NATO general says more training will be on unclassified web


Lt. Gen. Karlheinz ViereckOne of NATO’s top training chiefs has told New Security Learning, in an exclusive interview, that more training in future will have to be done on the ‘unclassified’ web. Despite the potential security considerations, Lieutenant General Karlheinz Viereck says  that it would greatly assist cooperation over training with other organisations, such as the African Union.

Lieutenant General Karlheinz Viereck is one of NATO’s leading thinkers on technology-enhanced learning and training.

During the course of the last twenty years, the world’s largest military organisation, NATO, has been confronted by the urgent need to adapt itself to an international security environment that has changed out of all recognition. Political events, such as the collapse of the Soviet system, and military engagements, such as the Gulf War or the intervention in Afghanistan, have changed the world’s security architecture and reshaped NATO’s role. It is predominantly technological and sociological change, however, which has forced NATO and its member states into a dramatic reappraisal of future needs and capabilities.


Today’s security environment is conditioned by such phenomena as economic globalisation, privatisation and the development of new forms of communication, such as the Internet. We now live in a world of twenty-four news and instant communication. It is a world in which traditional symmetry has been overturned and conflict has often become asymmetrical. Governments can be brought down by the exchange of messages on ‘Facebook’ or ‘Twitter’ and billions of dollars of damage can be caused by a small attack on some node in the chain of modern critical infrastructure. This can all be done without the use of an armoured brigade or a battery of ballistic missiles. In fact, it can be done without even an infantry platoon.


As an organisation, NATO has had to respond quickly to these changes, changing itself and its thinking, adopting new strategic concepts and developing new structures. At the forefront of its drive to change, in order to respond more effectively to the challenges of a new security environment, has been the Supreme Allied Command Transformation (SACT), which “is NATO’s leading agent for change, driving, facilitating and advocating continuous improvement of Alliance capabilities to maintain and enhance the military relevance and effectiveness of the Alliance.”


At the heart of SACT’s drive for change is the office of Joint Force Trainer, which “acts on behalf of SACT to direct and coordinate all ACT activities in NATO’s areas of interest to train and educate individuals and to support collective training and exercises, at all levels of command, continually to provide the Alliance with improved capabilities to undertake the full spectrum of missions.”

Joint Force Trainer

The Joint Force Trainer (JFT) acts on behalf of SACT to direct and coordinate all ACT activities in NATO’s areas of interest to train and educate individuals and to support collective training and exercises, at all levels of command, to continually provide the Alliance with improved capabilities to undertake the full spectrum of Alliance missions.

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Lieutenant General Karlheinz Viereck is the Deputy Chief of Staff Joint Force Trainer and one of NATO’s leading thinkers on technology-enhanced learning and training. A career Air Force officer and a former Commander of the Bundeswehr Operations Command in Potsdam, he is a controversial figure, who has attracted some criticism in the past from sections of the German media, which gave him the nickname “the laptop general” after he reportedly conducted operations in the Congo from his laptop whilst on holiday in Sweden. The nickname is nevertheless appropriate for a general who is such a firm believer in the benefits technology can bring to learning and training.


Viereck is convinced of the need for radical change in training to enable NATO to meet the challenge of a new security environment. He recognises that NATO must “think, organise and plan totally differently to the past.” His belief in the urgent need for change and the adoption of new methods of training is based partly on a recognition that the old methods are no longer always appropriate in the new circumstances of today’s security environment and partly on a shrewd understanding of the immense possibilities that developments in information and communications technology offer for achieving significant improvements in learning and training.


“When I started, everything was clearly defined by the Cold War,” he says. “Now there is no longer a Cold War with two blocs facing each other. The threat of a major conflict is lower than ever before, although the threat is still real. Geography is no longer a key factor. NATO is now reviewing all threats and there is a totally different mix. Now we face the possibility of high intensity conflict but also threats from organised crime and terrorism, etcetera. Sometimes we face hybrid threats and sometimes all of them together. This situation is much more demanding for training.”


Viereck believes that the new situation has created “a demand for a different sort of training” to equip soldiers and officers to deal with a variety of new challenges, requiring them to understand decision-making and information processes. They have to understand too that they may increasingly be required to be part of a military response in a civilian environment and to operate under the scrutiny of the media. The realities of soldiering in the twenty-first century are likely to be very different to those of the late twentieth century. “What we need is to have a military response ready and they have to learn,” he says.

We need to develop an effective cyber defence policy. We have to do it in exercises. We have to work with the EU and others.


An important aspect of NATO training is cooperation and working with partners. The Alliance itself is a partnership, which has long believed in joint training and exercising, but now it is increasingly extending its reach and offering to work in partnership with other organisations, such as the European Union, the United Nations and the African Union. Viereck speaks enthusiastically of the need to establish a “common ground for training” and cooperation over training with other organisations is mentioned in NATO’s new strategic concept.


For Viereck, cooperation between the Alliance and the UN and the EU is “the biggest challenge in training.” However, he sees that NATO will increasingly be required not merely to cooperate with other major international organisations, but also with NGO’s whose employees often play a major role in and around conflict situations. “The challenge,” he admits, “is to get the experts working together” and to develop “more synergy with the players.”


He is convinced that for the maximum benefit to be achieved, cooperation over training has to be a two-way process. “We have to provide more possibilities to our partners,” he says. “We must be ready for respectful cooperation and give our partners the chance to contribute to NATO training.”


He is especially keen to seize the opportunity to improve training cooperation between NATO and the African Union. He describes himself as “passionately for Africa” and will travel to Tanzania in May to take part in eLearning Africa, the African continent’s largest conference on technology-enhanced learning. (


“We have close relations with the African Union,” he says. “We have a Mission and a dedicated headquarters. I am responsible for training with the African Union. At the moment, we are working on curricula and exchanging experience.”


One area in which NATO and the African Union are both keen to extend training collaboration is in developing an effective response to the growing number of threats to cyber security. Viereck describes NATO and the AU as being in the “closest possible alignment” over education and training to deal with cyber threats.


A major priority for NATO, ensuring effective systems to counter cyber attacks and training competent personnel to deal with them will require a great deal more cooperation in the future. He accepts that the private sector has an important role to play in developing new solutions. “There is a common understanding that we need to do something,” he says.


“We must come together to solve the problem. We will only do it if we go on the web. We need to develop an effective cyber defence policy. We have to do it in exercises. We have to work with the EU and others.” He describes the new cyber defence centre in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, as being “a key cornerstone” in NATO’s new cyber security architecture.


If it is to deal effectively with future threats, NATO training will have to become more open and accessible, so that it is based on “real-time access all over the globe,” facilitating cooperation and allowing soldiers to ‘pull’ learning to them. He believes that, in the future, advanced distributed learning, which ACT has been actively promoting in NATO since 1999, will have to “go via the unclassified web. If we want to reach all our partners, we have to look at the different time zones. What we have to pay attention to is the availability and affordability of bandwidth and storage capacity. That is what makes web-based training a reality.”


Despite his enthusiasm for web-based learning, the ‘laptop general’ is aware of the limitations. “You cannot do everything on the open net but, with some firewalls, a lot is possible. The advantage right now is that soldiers can learn when they want to.”


One of the inevitable consequences of the development of the Internet has been a trend towards greater openness and a demand for even more information from a knowledge-hungry public. It is a prospect which would have terrified traditional security specialists on both sides of the Iron Curtain twenty years ago. Now, it is refreshing to see that a leading NATO general can approach the subject of greater openness with equanimity and even some excitement.


“We have to learn to work with this,” says Karlheinz Viereck. “People need to learn how to use it...If we do not go online, we will lose the possibility for a comprehensive approach. We need to get all the experts together. We have to balance security and liberty. We need to work hand in glove to reach common interests and decisions.


“We have to use technology and it gives us the opportunity to do things differently. At the same time, we have to defend against threats from these technologies. We have to balance this in a holistic, comprehensive approach, together with the nations and institutions. We have to adopt the same problem-solving capability in different situations.”


Viereck is sure that the future is on his side and that better access and different forms of learning will continue to transform training. “It will go open, real-time training. It will increase the opportunities for our partners. We will use technology as far as we can.” It is an immense task and a formidable challenge for NATO but Karlheinz Viereck is undaunted. “We will have to grow into it,” he says.

Photograph front page: Lt. Gen. Karlheinz Viereck


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