Toward an Interoperable Europe

September 2005
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

The U.S. decision to reduce the number of its forces in Europe has increased the need for interoperable systems among the militaries of the Continent. For decades European nations could focus on working with a large U.S. force structure, secure in the thought that “if it works with the United States, it will work throughout NATO.” Now the interoperability focus must shift to reach across the range of European nations.

NATO always has emphasized the importance of interoperability, and in the past few years, it has promoted efforts to transform its forces along network-centric lines. These efforts have included ensuring that command, control, communications computer and intelligence (C4I) systems support jointness and coalition operations. The reduction in size of the U.S. footprint surely will change the nature of alliance military relations on the Continent.

This affects both “old Europe” and “new Europe.” Traditional NATO members tend to have C4I systems that evolved with advances in technology, and they long have worked within alliance standards and guidelines to interoperate with both the organization and its military forces to varying degrees. Many of the newer members of NATO, freed from the constraints of membership in the Warsaw Pact, nonetheless found their forces equipped with less-capable Soviet-era C4I systems that didn’t come close to meeting the standards needed for alliance interoperability. The “new Europe” nations had to equip their forces with newer materiel while establishing the means to introduce future technology upgrades as needed.

But technology imbalances are not the impetus for greater European interoperability. The traditional architecture of the Atlantic alliance featured the United States military as an on-scene partner to share security efforts with the other NATO members. Experts have estimated that 25 percent of the U.S. defense budget during the Cold War was devoted to the defense of Europe. This configuration dominated the NATO mindset throughout the Cold War, culminating in its successful conclusion and the freeing of captive peoples across the Continent.

And, as should be expected, alliance operational C4I reflected the large U.S. presence. In effect, the United States was the mainframe at the hub of the network known as NATO. Now, the drawdown of U.S. forces in Europe is changing the alliance from a hub-and-spoke system to more of a distributed network. Previously, when two European NATO members could not communicate interoperably with each other directly, they knew they could communicate with a U.S. system, and that usually took care of their needs. In some cases, countries felt more comfortable interoperating with the United States—their trans-Atlantic ally—vice a nation with a shared border.

But both that concern and that solution have largely disappeared. While the United States remains a strong and active NATO member, with the decrease in its European presence, it no longer is at the nexus of every potential alliance activity. European members are as likely to be involved in purely European activities as they are with the United States.

So, interoperability no longer can be defined just as being linked with a hub that is connected to other elements by spokes. NATO interoperability now must reach across a Web of national relationships that comprise the emerging nature of the Atlantic alliance. And, that capability promises greater flexibility among options for deterring, preventing and defending against the terror network that seeks to sow misery among innocents worldwide.

The United States remains as dedicated as ever to NATO and to the role that the alliance plays in ensuring that freedom and democracy prevail where they exist and emerge where they are needed. What is changing is NATO’s C4I interoperability. That will now reflect the greater interdependency of all the nations in NATO.

AFCEA International continues to play a vital role in ensuring this interoperability. The association, through efforts by its headquarters in the United States, its European office in Brussels and its strong chapters from Lisbon to Warsaw, has worked to bring about interoperability and network centricity across the Continent. This effort is increasing the opportunity for ethical dialogue among all nations to implement truly interoperable systems.

And, this becomes all the more important as Europe and the United States rig for the long haul in the war on terrorism. Once again the United States and Europe face a common enemy that threatens to take away the freedoms for which they have fought so hard. This war against a merciless uncompromising adversary will involve all of the freedom-loving nations in the world, and once again NATO will be at the center of this struggle.

The new network-centric concept will help provide the means of defeating this murderous enemy. The key foundation of this network centricity will be interoperable C4I. And, that C4I represents the best hope of empowerment for each NATO member to serve the cause of freedom in the war on terrorism.