling are crucial, says Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach GBE KCB DL, Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in the aftermath of World War II as an intergovernmental alliance focussed on military defense within the Euro-Atlantic region. The Soviet Union, with the wider Warsaw Pact, was the main threat for decades, but after the Cold War it became evident that NATO could succeed more widely, such as the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to Afghanistan following the 2001 Al Qaeda attack on the United States. NATO is now preparing its 2030 strategy to meet the ever-changing global challenges, such as Russia’s destabilizing activities, the threat of terrorism, sophisticated cyberattacks, disruptive technologies, and China.

NATO is governed by ministers from member nations through the North Atlantic Council. The highest military authority in NATO is the Military Committee, comprising the professional heads of each nation’s defense staff. The Chair of the Military Committee works in NATO headquarters in Brussels alongside NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg. He advises the North Atlantic Council and Secretary General whilst also turning Council decisions into military direction to NATO’s military commanders.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach GBE KCB DL has been Chairman of the Military Committee since 2018. He is the UK’s most senior military officer, having been elected Chairman of the Committee by his NATO peers after serving as the UK’s Chief of Defense Staff. Commissioned into the Royal Air Force in 1974, he initially flew Canberra aircraft in the photographic reconnaissance role. His illustrious career includes many operational assignments, culminating in his first four-star appointment as the inaugural Commander of the UK Joint Forces Command in December 2011. Sir Stuart Peach is no stranger to geospatial intelligence and as the Chief of Defense Intelligence he helped develop international geospatial intelligence concepts and capabilities.

In an exclusive interview with Geospatial World Contributing Editor, John Kedar, the veteran talks about NATO and its evolution, and the growing importance of geospatial intelligence.

What major security threats does NATO foresee in the coming years?

The world is becoming uncertain and new threats are evolving. Embracing the Europe-Atlantic region, NATO is a regional alliance with a global approach. We react to requests for support and assistance from the 30 member states and the United Nations, and that may take us anywhere, including Afghanistan or the Balkans. We are currently active in Iraq, supporting the government and the security forces there. But at its heart, NATO is a regional security alliance that keeps nearly one billion people safe, the most successful military alliance in history. We are a military alliance under political control. Within this political governance framework we have our own boundaries, be it maritime, air or the national boundaries of our allies. Therefore, geography matters to us.

Geospatial data is important to our work and we are a reasonably geospatially-aware organization in terms of our capabilities and our ability to work both as an Alliance and with many other partners around the world. A large number of challenges that we face are not limited to a border or a nation. For instance, terrorism and cyber-attacks do not respect geographical boundaries. Climate Change is an interesting challenge. It is not necessarily a military task but, as the world changes, we need to adapt to those changes. If there is one message that I would like to convey to the readers of Geospatial World, it will be that NATO has continuously adapted since 1949 — it survived because it adapted.

Maps bring knowledge to commanders as they have over the evolution of conflict, especially when annotated with battlefield information. ‘Foundation data’ may be out of date as a phrase, but the base geospatial data is still as important as it was, and so it must be accurate

Fast-paced technology innovation has changed the way the world functions. To pick up your point about adapting, how have factors such as the plethora of sensors and Artificial Intelligence changed the way NATO operates?

NATO is a formal alliance of 30 nations which pools and shares science and technology related to defense. We have the largest doctorate based research and development military organization in the world and the ability to understand the opportunities and vulnerabilities presented by many emerging and disruptive technologies. Through our science and technology organization we bring opportunities to NATO headquarters and to our warfare development command, Allied Command Transformation, which experiments on the application of individual technologies. Further, NATO has a convening authority to work with the industry. We encourage links with academic institutions and we are open to innovative small and medium enterprises. If I had to give a message to the industry, it would be that jargon and complication are probably not the routes for introducing new technologies.

As a geographically-aware organization, we have to be able to visualize things in all dimensions. The knowledge of where things are happening is very important to us and so data gathering and handling are crucial — be it data mining or the ability to store, move and integrate large volumes of multinational data. As we embrace new technologies, I think it is worth mentioning that we have a very effective military communications organization. The NATO Communications and Information Agency plays a critical role in bringing the communication information architecture to life. So, we have the biggest science and technology pool in the world, a solid communication information architecture and the required geospatial capabilities. These in turn add value to member nations military development.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach (R) with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

Working with 30 different nations can be challenging. How does NATO approach interoperability and help everyone understand what needs to be achieved?

One of NATO’s core strengths is interoperability. We achieve interoperability through standardized NATO agreements. Meeting these is part of your mission when you sign into the alliance. There is a formal planning process in which targets are set, and one of those targets is always around interoperability. It is as simple as having the same calibre of ammunition and sharing it, but equally it is the ability of intelligence surveillance reconnaissance data to pass seamlessly from one platform to another. We take a strategic approach to data management and communications.

The alliance can consider, develop and practice the necessary interoperability as technology changes. For example, and almost unknown, we have developed principles around spectrum control and management, helping prevent the increasing risk of technological fratricide.

The geospatial community is shifting focus from purely data to knowledge. Do you see a similar shift within NATO, and how will this help commanders at all levels with their missions?

Maps bring knowledge to commanders as they have over the evolution of conflict, especially when annotated with battlefield information. ‘Foundation data’ may be out of date as a phrase, but the base geospatial data is still as important as it was, and so it must be accurate. Then you build on that data with additive technologies to provide the added value to command and control, providing knowledge to create better decisions. I think there is a lot of power in simplification and expression through geospatial products to enable complicated issues to be understood quickly.

The idea of turning a product into knowledge is not new but the ways of achieving it have evolved. We experiment on this in exercises and other settings. Increasingly, we think beyond people, vehicles and aircraft to un-crewed platforms and space. The trick is to take advantage of new technologies, apply them quickly and not allow our own processes to get in the way.

Can you tell us something about NATO’s future priorities?

NATO continues to adapt and evolve. We launched a reflection process last year involving a wide range of thinkers, from academics to politicians. This is something NATO has done periodically throughout its history. The Secretary General is using that to launch the NATO 2030 strategy at the NATO Summit later this year. As a multinational intergovernmental organization, we are driven by periodic meetings with the heads of states and governments that we represent. It is for them to decide the level of ambition for their regional military alliance, and how we adopt and adapt to a global approach. That means that we are not just sitting still and looking at yesterday’s conflicts, missions, activities but looking forward to how we embrace and harness technology interoperability across 30 nations. Whether you are a big country or not doesn’t matter to NATO — we are stronger together.

The Chair of the Military Committee advises the North Atlantic Council and Secretary General whilst also turning Council decisions into military direction to NATO’s military commanders

Thank you for your time and candour. As we conclude, do you have a message for the geospatial community?

I have been a member of the community for a long time. Due to my passion for geography, I have seen its relevance and utility every day in all the roles I have fulfilled during a 48-year career. I think the geospatial community is often under-recognized even though it plays a critical role in today’s world. I can tell you with my decades of experience as a commander that success has many fathers. Sometimes, in the midst of success, people forget to thank those responsible for the geospatial data. So, I would like to thank such people, coming from different countries and performing different roles, because they have been the foundation for many missions and operations.

As I leave the alliance in the capable hands of my successor, it’s important to also encourage the next generation. Any organization that just focuses on the people who are here today is doomed to fail. We all have to focus on developing geospatial people, whether in uniform or as civilians, government or contractor.

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