European Affairs

Common NATO Standards Will Be Vital in Future Conflicts     Print Email
Rear Admiral Jan H. Eriksen

Director, NATO Standardization Agency

Interoperability is probably the most important issue for militaries of today, and recent operations, such as those in Kosovo and Afghanistan, show that it is continually growing in importance. But our efforts to achieve interoperability in NATO do not attract attention, either from political or from military leaders, and are often criticized as inadequate.

Addressing the issue in Brussels recently, General Joseph W. Ralston, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, gave a most welcome answer to the critics. Rather than stress our deficiencies, he said, one should look at all the elements that bring the allies together - all the standardization agreements and joint manuals and textbooks to support cultural and human interoperability through doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures. Because of that common foundation, he said, we share the ways in which we think and operate. It is the basis for everything we do, and it is more important than for all to have the same weapons and equipment. He is absolutely correct.

Military standardization can be a tremendous force multiplier. If the level of standardization is adequate, then the overall efficiency of combined forces will be greater than the sum of the individual components. But, too much standardization tends to be negative, and the balance is not always easy to find.

The most fundamental requirement of standardization and interoperability is knowledge. We must know what is required and how others are carrying out their business, preferably early enough to allow for mental preparations. What would happen if you arrived in the UK not knowing you have to drive on the left?

Standardization is and has always been mainstream NATO business. We have been doing it for more than 50 years. As I see it today, NATO standardization, the standardization agreements and the allied publications are the glue that holds the Alliance together. Without it, NATO cannot work.

Yet NATO has never defined how much or how deeply to standardize. There is a notion that we have not done nearly enough, and standardization has seldom drawn the attention of politicians or senior military officials. Strangely enough, however, standardization has become second nature, which we take for granted, and for that very reason the Alliance today risks losing what it built up over half a century. If we are not consciously maintaining and revitalizing it, it will break down.

Today, standardization is more important than ever before. More and more nations are joining the Alliance, and NATO's way of doing business is being used by coalition forces outside the Alliance framework.

Coalition military action in Afghanistan was based largely on allied standards, and many of the operations there could not have been accomplished otherwise. As a result, NATO standardization is growing even more important, but unfortunately the resources devoted to it are limited.

We must appreciate that the nature of war has changed dramatically since the Cold War. The Cold War was a "scripted" war. The enemy and friends were known, and we knew which friends would be above and behind and which would be to our left and our right. We based our thinking on "knowing" how to defend and counterattack. Consequently, lack of interoperability could be compensated by this modus operandi.

Today, however, we are suffering from a lack of standardization agreements. The fact that NATO does not have doctrine and procedures for operating offensive and defensive air assets in the same tactical setting contributed to not employing American Apache helicopters that were deployed to Kosovo. Lack of multinational doctrine and procedures is also denying an efficient use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). So maybe we should do something about the doctrine and procedures before we procure too many UAVs.

In the Cold War, NATO armies were either in key areas on the East-West German border or in their home countries. They did not expect to operate together, certainly not among the lower echelons. Today our armies are in Kosovo in multinational brigades, consisting of multinational battalions and even multinational companies and troops. But we do not have any agreed procedures on how to work multinationally in that setup.

These are issues that we need to address with some urgency. Of course they are not as sexy as building the new technology. But the technology has little value without the doctrines and procedures. The management challenges must be seen in the light of the fundamental changes NATO has undergone during the last ten years, and which accelerated after September 11.

Today most capitals, military establishments and policy groups are struggling to comprehend the total transformation that is needed in military affairs. I believe that the changes will have to go further than anything known in previous history. We need more than a revolution in military affairs; we need a total change of mindset.

It is not only our nuclear weapons that I believe have outlived their usefulness, except for deterrence. Today's convention-al weapons have also become too powerful to be used to their full potential.

This is because the concept of total war is not accepted in today's world of high-level general education and information technology. Western public opinion no longer accepts our previous military doctrines, which were based upon "Strike hard, strike fast," so we have to reconsider our strategies and methods of warfighting.

Likewise, we must find measures of effectiveness for weapons other than range, velocity and explosive capacity. We should not spend all our money on long-range precision-guided munitions that might be effectively countered by placing human shields, including women and children, in front of or in the targets, accompanied by television cameras.

We shall need §exible forces that are not in everyday use and can be deployed quickly for sustained operations. They will have to be able to work closely with similar forces from other countries. They will need abilities recently acquired in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Defensive capabilities against powerful, long-range conventional weapons will be required to deter and defend against the use of such weapons. But we shall not need to maintain offensive capabilities at operational and strategic levels.

From now on, most NATO missions are likely to be decided in the light of prevailing political circumstances, which means that we cannot work out detailed operational plans, or identify appropriate coalition forces, in advance.

This is a completely new challenge. It means that we shall have to make all the forces that might be involved in a future mission interoperable. Core interoperability will be a basic prerequisite for any mission. Since the mission cannot be fully described in advance, such primal interoperability among all possible participants has to be achieved in advance.

This core interoperability consists of factors such as knowledge of friendly forces: how they think and operate, common goals, the terminology they use, their strategic and operational doctrines, common message formats, encryption and frequency sets and the common codification of spare parts. If friendly forces do not have a certain level of interoperability in these areas, the mission may fail. Such lapses are showstoppers.

The second type of interoperability covers areas such as equipment, logistics and procedures. Improving interoperability in these fields will improve the effectiveness of operations, but only up to a certain point. Too much standardization will be more negative than positive and should be avoided. If you standardize too much you take away the incentive to move further on.

The first type of interoperability is a set of prerequisites that must be in place before even thinking of a military operation. The crucial question will be how much interoperability is needed to avert the risk of the operation failing. The second type is more directly linked to the specific task or mission. Here the minimum level has to be defined on a case-by-case basis.

It may be surprising that I am playing down the standardization of materiel, weapons, platforms and so on. If the core interoperability factors are satisfied, then we need some standardization in other factors of interoperability - but not too much.

If all NATO nations buy the Joint Strike Fighter, we might celebrate on the day of implementation. But not the next day, I would suggest. How would we improve to keep our edge? I believe that NATO was superior to the Warsaw Pact because the Pact standardized too much as a result of central decisions in Moscow.

In the long run, Western virtues such as decentralization, initiative, §exibility, individuality and competition will prevail over the shortsighted benefits of complete standardization. If all the allies

have the same Joint Strike Fighters, or the European fighter, they may gain short-term advantages, but it will be a losing formula in the long run.

This is a question of common values and priorities, not just of knowledge. There was an example after the sinking of the Russian submarine, the Kursk. I think that many of us in the West were wrong to criticize my colleagues in the Russian navy for not being as proficient as they should with regard to submarine escape and rescue matters.

What did the Russian navy do? It followed the priorities of its leaders, dating from the Soviet era - personal safety was not as important as in the West. How can you criticize them for not being proficient in something that they were not prioritized to do?

We have tended to forget issues like common values and goals and objectives in NATO, because we have grown so close together over a long time. During the Cold War, we operated so much together, exercised together, trained together, lived together and learned from each other together that we became interwoven. We did not think about other cultures and priorities. But now that we are reaching out to others, this is becoming extremely important.

The Kursk incident also showed that there is not any proper, agreed way of translating between Russian and English or French, the two NATO languages. We have been working for 50 years to try to understand each other inside the Alliance. We have books explaining specialized military terms in English and French, and we have sat in committees for days, months and years to agree on the terms. We have not done anything like this with the Russians.

One of my top priorities for interoperability is to make sure that the Allies share common understandings of policy aims and objectives. Today doctrine development is given the highest priority in the operational domain of NATO standardization.

NATO policy for standardization, however, is based on the principle of cooperation between independent, sovereign nations. Hence, to implement standards is voluntary for nations. Many view this to be negative and inefficient, but as I have argued these are long term issues. However, if the Strategic Commanders prioritize the critical issues, I think we can deliver - fast.

The formal definition of a standardization directive or agreement among several or all the member nations is the adoption of like or similar military equipment, munitions supplies and stores, operational, logistical and administration procedures. National acceptance of the NATO allied publication issued by the NATO Standardization Agency may be recorded as a standardization agreement - a STANAG.

We have some 1,000 standards and about 700 Allied publications in NATO in all the domains. The most are in the operational domain. There are another 280 standards under development in areas not previously covered by standards. All existing standards are reviewed at least every third year.

We must, of course, give the war fighters the best in all domains, sooner rather than later. But at the same time, we need to understand the organizational challenge faced by many nations. A standard has to be translated before it can be implemented through national policy and training programs. This takes time and resources. The slowness of the process should not be viewed as a sign of inefficiency.

NATO should set itself the immediate goal of tackling the known interoperability showstoppers, and fix the seven most important interoperability gaps with regard to doctrine and procedures. I do not believe we can manage more than about seven at any one time. If we have more than that as top priorities, we will not be able to prioritize anything.

We should also identify a list of core standards as a basis for all military operations, in NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, coalition actions of any kind and national operations, including those of the United States.

One of the problems we face is that, as most nations are drawing down their forces today, the same forces might be tasked to operate in different configurations without adequate time in between to retrain for different modes of operations. There can be a battalion, even a U.S. battalion, that is assigned in one instance to a European mission and then to a NATO or a coalition mission - even to a UN mission. There might not be enough time even for the United States to retrain its forces. It is very hard for the soldiers and the officers to cope with doing things differently.

In the light of all these considerations, it is even more important to redouble our efforts to ensure our military forces have the best possible chance of succeeding in future military operations. Standardization is truly the key to achieving the optimum level of military force interoperability and hence multinational effectiveness. It is also one of the most practical and affordable ways to reduce the impact of the technology and interoperability gaps.

My agency is named the NATO Standardization Agency. I am not particularly fond of the name, as standardization is generally understood to be boring. The term "interoperability" is also not well understood. But the notion of getting military units and structures from different countries to work effectively together to fill a common aim, especially today, when the military needs to change fundamentally, is a challenge that should inspire everyone. Boring or not, it is of crucial strategic importance.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number III in the Summer of 2002.

 
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