European Affairs


How to Clean Up the Mess of NATO's Incompatible Weapons     Print Email
Robert G. Bell

The problems faced by armies using different kinds of weapons, particularly weapons that are incompatible with each other, have a long history. In a circular letter sent to State Governors in 1783, as the Continental Army was being disbanded after the Revolutionary War, George Washington wrote: "It is essential [to the defense of the Republic] that the same species of arms, accoutrements, and military apparatus should be introduced in every part of the United States. No one, who has not learned it from experience, can conceive the difficulty, expense, and confusion, which result from a contrary system."

The focus of Washington's complaints would be known today as problems of interoperability and standardization, two concepts that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has wrestled with for years, but which it has never adequately defined, still less achieved.

I would put it simply like this: interoperability is the ability of different weapons systems to work together. It often means changing existing national weapons to make them compatible with those of allies. Standardization means any effort toward fielding common systems that are the same in form and function.

The redoubtable defense analyst, Thomas Callaghan, once put the distinction a little more colorfully when he said, "Interoperability is what we do with the mess we have. Standardization is what we do to avoid having the mess in the future."

At the height of the Cold War, NATO faced a range of serious interoperability problems. A classic one was at sea, where, given the history of close cooperation between the American and British navies, one might have expected Royal Navy ships to be able to take on board fuel from American tankers. In fact, they were unable to do so because the nozzle sizes of the hoses were different, as was the pumping pressure used by the two navies.

In the air, the same American interceptor plane was §own by Dutch and German air forces, but German pilots were unable to rearm and refuel if they landed in the Netherlands, and vice versa, because of interoperability problems.

These problems persist today. The fighting in Afghanistan revealed that Royal Air Force tanker aircraft §own by British aircrews are compatible with U.S. Navy carrier-based fighters conducting air strikes, but U.S. Air Force tankers are not.

But while the pursuit of interoperability was important during the Cold War, the stacking up of large national formations in a "layer cake" from North to South in Western Europe often made it possible to apply military operational fixes - or to ignore the problem.

When British and German forces could not communicate because their radio systems were incompatible, for instance, each force sent the other a liaison team that could radio back to its own forces using its own communications equipment. With today's multinational formations, many containing non-NATO units, the same operational fixes are simply not possible.

The need for interoperability in our current operations is intensified as the level of interaction between combined and joint forces is often much lower than that planned by NATO in the Cold War. Nowadays forces interact as far down as, or even below, the level of the battalion, the fighter squadron and the individual ship. In Afghanistan, the interoperability challenges have been huge at the level of Special Forces or small units with highly specialized equipment.

Recent operations in the Balkans have revealed or underscored long-standing interoperability problems in areas such as the identification of friend and foe, communications and data formats. Overall, it is C3I (command, communications, control and intelligence) that presents the hardest nut to crack.

C3I is the basis for air superiority, successful combined joint air and land attacks, and naval power projection. If there is one area where common systems, or at least common standards, are urgently needed, then this is it. Yet this is the very area where the asymmetries between U.S. capabilities and those of its Allies seem to be at their greatest, and getting greater by the day.

My essential point, however, is that the main lesson from the Balkans is not only that there was insufficient interoperability, although the deficiencies were important. It is also that the allies possessed inadequate defense capabilities in a number of areas, including C3, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, transportation and smart weapons.

All these are key capability shortfalls, which are priority areas for corrective action under NATO's Defense Capability Initiative (DCI), launched by Heads of State and Government in Washington in 1999. The Kosovo con§ict, under way for just over two weeks when the DCI was announced, imparted more urgency to its priorities and provided a stark reminder of the need for such initiatives.

A fundamental reason for such glaring asymmetries is the big difference in defense input on the two sides of the Atlantic. In 1999, European defense spending was roughly half that of the United States, and its military research and development spending just one quarter of the U.S. level. European expenditures, of course, were fragmented between different sovereign states and their respective defense establishments.

The events of September 11 have reinforced the message of the Secretary General, George Robertson, that defense spending in many countries needs to rise. As he pointed out in a speech at the Washington National Press Club, the extra burden of fighting terror will require "new money, wisely spent."

"It is simply impossible," Lord Robertson said, "to have security and defense on the cheap and at the same time request more measures, more protection against new threats. For NATO, the zero real growth mantra, which many apply in security and defense, completely ignores the security needs of the 21st century."

He went on to say: "Europeans can surely expect a tougher U.S. stance on Transatlantic burden-sharing." That suggests the logical line that should be followed as Europeans develop their own security and defense policies, under the ESDP.

My basic premise is that although rendering different systems interoperable remains in many instances an important goal of NATO armaments cooperation, the fundamental mission of the Alliance's armaments community is the enhancement of defense capabilities. That will be particularly important if Europe is to meet, or even to bring forward, its goals for its new joint rapid reaction force.

Increasingly, such enhancement can only be achieved through greater use of common programs, either by providing NATO-owned and operated capabilities, or, if that is unattainable, through pooling efforts by as many allies as possible, for example through such programs as the Joint Strike Fighter and the F-16 aircraft.

I am not questioning the importance of making different systems interoperable. When applied to existing, often highly disparate defense systems owned by a number of countries, it can bring real military benefit. But if our goal is merely to attain interoperability for new systems, then we will in a sense be perpetuating the problems - " the mess" - we have today.

As General William Kernan, NATO Strategic Commander, Atlantic, has pointed out, "The United States will continue to face interoperability challenges with the older systems of its NATO Allies. The United States must prepare for this by encouraging the establishment of international standards that all members will follow in developing their own weapons and platforms."

For most of its history, NATO has indeed endeavored to follow that approach, with the preparation and promulgation of Standardization Agreements, known as STANAGS. These agreements have brought many benefits, but one problem has always been that they can take many years to draft and agree, and by the time they are eventually concluded, the technology has moved on.

Moreover, implementation has never been mandatory, and governments have generally resisted NATO monitoring of national implementation. For many nations, particularly the main equipment producing nations, this approach is usually acceptable only if it is based on their own standards.

When a former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe was asked to list the main impediments to standardization, he replied, "There are four of them - the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany."

Of course, common programs are not a panacea. According to the well-known adage, when two countries decide to build an item of defense equipment together, they each end up contributing two thirds of the cost.

Programs involving many countries, such as AWACS, are difficult to establish and to manage. But compared to the interoperability approach, common programs such as AWACS are the most efficient and cost-effective way of meeting NATO military requirements and achieving Alliance-wide defense capability enhancements.

We need to address urgently how we can improve procedures and processes so that more common equipment programs can be established. More streamlined common funding approaches could have an important role to play.

Let us take the example of Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS), which vividly illustrates the trade-offs and dilemmas that are inherent in the choice between interoperable national systems and a standardized NATO system. A common AGS capability for NATO is the highest non-funded acquisition priority of the Alliance's Strategic Commanders and a critical action item under the DCI.

Numerous national airborne ground surveillance systems now exist or will be fielded in the near future. They include the U.S. Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), the French HORIZON helicopter system, the Italian CRESO helicopter system, and the UK Airborne Stand-off Radar (ASTOR) system. Unmanned aerial platforms, which would provide an AGS capability include the U.S. Global Hawk and the Predator, which has seen action in Afghanistan.

The Strategic Commanders, however, have repeatedly underlined that national assets will contribute to, but not fully satisfy, the military requirements for implementing Alliance strategy. They want a core NATO-owned and operated system, supplemented by interoperable national assets.

After 10 years of effort, however, there exists today no true NATO AGS capability - although a proposal forwarded by Admiral Nigel Guild, Chairman of the AGS Steering Committee, is now gaining some support.

There is some more good news. Following the events of September 11, the NATO Council reaffirmed its commitment to a NATO-owned and operated AGS core capability, and set a target date of 2010 for making it operational. So, while we are still some way from the goal, we have set a promising way forward.

I believe that in the weeks and months ahead, the need to pursue more common programs will become more and more evident. We at NATO will certainly do all in our power to pursue such an approach with vision and with determination, so that the men and women of our armed forces, whom we are again sending into harm's way to defend our democracies and our collective security, are given the best tools and means to do the job. That is exactly what George Washington was talking about.


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