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The Never-Ending Quest for Jointness

May 15, 2008

The need for the U.S. military services to act in concert —“jointness”­— is not a new concept. The services have been working to improve interoperability for decades. The longtime issue became an urgent problem after Grenada operations in 1983 when interoperability troubles plagued U.S. forces—a situation highlighted when a warfighter pinned down by enemy fire on that island had to use his personal commercial telephone card to call his U.S. base to request fire support from overhead gunships. The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act codified the need for joint interoperability, and the services have been striving toward that goal for more than two decades.

But true jointness is like perfection: something to aim for, but never to achieve. Being able to operate jointly is a prerequisite for any forces going into combat, whether a nation is acting unilaterally or as part of a coalition. Planners as well as operators are working diligently to eliminate interoperability. Yet, despite unanimity of purpose, no one is likely to see ultimate jointness attained in the foreseeable future.

There are several reasons for this shortfall. Foremost among these is that services with distinctly separate roles want equipment tailored to their needs. With mission requirements first among criteria, interoperability problems are bound to emerge despite the best efforts of planners to design interoperability into systems. At some point, authorities are faced with the tough choice of interoperability versus ideal performance.

Another reason is the rapidly changing face of technology. The information revolution is advancing technologies so quickly that forces must scramble to accommodate new capabilities in much less time  than previously executed. The result is that new technologies rush off to war, and they bring with them unforeseen interoperability conflicts. Forces in the midst of combat cannot—and should not—have to wait for potentially life-saving technologies and capabilities, but speedy technology insertion increases the likelihood of latent interoperability problems emerging later.

And then there is the changing mission of the military. Faced with an asymmetrical enemy, U.S. and coalition forces have been forced to adopt unconventional tactics, techniques and procedures. The very definition of military superiority is changing as commanders recognize that success is not defined by force-on-force strength alone. Activities such as peacekeeping and other humanitarian operations can weigh heavily on the success or failure of a military action. Learning  to deal with local cultural issues adds to the complexity of a mission, which in turn increases the difficulty of achieving interoperability for the mission’s diverse activities.

These challenges do not lessen the need for continued pursuit of jointness. While the goal remains elusive, the need remains paramount. In this global society in which the Free World finds itself confronting a number of threats, the need for interoperability is greater than ever. An individual nation’s military services must be able to conduct joint operations seamlessly, and a multinational coalition must operate as a team and not as a collection of groups working independently toward a common goal. The whole must be greater than the sum of its parts.

This is a situation where pursuing the goal is as important as reaching the goal itself—not because chasing is better than catching, but because the chase is never-ending. New technologies will emerge to challenge interoperability, and new missions will task planners to adapt doctrines that ensure force compatibility. True jointness may never be achieved; but as it comes closer to reality, the Free World will be better equipped to overcome the threats that it faces—and will face in the future.  The Editor