Alot can happen in a year. From the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the increasing tensions in the South Pacific and the myriad other obstacles and conflicts that fall under Nato’s purview, the past 12 months have been a trying time for many of those within the Alliance. For Ludwig Decamps, stepping into the role of general manager for the NCI Agency in July 2021, it all began with a baptism of fire.

“When I started as general manager of the agency, one of the immediate things we were involved in was Nato’s evacuation from Afghanistan,” Decamps explains. Previously, he held positions in the NCI Agency as director of demand management from March 2017 to February 2018, and as COO from then until his appointment to general manager. Prior to that, he served in the Belgian Armed Forces and military intelligence, before taking on a number of roles within Nato. In the summer of 2021, the NCI Agency had staff deployed in Afghanistan, along with industry personnel whom the agency had been working with to ensure communications in the nation.

The NCI Agency delivers consultation, command and control (C3) capabilities and provides information and communications technology (ICT) services to Nato, to member nations and military commands within the Alliance. It is also tasked with developing capabilities for the future, which hold a particular focus on improving the ability of member nations and affiliated nations to work together.

During the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the NCI Agency was involved with efforts to keep Kabul airport throughout the evacuation. After all, aircraft didn’t just have to be able to land – communications also needed to remain operational throughout in order for evacuation operations to go ahead. That was a key challenge, Decamps notes, but also a great achievement for the agency, and set the pace for his time as general manager to date. This starting point also helps to demonstrate how close the agency – as the communication service provider to Nato – is linked to the Alliance’s agenda. Back in July 2021, Afghanistan was at the forefront of the organisation’s mind – since then Decamps has witnessed a shift in the Nato agenda to “being more focused on defence and deterrence” due in part to the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. The role of the NCI Agency remains the same, however, regardless of the changing conditions – to support Nato as best it can.

Practice makes perfect

One of the many ways in which the NCI Agency works to develop Nato’s resilience and demonstrate the value of ICT is through the annual Locked Shields exercise. The world’s largest and most complex international real-time cyber defence exercise, Locked Shields is organised by the Nato Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) and held each year in Tallinn, Estonia.

Bringing together personnel from across the Alliance, Nato member countries and partners, Locked Shields sees teams compete against each other in a game-based environment. The Alliance team, led by the Nato Cyber Security Centre, is made up of nearly 30 experts from the NCI Agency, as well as from other Nato bodies and three Nato allies.

“The role of the NCI Agency is to help develop the technical scenarios, putting our teams to the test,” Decamps explains. While the challenges take place in a fictional environment, the technical obstacles that the teams must tackle are all very real. Some NCI Agency experts took part in ‘red teaming’ – playing the role of enemy forces in these scenarios. For the 2022 exercise, the ‘blue team’ defenders were required to protect both a medical and a financial institution against cyberattacks from the red team forces – along with the usual network systems and critical infrastructure such as power plants, water supply and telecommunications.

“This is something that is both good training for the staff that further sharpens their technical skill sets, but also lets us see how we can work together even when exposed to cybersecurity challenges,” says Decamps. “Because cybersecurity is a team sport, and especially in our environment – with so many nations working together – you want everyone to contribute to the solution.”

Cybersecurity is a key part of the NCI Agency’s responsibilities, according to Decamps. “We have people in the agency who are monitoring Nato networks, and taking technical measures, defensive measures to protect these networks,” he explains. “And that ranges from ‘threat hunting’, as we call it, but also forensic analysis of incidents so that we learn from those experiences.”

The Locked Shields exercise, then, is one of the principal elements in a much broader picture, ensuring that the NCI Agency and Nato remain fit for the future in cybersecurity. And while Decamps was immensely positive about this year’s event, takeaways and team performances, he also had a few notes for the AI experts who participated.

“They need to understand the broader environments in which they are operating, and how intelligence on the evolving-threat picture is part of that,” Decamps explains. “And that can only be done through the exchange of data and intelligence. […] There is a critical advantage to be gained from sharing information on certain cyberthreats and how they can then be mitigated. And that goes beyond the technical – the situational awareness part is also important.”

A time of change

A major Nato summit will take place in Madrid, Spain, at the end of June 2022, which will see the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept approved by its members, dictating its roadmap for the next decade or so. The NCI Agency has a key role to play here in enhancing the understanding and focus of political leadership on the benefits that technology can provide the Alliance, and how to best use this to prepare for the future – “the ambitious agenda for data”, as Decamps puts it.

Similarly, on 6 April 2022, the NCI Agency launched their own Strategic Plan for 2022–26, focusing the agency’s efforts and resources along four goals – excellence in delivery; support Nato’s agenda; hire, train and retain the best; and build strong and lasting partnerships across the Nato enterprise. The main driver for this new plan is the NCI Agency’s current operational environment, which is going through quite significant changes in terms of how the agency looks at the threat landscape.

“We are, in my view, going through some defining moments for the Alliance, not just triggered by the Russian invasion in Ukraine, but more broadly,” says Decamps, referring to the upcoming Strategic Concept and the recent publishing of other important documents, such as the Alliance’s “An Artificial Intelligence Strategy for Nato”.

“When I started as general manager of the agency, one of the immediate things we were involved in was Nato’s evacuation from Afghanistan.”

For Decamps, it was vital for the NCI Agency to be ready to operate in this burgeoning environment, and the Strategic Plan was designed with that in mind. One of its key tenants is to ensure the NCI Agency supports Nato’s agenda on emerging and disruptive technologies, which have been identified as a key driver for change but also as an element of concern in terms of the evolving threat landscape.

This encompasses advances in artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing and cloud technologies, to name but a few. The goal is not only to ensure that the NCI Agency understands these systems – and the dangers and opportunities they present – but also to make them available for use within Nato at the appropriate level.

That in itself creates its own challenges, as the NCI Agency must ensure that it has people in place who understand these developments and can inform political leadership on the potential options at hand. “That’s something that can sometimes sound very distanced,” Decamps acknowledges, but notes that there are already opportunities within Nato to use these technologies today. Cloud computing has already found its entry into the private and public sectors, and quantum computing can offer a wide range of benefits for cryptographic capabilities. AI, meanwhile, presents a number of opportunities that stem from the huge amount of data that Nato possesses – gathered from exercises that it runs and true-life operations like those conducted in Afghanistan, which the agency can analyse using AI to derive a number of lessons.

For most of these advanced technologies, Nato generally relies on the technological innovation to take place in the private sector and with industry. “Where we come in is actually making that technology available for use within Nato,” Decamps acknowledges. The agency may not lead on the technology itself, but where it does lead is on applying that technology into multinational operations, he adds, noting that this requires having the right skill sets inside the organisation.

As a result, as part of the NCI Agency’s Strategic Plan, the agency is conducting a review of all the skill sets it needs for the future, in order to better define the professional competencies that it requires. In that same vein, Decamps is quick to acknowledge the NCI Agency and Nato’s dependence on industry to provide solutions for emerging obstacles. “We want to build long-lasting partnerships with industry,” he notes. “Of course, when it comes to contracts, we will continue to go for international competitive bidding – there should be no doubt about that – but we want to do it in a way that, through competition, we engage with industry in a dialogue.”

Through this, he hopes that the NCI Agency will gain a better understanding of what the market can provide today – the current trends, solutions and best practices – rather than becoming over-prescriptive on solutions for the future. With this in mind, the NCI Agency is set to host the first Nato Edge conference in Mons, Belgium, at the end of October 2022. Operating under the title “Technology in Focus”, the event is intended to engage with industry partners and provide a better understanding of new opportunities through working with the NCI Agency. At the same time, it will help the agency better understand what its industry partners are providing for other defence organisations and national defence ministries, and to further build connections between both groups.

Keep pace with the future

Another way in which the NCI Agency intends to keep pace with the future, Decamps says, is through its creation of the NCI Academy. Located in Oerias, Portugal, the academy has sprung out of the agency’s communication information systems (CIS) schools, the focus of which was mainly on training operators for deployable communication systems, satellites or ground stations and Nato commands, though has now expanded to include a broader curriculum. Decamps hopes that the academy can help to enhance the understanding of mid-career and senior leaders on cybersecurity, as well as the opportunities and challenges presented by emerging technologies. This all contributes to the NCI Agency’s main goal, which Decamps describes as “first and foremost, keeping the agency and Nato synchronised with a rapid technological evolution”.

With regards to NCI Agency’s relationship with Nato’s political agenda, Decamps expects to see an enhanced Nato presence in eastern Europe in terms of defence and deterrence, one that will be there to stay for the foreseeable future. “I don’t necessarily see a repeat of the Cold War from that perspective, because technology has changed so much – and so have the environments,” he says. “We have seen, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, how important it is to share intelligence and how we – as an agency that has ‘information’ in its name – can further support that agenda.”

All this has further cemented in Decamps mind the importance of Nato’s transatlantic nature, which he sees as the Alliance’s true strength above all else. He notes, by way of example, recent events like the strategic initiative on artificial intelligence horizon scanning in May 2022, co-hosted by the NCI Agency and the Nato Science and Technology Organization (STO), which aimed to better understand AI and its potential military implications.

“It’s great to see that, when we reach out to industry, there’s a real transatlantic dialogue that we are promoting through such events. I wouldn’t say it’s unique, but it’s definitely a defining feature for the Alliance,” says Decamps. “Where else in the world would you find such a high concentration of experts on artificial intelligence, not just at the national level, but the multinational level – and beyond that, transatlantic, too? That is definitely something we want to embed in our approach for the future.”