by Christopher G. Pernin and Jakub Hlavka
November 6, 2015
As Trident Juncture, the largest NATO exercise since 2002 draws to a close, the United States is bound to have the smallest military presence in Europe since the end of World War II.
In an attempt to make the most out of declining defense budgets, the thinking goes, the US needs to engage European forces to build interoperability that would enable joint operations to deter and defeat potential adversaries, even with little advance notice. Unfortunately, building interoperable units has often proved to be difficult even among the friendliest of nations.
A new approach to achieving tactical interoperability among allied defense forces has long been needed: a renewed focus on building targeted unit-to-unit relationships.
Current State of Affairs
The US Department of Defense invests significant resources into efforts to build bilateral relationships, modernize its partners’ armed forces and rehearse joint operations. The US Army manages close to 200 programs related to security cooperation with its allies, most of which fall into four categories: information exchanges, military education, defense and military contacts, and training.
Yet, developing partner capacity and aligning strategic interests – a goal of most of these programs – is not identical to building multinational readiness: Few programs have interoperability as their primary goal, and even fewer lead to standing, interoperable units that can be used to fight.
In our conversations with American and foreign troops, we found that while several foreign units may attend joint exercises and training, their focus (rightly so) often is on the training and readiness of the forces and less so on developing and maintaining lasting relationships between and among units – a critical component of operational and tactical interoperability.
Building such relationships – and with that, tailored solutions to cultural, procedural and technical differences – requires a focused effort and a long-term strategy, and typically leads to higher operational readiness and a more effective use of resources. Yet, targeted interoperability is built in only a limited number of cases: Most security cooperation efforts still focus on partner capacity and high-level interactions.
A targeted approach also creates a political conundrum that can upset the inclusive nature of alliances such as NATO. Those we choose to work more closely with will have a louder voice in international security matters compared with those who, either by necessity or choice, are not so close.
The results of the general approach to interoperability can be seen on the battlefield. As recent operations in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq illustrated, not even the closest American allies are fully interoperable with the United States. Significant gaps remain in the realms of information-sharing and communications, styles of command, cultural understanding, standard equipment, and complex intelligence sharing policies.
The general interoperability the United States has been building doesn’t provide nearly enough detail to be operational in a fight, especially on short timelines. As the Army came together with other nations’ forces in recent conflicts, those gaps at times were mitigated, but at significant cost and time up front, often only through workarounds that lasted as long as those partnerships were in play.
The Changing Nature of Battle
In the recent decade, we observed another shift that implies more targeted interoperability efforts are needed — the shift to more tactical exchange of services on the battlefield. During the Cold War, interoperability was thought of at the division, corps and even group Army level with tactics and operations left to the individual nations. With cuts to force structure and posture—both in the United States and her allies — that interoperability is now expected to occur on a much more tactical level. This requires the ability to form combined units at the division, brigade and even battalion level — something that general interoperability hardly addresses.
Limited examples of such targeted interoperability are taking place now, through NATO. The US 82nd Airborne Division recently achieved significant interoperability with the UK’s 16th Air Assault Brigade through an 18-month effort of detailed planning and extensive exercises. The effort went far beyond just jumping out of each other’s airplanes: It included fostering technical, procedural and cultural connections to make this a standing multinational capability.
The Dutch and Germans hope to achieve a similar outcome through the integration of a Dutch Airmobile Brigade into the Division Schnelle Kräfte. The effort began in 2014 with a fully operational division expected in 2018.
Additional examples of such targeted efforts have recently emerged. The Franco-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force is hoped to reach full operational capability in 2016 and an integrated Dutch Brigade in German Bundeswehr’s 1st Panzer Division is slated for activation in 2019.
A particularly aggressive example of targeted interoperability is the ongoing development of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force – a brigade-size rapid response force that is designed to deploy its lead elements within 48 hours. This multinational unit is unique in NATO as it will be on a very tight deployment timeline, entail several alliance members and interoperate at a level not typical in NATO.
This poses a number of challenges, one of which is the ability of its rotating lead nations to solve those interoperability gaps, even if just for that subset of the alliance.
These examples are yet to be fully proven as effective. However, the extent to which they will cut down on the spin-up time for building interoperability seems real. One thing we do know is that the closer the forces are, the easier it is for building the interoperability necessary for future operations.
Balancing Two Types of Interoperability
If called to action, European defense forces will necessarily rest on multiple nations interoperating on the battlefield. Assuming those forces can come together and work together seamlessly is fallacy.
As multinational operations are pursued by policy-planners, better balancing of the prevailing general interoperability focus with the targeted interoperability built among specific units for specific types of missions is needed. And, this change in strategy will necessarily rest on commitments among NATO members to maintain readiness and find the political solutions to make multinational units a credible deterrent to avoid conflicts of the future.
Picking these relationships will be difficult and politically controversial. But the alternative is far, far worse.