Insight: Interoperability

One characteristic of peace keeping missions of today is the involvement or participation of different nations and forces.
For that proper exchange of information between the participants is crucial for the success of a mission. 
For decision-making, the exchange of information between military organizations or nations is fundamental.
As South Africa will become member of the NATO Multilateral Interoperability Programme (MIP) community, I would like to describe the relevant interoperability standards used for out of area missions.
Connectivity vs. Interoperability
The term interoperability is defined in several ways. One of the definitions (US Joint Publication 1-02) is repeated below:
“The ability of systems, units, or forces to provide services to and accept services from other systems, units, or forces, and to use the services so exchanged to enable them to operate effectively together.”
Three-level for interoperability is defined in the literature.
One of them is Link level. Link level deals with the connection of communication systems. The Link level is typically very expensive equipment and more often than not restricted for use by certain organisations or countries (such as Link-16 or Link-ZA). The Link level should also be able to perform at near real-time whereas, for the exchange of information between two different groups, near real-time performance is not always a requirement.
The second level is Information Exchange Level which is about the use of the same language.
The third interoperability level is the ambiguity level. There must be no ambiguity about the exchanged information. That means users have to understand and speak to one another without any problem. The information to be exchanged must therefore be concise, accurate, easy to understand and unambiguous.
To solve this problem a commonly agreed vocabulary is required. In order to achieve a common agreed vocabulary, an artificial language can be created with a vocabulary restricted to words (including abbreviations and codes) for which unambiguous meanings have been agreed by all participants. This is particularly important in a multi-language community. Furthermore, the sentence structure in this artificial language can be restricted to predetermined formats so that as much information as possible is conveyed by the position of the words in the sentence. This common agreed vocabulary also allows fully automated processing of information.
Thus from the above it is clear that connecting two or more communication systems will not necessarily ensure interoperability. For one system (the provider) to successfully transfer information to another (the receiver), agreements must be made at various levels. First, they must agree upon a medium, i.e. the type of connection will be used to communicate, and what protocol will be used to transport the messages that are sent.
Second, they must agree upon a language that is to be „spoken‟ by the systems, i.e. the messages that will be exchanged. Each system has its own native language, which is contained in the structure of the information that is used by that system.
Finally, they must agree upon a set of procedures which regulates the exchange of information: what is the (higher-level) protocol for message exchange between systems, which security considerations must be taken into account, which priorities will be supported.
NATO Interoperability Standards
The current situation of the major NATO Interoperability standards for land based operations is illustrated in the figure.
This article will focus on the following interfaces for exchange of information between NATO and partners (mostly for land based operations) namely:
1. AdatP-3 capable systems;
2. Multilateral Interoperability Programme (MIP) capable systems; and
3. NFFI (NATO Friendly Force Information).
AdatP-3 Standard
ADatP-3 (Allied Data Publication 3) is the name of the publication which documents the NATO Message Text Formatting System (FORMETS); the abbreviation is also widely used to denote that same system. FORMETS specifies the message formats that are to be used in the construction of character-oriented messages that are exchanged between national and NATO authorities and systems. The use of ADatP-3 by all NATO countries has been ratified in STANAG 5500.
The goal of ADatP-3 is to serve as a standard for information exchange in general; not to specifically support exchange between systems. For this reason, ADatP-3 focuses on defining a message standard in which messages are concise, accurate and can be quickly processed by both human operators and automated systems. ADatP-3 specifies only the permitted message formats; it does not make any assumptions concerning the communication medium.
The use of ADatP-3 is very straightforward. A user can transfer information to another user by either writing a message manually, or by generating the message using an automated system. The message can then be sent over any acceptable data transfer mechanism, and after receipt can be processed manually or automatically by the receiver. ADatP-3 is in fact nothing more than an exchange language. It comprises an artificial, character-based language in which:
 The vocabulary is limited to a collection of codes and words, called fields, which have an unambiguous meaning;
 Sentences are limited to certain sequences of fields, which are called sets, in which the position of a field is used to determine its meaning; and
 Messages are limited to certain sequences of sets, called message text formats (MTFs), in which the position of a set is used to determine its meaning.
The MTF definitions in ADatP-3 are independent of one another; however, MTFs can make use of the same sets, and sets can make use of the same fields.
MIP Standard
The MIP programme is not a formal NATO programme.
Rather it is a voluntary and independent activity by the participating nations and organizations.
The aim of MIP is to achieve international interoperability of Command and Control Information Systems (C2IS) at all levels from corps to battalion, or lowest appropriate level, in order to support multinational (including NATO), combined and joint operations and the advancement of digitization in the international arena.
The means to achieve this is known as the MIP solution.
This is a set of items delivered by the MIP programme at the end of each baseline. It includes the MIP specifications, Standard Operating Procedures and other documentation that is required for implementation of specifications and for use of the MIP Common Interface (MCI).
The MIP solution enables information exchange between co-operating but distinct national C2 systems. The core of a MIP Baseline solution is the Information Exchange Data Model.
It is a product of the analysis of a wide spectrum of Allied information exchange requirements. It models the information that combined joint component commanders need to exchange.
The MIP solution enables C2IS to C2IS information exchange and allows users to decide what information is exchanged, to whom it flows, and when. MIP Baseline 1, which was in-service during 2004-05, comprises:
 The Land C2 Information Exchange Data Model (LC2IEDM);
 The Message Exchange Mechanism (MEM) consists of a suite of formatted messages that conform to AdatP-3 Part 1, plus guidelines for their use;
 The Data Exchange Mechanism (DEM) is an automatic data push mechanism that coexists with the MEM. When a C2 application changes the state of information that it holds, and which is recognised by the DEM, this information is automatically replicated to all other co-operating C2 systems that have agreed to exchange this information.
The MIP Baseline 2, which is scheduled to be in-service 2006-08, evolves the LC2IEDM into the C2IEDM and uses an improved version of the DEM for data replication.
The improvements are based on the use of the latest version of the DEM (Baseline 1), the reduction of bandwidth requirements, the use of more granular information exchange contracts, in a way similar to Block 1 MEM messages, and by prioritising information flow.
The MEM is used for writer-to-reader messages only (not for data replication). The MIP Baseline 3 will expand and evolve the C2IEDM into the JC3IEDM by including and modelling new joint Information Exchange Requirements (IERs).
The NATO Data Administration Group (NDAG) is the partner of MIP in this effort by virtue of the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) signed in 2004 for this purpose. The JC3IEDM is also the NATO STANAG 5525. The DEM will evolve also to better suit the operational information exchange needs and the MEM will be used in same way as Baseline 2.
NFFI  Standard
Friendly Force Tracking (FFT) refers to the automated, cooperative reporting of land-oriented positional data of friendly units through systems called Force Tracking Systems (FTS).
NFFI is the newest standard and a XML based NATO Friendly Force Information standard for interoperability which is suitable for complementing other interoperability standards by specifically addressing the Force Tracking needs of a coalition environment.
Several NATO countries have already stressed the need for harmonization between NFFI and MIP. The NFFI specification was initiated in 2005 and continued in 2006 under NATO Consultation Command Control Agency (NC3A) Experimental Programme of Work (EPOW) for Allied Command Transformation (ACT).
The interim NFFI standard D-document was approved in December 2006. The D-document was released to non-NATO ISAF troop contributing nations in April 2007 and SC/5 tasked to staff STANAG 5527 (NATO Standard for Interoperability of Force Tracking Systems).