FORT BLISS, Texas (Oct. 13, 2015) -- The thunder of artillery echoed across the New Mexico desert, but this was not a normal Army training mission. Instead artillery units representing seven countries were participating in a live-fire event.

For the first time, multinational coalition partners passed calls for artillery fire support digitally between nations, resulting in U.S. and Norwegian howitzers and U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, being fired on target.

Part of Bold Quest 15.2, the live-fire event, which took place Oct. 2-3, included seven nations with seven different fire support command and control systems. Yet a language barrier didn't exist, thanks in part to the U.S. Army's Artillery Systems Cooperation Activities, or ASCA, an interface that digitally links weapons systems of partnering nations for seamless execution.

Without ASCA, each country would need to radio in orders for tactical call-for-fire directions and commands - something that could potentially delay fire support and pose challenges in a multi-national setting. ASCA, a software solution and interface, removes language barriers and human error, allowing each country's individual fire support systems to "talk" to each other and relay information digitally to determine the right weapon, firing the right munitions, at the right time.

"Some countries use a grid, others use latitude/longitude," said Cpt. Brian McCown, fire directions officer for the 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, based on Fort Bliss, Texas. "With ASCA, that conversion is a lot easier now. We want to know our systems can communicate and this takes away that gap in time and allows us to communicate quickly."

The Joint Staff-sponsored Bold Quest 15.2 as a coalition capability demonstration and assessment with partner nations designed to improve interoperability and information sharing across a range of coalition warfighting capabilities. The live-fire portion of the event featured seven nations including the United States, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Norway and the United Kingdom.

For the second year, Bold Quest was aligned with the U.S. Army's Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, which took place in September and October on Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The NIEs and Bold Quest allow participants to assess initiatives and consider opportunities for increased levels of integration in a coalition environment.

The coalition call-for-fire demonstration will help future development of new functionality for the ASCA interface, enabling partner nations to directly exchange information and promote the ability to engage as a cohesive coalition force. During the event, approximately 138 howitzer rounds and four HIMARS rockets were fired by each nation.

"This really is a combined effort to destroy the enemy," said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Wilson, assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, on Fort Bragg, North Carolina. "ASCA enables the coalition forces to utilize rocket artillery and that hasn't been done before. Instead, they would have to try to do a voice call for fires. With ASCA, it is completing a digital call for fires from the forward observers to the launcher and back."

Using the ASCA interface, partner nations can communicate automatically by linking their fire support command and control systems, increasing the ability to leverage fire support internationally and in coalition settings. The software-based ASCA message set requires no additional hardware or separate systems, but instead utilizes the existing command and control systems of each nation.

"Interoperability is not just about technical issues," said Maj. Tor Steinar Bergset, a Norwegian army project officer. "It is also about TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures], doctrine, trust and seeing how we operate. That's a big part of being interoperable."

Maj. Bjorn Hurlen, also a Norwegian army project officer, added that the event and being a member of ASCA provided benefits on many fronts.

"In the lab we can test all the messages and all the small details, but in the field you can see the exact target," Hurlen said. "A live fire is where you can prove everything is working exactly how it is supposed to work. Just connecting to all the other nations and making sure the systems work together is a huge experience."

Staff trainers, from the Joint Multinational Readiness Center [JMRC] based in Germany, were on hand to observe ASCA. They're interested in possibly using ASCA as they train multi-national inoperability to U.S. troops, NATO forces and partner nations that come through the JMRC.

"ASCA gives you a seamless, digital-fire mission straight from the observer through a multinational tactical operations center to a firing element, which really speeds up the process," said Maj. Geoff Gorsuch, a staff trainer at the JMRC. "ASCA gives us one more way to train on that technical dimension of interoperability."

For example, Gorsuch said, at the JMRC this year, they'll train an Italian Brigade Headquarters with a U.S. firing element and Italian maneuver element, all working together. ASCA would provide a seamless digital link for increased network communications between the nations.

Through the Bold Quest process, the Army and coalition forces can evaluate new solutions in the hands of Soldiers, which benefits both the users and those charged with developing the capabilities.

"This is an extremely cost effective way to do rapid development on an international scale," said Cpt. Torben Nielsen, an ASCA project officer with Denmark's Army Combat Fires Support Center. "We have a command and control system, but one year ago, we didn't have a digital-fire support system. In only 10 months, we developed a functional system and are able to participate in the live-fire event at Bold Quest."

ASCA works with the U.S. fire support command and control system known as the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System, or AFATDS, a comprehensive fires planning system that processes, analyzes and exchanges combat information with other systems to plan, coordinate and execute fires and effects. The Army is working on the newest version of AFATDS, which will use its tactical network to move critical fires information to forward observers, battalion fire support elements and fire direction centers.

The emphasis of ASCA is placed on accommodating different national doctrines, languages, hardware and software while also reducing the workload of liaison teams. This year, the United States is sponsoring Norway and Denmark as future ASCA members. Both participated in the Bold Quest live fire. In March, participating nations are expected to sign a new ASCA agreement representing an approved set of procedures for management of the ASCA program through 2023.