NATO has quickly responded to the imperative to maintain training readiness for widely dispersed training audiences and real-world missions during the coronavirus pandemic. Group editor Marty Kauchak provides insights on NATO’s latest efforts to selectively migrate live training and education content to a virtual format to help deliver mission ready staffs, units and individuals to supported commanders.

Even during the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic, NATO has not lost its resolve to train and rehearse, safely and with rigor, for challenging missions in a live, collective environment. One recent instance of an alliance live training endeavor was the NATO maritime exercise Dynamic Mongoose which concluded this 10 July off the coast of Iceland. Ships, submarines, aircraft and personnel from six allied nations took part in the anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare exercise.

As NATO continues to pursue and complete high-end missions in the live training domain, the organization is quickly migrating other learning skills for completion in a virtual setting. Military departments and services will find insights gained from NATO commands for this article of importance: while the organization’s offices reported early returns on investment (ROIs) from converting content to a virtual format, they also candidly furnished lessons learned and highlighted the challenges of this technology journey.

NATO Exercises and Lessons Learned

US Navy Lt. Cdr. Ian Kemp, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, Capabilities Development Directorate, Federated Interoperability Branch, provided three instances of NATO’s quick-paced efforts to transition heretofore live courses and other content, into virtual events during the Covid-19 era. One important, early theme emerging from the establishment of these programs of instruction, was the intent to include a wide array of live subject content – exercise planning sessions, exercises and conferences, courses and others – in a virtual construct.

Early on in the pandemic, Coalition Warrior Interoperability eXercise (CWIX) 2020 Final Coordination Conference (FCC) was scheduled to be held in a live format in Slagelse, Denmark from 16-20 March. The conference transitioned to a three-week virtual planning conference, with the FCC conducted completely via a commercial teleconference service.

A second virtual event, 2020 Spring Think-Tank for Information Decision and Execution (TIDE) Sprint conference, was originally scheduled to convene in Stockholm, Sweden from 30 March-3 April. This event evolved to a fully virtual event over the same dates. The TIDE Sprint opening plenary was attended by 452 TIDE “Sprinters”, 215 of whom were first time attendees. This roster compared to 350 TIDE total Sprinters in Fall 2019. Lt. Cdr. Ian Kemp added, “Plenary sessions were held via a commercial teleconference service and break out track sessions were again held via a commercial teleconference service.”

And finally, the 2020 CWIX implementation exercise, originally scheduled to be held in Bydgoszcz, Poland from 8-26 June, occurred as a fully distributed event. Early ROIs obtained by the move of this exercise to a virtual format, include the join-up of participants from 10 time zones across 22 nations – but with the requirement of two new unclassified VPNs (virtual private networks) to be established to complete tests. VIPs and visitors were welcomed to virtual events that did not require travel, supporting, in particular, first-time attendees.

While the organization’s quick response enabled these three events to occur, the US Navy coordination officer also provided a list of early challenges and lessons learned from its expanded journey into the virtual domain.

In one instance, TIDE Sprint reduced the number of planned tracks due to the late requirement to change from a live to virtual event. Additionally, CWIX 2020 was able to test a limited amount of the planned number of capabilities and lost a portion of the focus areas in which testing was managed. Kemp explained, "Specifically, some focus areas required face-to-face testing to complete desired objectives."

Reflecting on other challenges across the events, the staff officer pointed out, classified testing is limited to those countries which maintain, or have access to, CFBLNet (Combined Federated Battle Laboratories Network) points of presence. And while virtual teleconference software is observed to be limited by classification, numbers of participants that commercial tele-conferencing services have and functionality to plan and execute events, he further pointed out, “Collaboration and interaction is more difficult via virtual means but training that involves a more one-way passing of information is ideal by these means. Information/training sessions can be accomplished prior to conferences to larger audiences allowing for more focused time spent in face-to-face meetings/training.”

US Air Force Lt Gen Thomas J. Sharpy, Deputy Chief of Staff for Capability Development, Headquarters SACT, (shown above) told MS&T "exercises such as TIDE Sprint and CWIX have been pitched as virtual events in the past but it was always too difficult…now we have done it! Covid-19 presented the opportunity to push through the barriers and make it happen, but it has not been easy.” Image credit: NATO.

As significant, in a trend certain to also gain traction at other military commands, NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT) is evaluating how to create hybrid events to allow for increased participation in events while allowing for the benefits of those sessions/tests that require face-to-face interaction, with another important planning caveat – alliance events will require the further development of classified means to meet the requirements of training events.

Adjusting Pre-Deployment Training

Due to the pandemic, NATO Joint Force Command Naples (JFCNP) along with the Joint Force Training Centre (JFTC) and ACT, made the decision to conduct the virtual NATO Mission Iraq (NMI) Pre-Deployment Training (PDT) this 5-10 May.

Italian Army LTC Gianluca Bonci, HOST/Ops (Pre-deployment) Section Head, explained this PDT will serve as Phase II NATO-led training for NATO personnel deploying to Iraq and was joined by 136 attendees. The senior staff officer added, “The aim is to educate the training audience in specifics of the mission, to train those assigned to advisory roles and to create conditions for team building.”

In yet another NATO first, JFCNP was responsible for both scheduling and conducting the exercise. As the Officer Directing the Exercise, JFTC conducted detailed planning, with support from NMI HQ and other stakeholders, and was responsible for the overall execution. Bonci continued, “Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and international travel restrictions, the stakeholders decided to deliver the training using a distributed delivery option, or virtually. We primarily used ACT’s Joint Advanced Distributed Learning platform. This required the following revision to the aim of NMI PDT 20-1: ‘educate the Training Audience (TA) in the specifics of the mission, provide an initial phase of the handover/ takeover process for staff and advisors, and to foster team building.’”

As significant, the ongoing pandemic also prompted Joint Force Command Brunssum (JFCBS) (Netherlands), JFTC, and other stakeholders to plan for a virtual completion of Resolute Support Pre-Deployment Training Event 20-3 (RS 20-3) the NATO-led mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) and institutions. The NATO staff officer further added, “This training is typically provided to 500 personnel from over 30 NATO and partner nations. JFTC completed the testing phase from 6 to 10 July. JFTC is currently using the results of this testing phase to refine the contents before execution from 20 to 24 July. As of 14 July, approximately 150 individuals have registered as training audience.”

LTC Bonci was quite candid in his assessment of the ROIs and challenges of these pre-deployment courses. Reflecting on the May NMI course, the NATO staff officer first noted the training audience consisted of 136 individuals assigned to various posts across NATO, with 124 trainees (91%) having completed the entire program. “In terms of cost savings, monetarily, the virtual course cost over 50% less than the residential course. The monetary cost for Troop Contributing Nations was practically zero,” he emphasized, and further noted the virtual course length was six days instead of the 10 days associated with the standard residential course.

At the top of Bonci’s list of lessons learned from the migration of content from live to virtual instruction, was the issue of classified content. On the topic, he recalled, “The distributed learning platform is unclassified. Therefore, we had to omit the considerable amount of classified material we cover in the residential course.” An additional lesson learned was the impact on advisory and interpersonal skills. The NATO staff officer explained, the lack of a practical training phase, normally a six-day event, resulted in no practical advisory and interpersonal skills training. “Due to the relatively late decision to transition to a virtual course, there was no time to plan training for the advisory and interpersonal skills (including relationships and credibility building with the interlocutor and use of interpreters).”

These and other challenges aside, Bonci further noted, “Should the constraints associated with the pandemic continue, we will have more experience to enable us to conduct virtual training events in the future,” and concluded, “The virtual NMI PDT 20-1 event demonstrates that we can reach a larger training audience and reduce the monetary costs associated with a residential course and still achieve an impact on the training audience.”

Senior Level Support

NATO’s recent efforts to move more live learning content into an exclusive virtual format or a hybrid offering, has the attention and support of organization leadership.

After observing this May’s virtual NATO NMI PDT course of instruction, US Navy Adm James G Foggo III, JFC Naples’ Commander, told the command he could never imagine pre-deployment training being conducted fully online, but was delighted by the results – providing additional encouragement for JFC Brunssum to conduct Afghanistan Resolute Support Mission training will be conducted the same way.

Back in Norfolk, Virginia, US Air Force Lt Gen Thomas J. Sharpy, Deputy Chief of Staff for Capability Development, Headquarters SACT, told MS&T that in the last six months, our world has changed drastically. He initially reflected, “If you told me a year ago that I was going to be watching people walk around wearing masks, social distancing, and giving distrusting glances every time another person coughs I would have said you were talking about science fiction…now I know better,” and added, “Fortunately, every crisis also presents opportunity and our people have found innovative ways to rapidly advance beyond the constraints of legacy systems.”

From the perspective of his NATO command, he pointed out despite the challenge, they have found ways to collaborate, test, and learn in this new “normal.” “Exercises such as TIDE Sprint and CWIX have been pitched as virtual events in the past but it was always too difficult…now we have done it! Covid-19 presented the opportunity to push through the barriers and make it happen, but it has not been easy.”

The ongoing pandemic also prompted NATO stakeholders to plan for a virtual completion of Resolute Support Pre-Deployment Training Event 20-3 (RS 20-3) the NATO-led mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) and institutions. Above, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visits Resolute Support personnel at Kabul airport. Image credit: NATO.

In an assessment which resonates quite well with NATO staff officers leading the migration to more virtual learning content, he also emphasized, “As we’ve moved to a distributed way of working, we found that virtual is not always better. Despite the ease of sitting in front of a computer and being instantly connected to someone on the other side of the world, it tends to take significantly longer to complete tasks than if they were done in person. The amount we can accomplish is limited by classification, capability, and interoperability of systems between organizations. Life has also created challenges as many of us are now trying to work from home while children and family members are occupying the same space and vying for our attention.”

Recalling his long US Air Force career, one slogan has always been true: “Flexibility is key”. To that end, “We will continue to adapt to our new environment. The global impacts of Covid-19 are likely to be long lasting and I am confident that the members of ACT will continue being flexible to ensure we provide the absolute best capabilities for the war fighters who depend on us. The world has gone virtual…now we have to learn how to live in it and how to virtually establish and nurture those relationships.”

Moving Beyond Recent Datum Points

NATO has quickly responded to the urgent need to maintain training readiness during the Coronavirus pandemic for its commands and their supporting staffs, units and personnel, by selectively moving more course, exercise and other content from a live to a virtual design. As the organization creates new individual or hybrid instruction in a virtual format, and receives ROIs from these investments, it has been encouraged to overcome recurring challenges the military experiences with the virtual learning experience, including materiel security-classification concerns.