NATO’s Second Life

Thanks to Tim for flagging this juice in his latest Infobore. I’ve been tracking NATO’s public diplomacy engagement with social media for a couple of months (here, here, here, and here), and this is an interesting tweak in the program. Tateru Nino reports via Massively that NATO “is presently seeking tenders for the construction of a proof-of-concept site in a virtual environment.” From the call:

The first scenario is to replicate a generic headquarters compound for a NATO operation. … The second scenario will involve replicating the Headquarters Supreme Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, USA. The only acceptable worlds that may provide a solution to this statement of work are Second Life by Linden Labs[sic], OLIVE by Forterra, or NEXUS by ECS.

Nino points out a few technical problems:

Actually, this part’s a little confusing, because of the three virtual environments specified as ‘acceptable’, only one (Forterra’s OLIVE) actually meets the minimum criteria given in the solicitation. NATO SHQACT acknowledges this in a subsequent clarification document, but is still seeking Second Life submissions anyway. As it stands, it doesn’t seem like any existing Second Life developer can actually meet the stringent Defense Contract requirements in any case, and submissions close on the 8th of this month.

It’s a curious situation, overall, and leaves us scratching our heads. SHQACT insists that it wants Second Life tenders, yet Second Life does not meet the minimum technical requirements, specifically:

  • must run fully behind or through firewalls using a single open port of choice
  • should be able to run SSL encryption if desired for increased security

Still, according to article VIII of the Paris Protocol (1952), all the goods and services are tax and duty free, and that’s got to be an attractive notion. We don’t see any platform winning this one other than OLIVE though.

Joshua Fouts (not Joshua Foust, that’s this guy), writes at DIP’s Dispatches From the Information Age:

NATO has been doing a number of creative public diplomacy outreach efforts to help make its identity more accessible to a contemporary audience and redefine the narrative around NATO. We blogged in March about NATO’s poster campaign in Washington, DC. They also produced a number of highly produced videos for NATO’s 60th anniversary to demonstrate the relevance of NATO’s work today.

More recently, I’d pointed out both SACEUR and SecGen attempts at social media engagement. The SHQACT that Nino refers to is Supreme Headquarters Allied Command Transformation. NATO’s command structure is pretty convoluted. There are two strategic commands in NATO that report to NATO HQ is in Brussels, which handles the political strategic stuff.

  • One is Allied Command Operations (or ACO). It’s HQ is SHAPE (or Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe), about 55km down the road from NATO HQ. ACO does operations  – read KFOR in Kosovo, ISAF in Afghanistan, Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean, counter-piracy off the HOA, etc.
  • The other is Allied Command Transformation (or ACT), which is based in Norfolk, Virginia. I haven’t looked into whether Supreme Allied Commander – Transformation (or SACT) has a corresponding program of social media engagement, but I do know that ACT is responsible for education, training, experimentation and transformation (like it says on the box).

This sort of thing falls squarely within ACT’s remit, but insistence on Second Life despite real technical constraints smells suspiciously of three possibilities (not mutually exclusive): inept public affairs staff insufficiently cued in to the difficulties of technical development and acquisitions in NATO; NATO technocrats only too happy to oblige, regardless of whether the project has real operational merits; and Command interest in the platform. Something to watch for: NATO R&D moving to build an in-house sim platform from scratch, in order to get around the security issues. It’ll take years, cost millions, and benefit…. well, that’s the question, really. Who?

I have to wonder whether Second Life brand recognition and popularity have hooked the senior leadership. I also wonder what the troops on the ground (or the operations folks in ACO) might think about the NATOcracy fiddling around with the sort of time, effort, and funds needed to develop this kind of project, much less spending time within it. That’s not a fair or mature criticism  – the organization, as harsh as it might sound, is about more than just Afghanistan, hence the whole public diplomacy thing. But still. I can’t see ISAF troops in the wilds of Nuristan, for example, being entirely even remotely sympathetic to this.

2 comments

  1. I have only one question that NATO needs to answer: why?Their solicitation document says:Allied Command Transformation is investigating technologies that could be used to augment or replace existing technologies for education and training of NATO staff.Er, that’s it. So it is ACT, as you suggest, that is behind this, but it would be interesting to find out how this fits within a broader strategy of organisational change and outreach.

  2. technical issues aside, clearly the various branches of government, military, etc are not really paying to attention to each other. we see RFI’s that conflct with RFP’s, and shortlists of vendors for RFP’s that are woefully inadequate. What I find curious is that in no other "Industry" is there so much certainty that Virtual Reality is the best solution to the "problem". I appluad this confidence in VR, but this does not mean that you should proceed with blinders on. Forterra, Qwaq, Proton, and of course Second LIfe have been around for awhile, but, because of their public presence that have been serving as fantastic use-cases for the next generation of Virtual Reality technologies, any number of which are live and active, but are intentionally keeping an extremely low profile. More importantly, what is problematic about the Nato RFP, or more accuratley the SOW(as the RFP only restricts vendors to nato countries), is the fact that an exclusionary shortlist of vendors was established, without explanation. This is both counter-productive and quite likely in breach of regulatory requirements. I bring this up not as a "hey this is unfair" issue, but to demonstrate a live example of "buyer’s" lack of understanding RE who the best qualified providers are…

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