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The Road to Interoperability

The United States and the United Kingdom are allies in military operations around the world. In this article, a British officer examines the possibility of true interoperability between the two nations’ Armed Forces.

One of the key challenges for allied militaries working together is language. Defining terms, therefore, is fundamental at the beginning of all bilateral or multilateral processes and meetings. Representatives from each of the nations must provide definitions for the words that may not be understood by personnel from the other militaries. Sharing definitions is key to allied interoperability.

Finding a formal definition of interoperability, however, is easier said than done. Most definitions of interoperability focus on coordination and cooperation and ordinarily refer to computer and information systems. In the military, we take interoperability to mean being able to work together with another military and, in its most encompassing form, operating together as one; sharing information, equipment, or even subunits; and exchanging assets with little or no impact on the mission. The narrower definitions do not fit with these military aspirations, though, as we mean more than cooperation and they focus on the technology-related aspects of interoperability that have nothing to do with making it easier to sustain a deployed multinational force.

Interoperability Rock Drill

Despite this lack of clarity in the definition, the United Kingdom and the United States have been developing a logistics interoperability plan over a number of months, exploring what areas, if any, exist in which they can operate together. The work to date culminated in a United Kingdom-United States interoperability review of concept drill, also known as a rock drill, which took place in the United Kingdom in March 2008. The teams from each side of the Atlantic that were involved in the preparation identified four areas of potential interoperability for further exploration: command and control, information management systems, transportation and equipment, and logistics support services.

Binational groups of subject-matter experts were ensconced in separate rooms for a week to see if they could determine where the two countries were already interoperable, which areas were beyond the scope of interoperability, and which areas should be further developed—a somewhat challenging task made even more challenging because they were not always speaking the same language. (What exactly does “like white on rice” mean, for example?) A plethora of issues were raised and discussed and resulted in the identification of six key areas in which progress could be made.

Command and Control of U.S. and U.K. Units

One potential area for improvement involves the names and structures of our logistics organizations. The U.S. structure includes theater sustainment commands (TSCs), expeditionary sustainment commands (ESCs), and sustainment brigades as opposed to the United Kingdom’s joint force logistic component, Army logistic brigades, and logistic and maintenance regiments. The question is how those organizations are best set up to talk to one another and handle tasks and issues. Which one relates to which, and who should talk to whom?

The key difficulty is that, in one sense, the nations’ logistics structures are completely different. Logistics in the United Kingdom is a large and increasingly joint activity; in the United States, the services manage logistics individually. This means that none of the organizations has an exact equivalent and two noncomparable organizations will be forced to work in parallel to achieve interoperability. The TSC, for example, is an organization dissimilar to any U.K. establishment and has no obvious counterpart.

On the other hand, rough equivalents of some units do exist, but corresponding posts will not have exactly the same responsibilities, despite some commonality. The joint force logistic component can be aligned to the ESC, and an Army logistic brigade is similar to a sustainment brigade, so interoperability between the units can be made to work. The real challenge is developing a command and control architecture to enable combined planning, decisionmaking, and execution. Performing these functions is essential for true interoperability in the military sense of the word. The rock drill team agreed that some form of joint logistics planning organization, possibly known as the Logistic Coordination Board (LCB), is required. Essentially, the LCB should plan and make decisions, and the ESCs and Army logistic brigades should execute the plan. The LCB should be part of the Combined Joint Task Force Headquarters, but it is essential that all U.S. and U.K. logistics formations are represented on the board.

Interoperability and Information Systems

Regarding logistics information systems, the rock drill team discovered that a great deal of activity is taking place at the national level to improve logistics information systems under network architectures. While both nations have the same outcome in mind (improved situational awareness, more accurate monitoring of the supply chain, and improved maintenance support), their efforts are taking place in isolation and interoperability has not been factored in to date. Part of the reason for this is the cost of providing such services. Both nations contract out much of their communications technology efforts, and adding interoperability to the equation would significantly increase the cost of the contracts. With financial challenges currently facing both armies, the best that can be achieved realistically is including interoperability in future requirements along with the recognition that such requirements are extremely vulnerable to budgetary pressures.

The sensitivities and limitations of sharing information also need to be acknowledged. Using the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) systems framework may be one way of achieving initial progress in the planning, rather than the execution, of the campaign. But reluctance to share information through these means can exist, and the information that is shared may be of limited utility. Rock drill participants agreed that a pragmatic approach needs to be adopted and that total interoperability is too ambitious.

Priorities must be set in order to achieve something, and all other elements must become secondarily important or even left as future aspirations. Without setting priorities, some of our current capabilities could actually end up being lost. So on the road to interoperability, having unwittingly taken a step forward, we are in danger of taking a step back. This must change if interoperability is to become reality.

Transportation and Equipment Interoperability

The transportation, movement, equipment, and maintenance areas offer many opportunities for improving coordination, although the improvement will rely on effective command and control and information systems. True military interoperability is much more difficult, however, when both nations have different equipment, training procedures, legislative requirements, and capabilities. Political imperatives also feature in the execution of any deployment, and relying on another nation to execute part of the plan will always be sensitive. However, logistics interoperability offers real prospects for moving beyond coordination to the full sharing of assets.

Naturally, full asset sharing depends on the operational situation, but asset sharing is a practical way in which interoperability can become a fact rather than a goal. Rock drill participants agreed that an endorsed set of operating procedures will be required as a starting point, followed by the inclusion of logistics support—transportation, movement, equipment, and maintenance—early in the LCB’s planning phase. Combined planning, priority setting, and task allocation will be essential. These will be challenging to achieve but are fundamental to becoming truly interoperable.

Logistics Support Services

In the logistics support services area, the rock drill identified myriad opportunities for sharing the supply, distribution, and storage of commodities identified by classes of supply. Some coordinated activity in this area already takes place. For example, NATO has a common fuel policy and the supply of water is shared. Much more work is needed to determine the feasibility of this, but it is another area in which further gains can be made.

The other area that provides real opportunities for progress is contracting. The United States has been doing this very successfully for a number of years, and the United Kingdom can learn much from its experiences. Sharing best practices can be the starting point, although this is arguably cooperation rather than interoperability. Full interoperability could be achieved by using the same contract and by sharing contractors. Opportunities for interoperable contracting may exist in the future and could, in turn, lead to enhanced interoperability in areas such as transportation and movement.

Why Not Interoperability?

One of the key points that came out of the discussions was that not all logistics activities need to be interoperable. For example, in the areas where the two nation’s systems are fundamentally different or where they have equipment that is essentially incompatible, no logic exists in trying to achieve interoperability. This leaves two overarching problems. The first is interoperability’s practical utility for operations. The second issue is one of depth: is all of this interoperability, or is it just cooperation and coordination?

Practical utility. The key product from the rock drill is the U.S./U.K. Logistics Interoperability Guide, which was used in draft form during the drill as a handrail to aid discussion. The guide has since been amended to include the results of the rock drill, and it was issued in the summer of 2008. The intent is for the guide to be of practical value for operations rather than just a series of theoretical desirables; but is this actually possible? The people who developed the guide certainly have plenty of experience in joint and combined operations, and if those same individuals continue this effort in the future, it could be made to work—particularly if the LCB is established early.

What would increase the likelihood that the first real usage of interoperability will succeed would be placing those individuals in deployed staff headquarters and in the field armies of the two nations the first time interoperability principles are applied. This would be rather difficult to orchestrate, especially because many of the rock drill participants are civilians. Ensuring that interoperability is put into practice will require a serious information and training campaign that could become part of routine training for those who may deploy in the future.

Interoperability versus cooperation. Can we achieve interoperability, or are we limited to cooperation and coordination? If true interoperability is achieved, does it enable us to make U.K. formations subordinate to U.S. formations, for example? (The rock drill looked specifically at a U.K brigade within a U.S division and was not aiming to achieve interoperability below that level.) What about using the same facilities in ports or the same staff and transport assets (rather than allocating timeslots for U.K. use and separate periods for U.S. use)? The transport, movement, and maintenance areas could see a real sharing of assets, as could contracting. This would be difficult to achieve, however, without first setting in place overarching command and control structures and information systems.

So the road to interoperability begins with some serious obstacles that require breaching. Progress can be made in other parallel areas, but perhaps interoperability can only truly be achieved within the information systems world and the rest is simply cooperation. That may ultimately be the case, but driving through cooperation to true interoperability, if it can be reached, would definitely be worth the journey.

Major Susan Carson is a staff officer currently developing logistics policy for the Army in the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence. She has a B.A. degree in history from the University of Swansea. Major Carson was appointed a Member of the British Empire in Her Majesty the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List in 2004 for her role in the deployment of British troops to Iraq.