European Affairs

Military Coalitions Must Strive for Interoperability     Print Email
Major General Daniel Bastien

French Defense Attaché and Former Advisor to the President of France

In the future, Western countries will increasingly have to work as part of coalitions to achieve their military objectives. This is not because coalitions are more efficient than operations led by a single country, but coalitions have the advantage of enjoying more political legitimacy than a unilateral operation - especially if they are working under a mandate of the United Nations.

Given current world developments, this kind of legitimacy will be sought more and more often by resorting to coalitions, and subsequently, interoperability will become more important in future operations. Interoperability, of course, refers to the ability of a coalition's different military members to work efficiently within a joint and/or combined operation. In this context, "joint" means Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and "combined" means from different countries.

The Kosovo conflict was the most recent occasion during which the United States and European countries worked in a joint and combined operation in a medium- to high-intensity environment. Much has been said - and continues to be said - about the interoperability problems encountered during that conflict.

What lessons have been learned from the Kosovo operation in the field of information sharing? The Americans felt the technology gap was so large that, in some cases, they had to lower safety norms, significantly increasing the risk factor. As an example, because of a lack of up-to-date electronic countermeasure equipment on some European aircraft, allied air raids were considered more vulnerable to Serbian air defense systems than purely American air raids would have been. Some went even further, suggesting that the air campaign would have been much more efficient without the Europeans.

The European analysis, however, was slightly different. The European countries felt that, in the field of interoperability, the effective performance of the coalition presented an opportunity to build on what had already been accomplished. This success was particularly noticeable in the areas of command, target identification, and surveillance.

Not everything was perfect, of course, and we Europeans did recognize the existence of shortfalls that prevented us from participating in certain phases of the air campaign and in certain types of missions. We also recognized the necessity of improving most of our current capabilities. To be able do so, however, requires an increase in our defense budgets. Among the areas needing improvement are the suppression of enemy air defense, intelligence gathering, unmanned aerial vehicles, and cruise missiles.

In our view, these shortcomings resulted from limited financial resources rather than from the so-called technological gap. If the technological gap was so wide, how do you explain the fact that French Mirages and British Harriers that, from medium altitude - day and night - were able to locate, identify, and strike their targets with precision guided ammunitions? This was less true in the second part of the air campaign, when it was decided to use fighter aircraft flying at medium altitude to deal with targets that normally should have been attacked at very low altitude by combat helicopters more suited to such a mission.

Why, if this gap was so important, were the German Tornadoes able to strike Serbian air defense systems with their American-made anti-radar missiles? These, and other accomplishments, have led Europeans to believe the American analysts have slightly exaggerated the magnitude of this technological gap.

The Kosovo operation demonstrated the importance of interoperability within the framework of a coalition. This proved to be particularly important in the area of information sharing systems because of the variety and complexity of reconnaissance and intelligence systems contributed by each of the coalition members.

Of course, a certain degree of interoperability has been achieved by using NATO compatible information and communication systems, completed by special links with national systems, but the flow of information between the different networks was too slow.

In an ideal world, the solution to interoperability would be the use of jointly-developed equipment manufactured by several nations. However, we know that operational interests often diverge from national industrial interests. I do not think it unrealistic to add that, in the United States, actions by Congress often make the Transatlantic relationship difficult.

What can be done to overcome these obstacles? I fear this divergence needs to be addressed in the very near future, and we all agree that the situation needs to improve. Reinforcement of Transatlantic industrial cooperation, through joint ventures, for instance, is probably one answer.

At the operational level, interoperability - being a compromise between diversity and coherence within a coalition - will require sustained efforts in order to allow potential partners to face a variety of situations. Such efforts must focus on the adoption of a common operational doctrine, and the acquisition of systems that will meet clearly identified operational needs.

In this regard, the emerging information technologies that are being developed to address interoperability should greatly improve the situation. On the other hand, these new technologies might cause new problems if coalition participants use conflicting technological standards.

Information technologies can solve a fair amount of interoperability problems, but technology is not the only answer. Interoperability can also be improved through common training that develops a better understanding of other coalition members and leads to common procedures.

It is also worth mentioning that the knowledge and use of a common language, English, is a great help in improving interoperability, especially in Europe, where so many different languages are spoken.

There is a tendency to imply that the issue of interoperability only concerns the forces of different countries. However, one should also consider the ability of a given country's different services to work together effectively.

Even though improvements have been made, each new operation reveals continuing, wide, and unacceptable gaps in the ability of different services - and some of their weapons, communications, and intelligence systems - to work together. This was true of all the participants in the Kosovo crisis.

There are also often doctrinal gaps between different services belonging to the same country. To many participants, joint operations are synonymous with cooperation, not integration. This problem obviously gets worse as more members are added to a coalition.

In addition, the search for interoperability should be guided by operational needs, based on the emergence of new technologies. Before using new technologies, however, the coalition's potential members should first identify the need for information exchanges, as well as national constraints on the use of existing programs.

These measures constitute not only the correct approach, but also the approach that is currently being adopted by NATO. They can be applied to a whole variety of coalitions, regardless of the participants' levels of technology, because they get the priorities right: first, operational interoperability, second, procedural interoperability, and finally, technical interoperability.

As each country has its limitations, the aim must be to ensure adequate, rather than perfect, interoperability. This can be achieved through standardization of data interfaces, allowing each participating nation to contribute fully to the coalition, while maintaining control over its national assets.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number I in the Winter of 2001.