Small Wars Journal

Whose Responsibility is Interoperability?

Wed, 06/26/2013 - 3:30am

Disclaimer: The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.

In early April, General Phil Breedlove, the President’s nominee to take over U.S. European Command (EUCOM) who was recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate, was asked at his confirmation hearing about the most important lessons learned from 10 years of NATO operations in Afghanistan.  Leading the list was the increased ability of U.S. and allied troops to literally fight and operate side by side: “First of all, NATO in general, and some of the partners, has become much more interoperable.”[1]  General Breedlove went on to say that the risk of losing this interoperability was one of his key concerns in thinking about how the North Atlantic alliance moves forward beyond Afghanistan.

Indeed, if there is one thing the United States military has come to value over the last decade of war – perhaps the only thing – it is having interoperable coalition partners.  Having a coalition face down Saddam Hussein or the Taliban is not simply a matter of diplomatic window-dressing, designed to give the patina of international sanction.  Although the operational necessity of Tonga’s contribution to the coalition supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom might have been questionable, the more recent ‘surge’ effort in Afghanistan – where non-U.S. coalition forces made up a third of the necessary forces deployed in 2009 – proved there may be instances where the United States needs the mass provided by a collective, coalition endeavor.  Certainly there are challenges operating with and through alliances, but the benefits typically outweigh the costs – it is usually better operationally, politically, and economically to have coalition allies with caveats, for instance, than no coalition allies at all.

The challenge facing General Breedlove and those that agree with him is that there is insufficient attention being paid today to the interoperability imperative, perhaps out of the naïve hope that America and its allies are done with long, hard slogs on the ground.  Too frequently in the U.S. defense establishment, there is little responsibility taken for building and maintaining interoperability, especially among the most likely, most capable future coalition partners such as Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.  While there are some in the U.S. defense establishment, such as General Breedlove, that remain concerned about the loss of the interoperability gains made to date in places like Afghanistan, this concern has yet to shape policy or drive execution in a concerted, consistent, and compelling way.

In part, the bifurcated military structure of the U.S. defense establishment plays a role in this.  In that structure, the individual services – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines – are responsible for providing trained and ready forces, while the geographic and functional combatant commanders – like EUCOM or Central Command (CENTCOM) – are responsible for conducting actual military operations.  On the one hand, personnel within combatant command headquarters tend to think of interoperability as a service function – after all, the combatant commands are not responsible for whether and how Soldiers are trained, or whether and how they might operate side by side with a British Soldier, for instance.  On the other hand, personnel within the service headquarters tend to think that interoperability with any particular ally or set of allies is a combatant commander responsibility, driven by the requirements of specific operations – the service focus is on the training and readiness of U.S. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines.[2]   

This has been particularly true of the U.S. Army in recent years.  Whenever the Army has thought about ‘partners,’ it has typically been in the context of teaching foreign militaries how to do something they previously could not.  The primary emphasis has been to instruct lesser capable militaries on basic tactics and techniques, not build and maintain interoperability across the range of military operations with our closest, most likely, most effective military partners.  Even the relatively new Regionally Aligned Forces (RAF) concept – which is an important, welcome tool, primarily intended to enable the Army to respond more energetically to combatant command requirements for forces – falls short of emphasizing the importance of interoperability with America’s most capable, most likely future coalition partners.[3]  For example, although the RAF concept is viewed as the Army’s means for helping to achieve the broadest of U.S. national security ends, which of course includes strengthened alliances, there is very little of the RAF concept that is driven by a requirement for interoperability.  And given the RAF model of “habitual alignment of units with combatant commands,”[4] the interoperability gains are likely to be limited if the same Army unit trains and exercises with the French army, for example, over and over, potentially limiting exposure of other U.S. Army units to similar training with the French and America’s other most capable, most likely coalition partners.

One potential tool in the Army’s arsenal for maintaining interoperability is the ABCA program – designed to promote interoperability between the armies of America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  However, this has languished in recent years due to a lack of available forces, funding cuts, and episodic senior-level attention.  Previously, the ABCA countries held one exercise every other year, but in 2004, the exercise was cancelled because there were not enough units available from the participating countries – the operational tempo of ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan made it difficult to send even small units to participate.  In 2006, the exercise was cancelled again because the designated host for that year – Australia – was fully engaged in operations in East Timor.  Instead, the Australians organized a large seminar for representatives from ABCA countries to attend.  Thereafter, the ABCA countries decided to downgrade their biennial training exercise to an ‘activity.’

In 2008, thanks largely to strong sponsorship by General Richard Cody, then the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff, the United States took the lead – out of cycle – for that year’s ABCA activity.[5]  The event – Cooperative Spirit 2008 – was held at the U.S. Army’s only overseas Combat Training Center (CTC), in Hohenfels, Germany, from September to October 2008.  It was the first ABCA ‘boots-on-the-ground’ Field Training Exercise (FTX) conducted in roughly 20 years and the first combined CTC experience for the ABCA Program.[6]  Over 1,600 Soldiers representing each of the ABCA Armies participated in individual and small team training, leader training, platoon and company situational training exercises (STX), brigade combat team (BCT) planning, and a command post exercise (CPX).

Unfortunately, that event was to be a major exception.  In 2010, no biennial activity was held, in part due to high operational tempo and a lack of available funding.  Instead, ABCA participants agreed to postpone any future activity until 2011.  The 2011 activity – known as Allied Aurora – was a distributed training event in a synthetic environment.  However, as a distributed event – one where the ABCA Armies each participated from their home stations instead of actually coming together at the same location – it was of limited utility in building and maintaining interoperability.

In 2012, again due to funding shortfalls, no major ABCA exercises or activities were planned.  The next event – to be held in 2014 in Australia – will consist of an amphibious operations activity in which the U.S. Marine Corps will play a prominent role.  The U.S. Army will contribute individuals, but not an entire unit.[7]

Just as waning attention to and resourcing of the ABCA program may signal the Army’s limited institutional interest in building interoperability for future coalition missions, so too does the degree to which the Army addresses this topic in its doctrines and strategies.  Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively given the experience of the last decade in coalition operations, multinational interoperability for Army forces is not a requirement in any Army doctrine.  In the Army’s operations doctrine, known as Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-0 – Unified Land Operations, the Army acknowledged that it would operate “frequently” in a multinational effort, and even goes so far as to recognize that when U.S. military force is integrated with the actions of multinational partners, the results can overwhelm the enemy – hence, an implicit, if not explicit, admission that foreign partners can act as combat multipliers of a sort for U.S. objectives.[8]  However, this doctrine does not define any particular requirement for U.S. Army forces to be interoperable with those combat-multiplying foreign security forces.

One might expect such guidance in Army doctrine on training.  Last August, the Army released an updated doctrine on, “Training Units and Developing Leaders,” which, “establishes the Army’s doctrine for training units and developing leaders for unified land operations.”[9]  And yet the words ‘coalitions’ and ‘interoperability’ are not mentioned at all, and multinational force training opportunities for Army units are recommended on an “as needed” basis.[10]  Given the importance placed on coalition warfare in higher-level guidance – more on this below – and the experience of the Army over the last decade in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where coalition operations were critical, it may appear somewhat ironic that greater attention is not paid to multinational interoperability in a doctrinal publication that posits training must be, “relevant [and] realistic.”[11]

The more recently released Army Field Manual (FM) 3-22, “Army Support to Security Cooperation,” states that the Army’s, “primary contribution to building partner military capacity is to lead efforts to collaborate with foreign partners in building security capacity.”[12]  This is a very different notion than building and maintaining interoperability with America’s most capable, most likely future coalition partners and allies.  Typically, building security capacity emphasizes teaching foreign military forces something they do not currently know, or building a capacity they do not currently have.  In contrast, building and maintaining interoperability with key allies focuses on the ability of U.S. Army units to operate side by side or embedded with allied or partner military units across the full range of military operations.  Admittedly, FM 3-22 notes that Army security cooperation activities “develop the ability of partner countries to operate with U.S. and allied military forces” in multinational operations.[13]  But the tone of the doctrine – exemplified by the statement, “As the capacity and capability of [foreign security forces] increase, U.S. forces…develop the capacity for foreign force and U.S. force interoperability”[14] – is clearly one of American forces using theater security cooperation to enable foreign militaries to do things they previously could not do.  That is, emphasis is on building partner capacity generally, not necessarily or specifically on maintaining interoperability with allies that are already capable and who are therefore America’s most likely future coalition partners.

Moreover, FM 3-22 fully acknowledges the reduced salience of security cooperation for the purposes of interoperability with core partners:

“During the Cold War, security cooperation primarily focused on interoperability programs with core partners and less frequently on building military capabilities of a weak and fledgling nation. In light of the events of September 11, 2001, coupled with the future security environment, the security cooperation focus is shifting towards building partnerships and partner capacity.”[15]

The Army also recently released its 2013 Army Strategic Planning Guidance, but this document only references coalitions in the context of Army space operations.[16]  Furthermore, it mentions interoperability with foreign partners only in passing – first, the Army guidance references the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance’s emphasis on building partner capacity and interoperability, and second, it cites combined exercises with partners as an example of a tool that can both prevent conflict and shape the security environment by increasing interoperability with partners.[17]  What the 2013 Army Strategic Planning Guidance does not do is direct the Army to develop forces capable of operating seamlessly with America’s most capable, most likely future coalition partners across the range of military operations, in the same way it dictates Army pursuit of a modernized Network, changes to the Army’s force generation model, or improving Army counter-proliferation capabilities.  Instead, the Army Strategic Planning Guidance document places greater emphasis on the importance of achieving ‘interoperability’ with other U.S. services and special operations forces.[18]

These doctrinal, institutional, organizational, or even cultural hindrances frustrate the Army’s pursuit of interoperability with key potential coalition partners, which is paradoxical given strategic-level national security guidance that seems quite clear on the need for interoperability in the force.  For example, the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance mentioned above notes that, “U.S. forces will plan to operate whenever possible with allied and coalition forces.”[19]  In very similar language, the 2010 QDR noted, “Whenever possible, the United States will use force in an internationally sanctioned coalition with allies.”[20]  It went on to note, “We have an enduring need to build future coalitions.”[21]

Thankfully though, the Chief of Staff of the Army appears to be pushing the institutional Army to embrace the importance of interoperability as a fundamental, core mission requirement.  General Ray Odierno’s article two months ago in Foreign Policy – and especially his contention that, “efficiencies gained through [military to military] partnerships lead to greater stability in peacetime and greater effectiveness in war, all at costs far below what would be required for any one nation to attempt to operate alone” – indicates that he values the important role the U.S. Army plays in enabling coalition partners to operate side by side with U.S. forces.[22]

Admittedly, General Odierno did not use the word “interoperable” in his article, and he hangs his hat largely on the national interests served through military to military efforts.  Nonetheless, he appears to be leaning toward adapting the Army’s outlook and emphasis – toward an Army that truly embraces the notion that interoperability and coalition-building are instrumental to maximizing its own capabilities, and hence in its own best institutional interests. 

However, this will not necessarily be a smooth or easy path.  Too often in recent years, many within the Army have focused on providing trained and ready forces without consideration of whether the definition of ‘trained’ included the ability to operate across the range of military operations with America’s most capable, most likely allies and partners.  At the same time, recently updated Army doctrine leaves the role of and importance of interoperability for U.S. Army forces somewhat vague at best. 

Nonetheless, if the U.S. Army comes to embrace the critical role it can and should play in building and maintaining interoperability with America’s most capable, most likely future coalition partners and in promoting expeditionary capabilities and outlooks among those same allies, it will likely find a very willing partner in General Breedlove and the U.S. European Command.  And together, the U.S. Army and EUCOM will succeed in providing the Commander in Chief with a richer set of options whenever the next crisis unfolds and America looks for allies to shoulder the burden.

[1] General Philip Breedlove, testimony delivered at the Senate Armed Services Committee Confirmation Hearing on the Nomination of Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove to be U.S. European Command Commander and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, CQ Congressional Transcripts, April 11, 2013.

[2] Interviews with various Army staff, January 30, 2012.

[3] This contention is based on a review of unclassified briefing slides on the RAF concept provided to the author, dated February 26, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] General Cody was Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army from June 24, 2004 to July 31, 2008 – he issued the invitation for the 2008 event to the other ABCA Armies in 2006.

[6] See the Cooperative Spirit 2008 Executive Summary, available at

[7] The Army is not alone in this – while the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy coordinate with the same allies, none of their parallel efforts involve exercises or similar activities.

[8] United States Army, ADP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, October 10, 2011, p. 9.

[9] United States Army, ADP 7-0, Training Units and Developing Leaders, August 23, 2012, p. ii.

[10] Ibid., p. 3.

[11] Ibid., p. 5.  The somewhat broader “Army Doctrine Reference Publication 7-0, Training Units and Developing Leaders,” which augments the fundamental principles found in the shorter ADP 7-0 publication, does not address interoperability at all either.

[12] Emphasis added.  Department of the Army, FM 3-22, Army Support to Security Cooperation, January 22, 2013, p. 1-8.

[13] Ibid., p. 1-22.

[14] Ibid., p. 4-7.

[15] Emphasis added.  Ibid., p. 1-24.

[16] United States Army, Army Strategic Planning Guidance, 2013, p. 7.

[17] Ibid., Foreward and p. 2.

[18] Ibid., pp. 8, 9.

[19] Emphasis added.  U.S. Department of Defense, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” commonly known as the Defense Strategic Guidance, January 2012, p. 4.

[20] U.S. Department of Defense, “Quadrennial Defense Review Report,” February 2010, p. 10, available at

[21] Ibid., p. 74.

[22] General Ray Odierno, “The Force of Tomorrow,” Foreign Policy, February 4, 2013.


About the Author(s)

Dr. John R. Deni is a Research Professor of Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational (JIIM) Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute.  He previously worked for eight years as a political advisor for senior U.S. military commanders in Europe.  Prior to that, he spent two years as a strategic planner specializing in the military-to-military relationship between the United States and its European allies.  Before working in Germany, Dr. Deni spent seven years in Washington, DC as a consultant specializing in national security issues for the U.S. Departments of Defense, Energy, and State. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnRDeni.


Colonel Bob retired

Wed, 07/09/2014 - 9:41pm

I agree with Vitesse and Puissance that there is a lot about ABCA and not much about NATO. Especially considering GEN Breedlove’s other “hat”, that being Supreme Allied Command – Europe (SACEUR). The NATO Standardization Agency (changed 1 July 2014 to NATO Standardization Office) currently has over 1500 standardization agreements (STANAGs) covering doctrinal and material issues. NATO has dozens of working groups that produce these agreements, which must be ratified by member nations before becoming effective.
The US is an active participant in these working groups, with delegates generally coming from the doctrine or material commands of the services.

Given the so-called "pivot to the East," has the priority and emphasis given to coalitions and interoperability likewise shifted somewhat from west to east?

Herein, the United States hoping, in this region, to both (1) recruit new members and (2) improve and expand upon the capabilities of its current partners?

Thus, not so much that:

a. Insufficient attention is being paid today to the coalition and interoperability imperative but, rather,

b. That the emphasis on such activities has now shifted -- as with the strategy -- more toward the East?

Vitesse et Puissance

Thu, 06/27/2013 - 1:17pm

I think it is fascinating that this article goes on and on (and on) about ABCA, but very little about NATO per se, and nothing about the bilateral staff talks process. Nor does it say anything about culture and language skills, or FAO program management. Yes, yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. We send our allies crisper and truer messages by what we are willing to spend money on. And by the meetings where our allies show up in force, but the US side sends its contractors. And while I'm complaining, when will we see, if ever, the ITAR restructuring we were promised four years ago ? Guess I didn't get the memo.

Seriously, emphasizing our "special relationship" with - and only with other English speaking countries sends the wrong signal to our allies and partners. Just because the Special Forces is so special, they speak all those cool languages, that does not absolve Big Army from its responsibility to train for and execute its coalition doctrine. This could of course, be just another mission to pawn off on the reserves, like the armor and artillery and transportation specialties when they go out of fashion. Just don't expect same day service.