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It's Not Always a Technical Issue That Inhibits Coalition Interoperability

Trust and national politics are major influences on effective operations.
Officials from four nations address issues confronting efforts to achieve coalition interoperability. Credit: Bob Goodwin Photography

Officials from four nations address issues confronting efforts to achieve coalition interoperability. Credit: Bob Goodwin Photography

Enabling military information systems to interoperate in a coalition environment will take more than just technologies that shake hands easily. Countries with diverse opinions of their ad-hoc partners will complicate already difficult logistics during even simple operations.

Trust lies at the heart of coalition interoperability, offered keynote panelists opening the third day of TechNet Indo-Pacific 2019, being held November 19-21 in Honolulu. Participants represented four of the Five Eyes nations from three continents as they explored the issues inhibiting effective coalitions.

Lt. Col. Tim Minion, Australian Defence Force, HQ Joint Operations Command, noted the complexity of building a coalition. “It’s rarely a military decision to form a coalition,” he observed. “When a coalition comes together, it represents far more than a military action.

“We want to be able to form a coalition ad-hoc and quickly,” he continued. “The way to do that is for people to trust and understand each other.”

And building that trust takes time and effort. “Nations are very hesitant to share vulnerability information,” noted Col. Michael Maxwell, SC, CD (Ret.), Canadian Forces. “The Five Eyes nations are willing to share that, but other allies less so.”

Col. Minion cited the importance of repetition in building trust, saying Australia often practices with coalition partners. Col. Aaron Osburn, USA, of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, agreed. “We exercise with 22 different countries. We’re at different stages with different countries when we try to collaborate, share information and exercise,” he said, adding, “It depends on what we’re trying to achieve with what country.

“[Coalition interoperability] is slow-moving, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Even with trust established, technical issues native to individual countries can be daunting. “Without a formal alliance, a big challenge is trying to get everyone to a common standard,” Col. Osburn offered. “Because they are mature nations, they are less likely to work together.”

Patrick Baker, U.K. Ministry of Defence, elaborated on that point. “When politicians form a coalition, they sometimes don’t understand the nations that are part of the coalition,” he related. “Those nations may have relationships with other nations that cause friction.”

Or, they may have domestic issues that limit efforts to achieve interoperability. “We try to buy from our own host nations,” he said. “That pleases the politicians, but it doesn’t always help the military solution.”

Col. Minion agreed. “The military alone doesn’t decide what systems to procure. The French government, for example, will insist on purchasing French radios. Also the U.K. Ministry of Defence.”

Baker also cited expenses. “We’ve had to rebuild on every single coalition operation we had over the past 20 years, and this is costly and extremely difficult. Most nations are not in a position to do that.”