In 2006 and 2007, when U.S. Army Lieutenant-General Benjamin Freakley commanded the Combined Joint Task Force-76 in Kabul, Afghanistan, the headquarters for all military operations east of the Hindu Kush, he found that the greatest threat to his operations was, in fact, technology. He was overseeing a dream team of competent and eager soldiers from various U.S. allies—Canada, the Netherlands, Romania, and the United Kingdom—and yet he couldn’t provide information to them out on the field because they had each arrived with completely different communications gear, whether it was FM radios or satellite phones. Although his U.S. kit would directly connect him to his own soldiers because they were all equipped with high-tech radios capable of receiving instructions directly from battlefield headquarters, his directives only reached the unit commanders of the allies’ troops, which risked putting the allied soldiers in harm’s way. In the past, partly because there was no technology that could push timely intelligence and orders down to each soldier in the combat zone, commanders’ instructions were always relayed to officers directing each unit on the ground, who then passed on the instructions to the soldiers. In many armed forces, though not in the U.S. Army, that’s still the case.
“If you’re just one country, the battlefield is already complicated enough,” Freakley, now a special adviser to the president of Arizona State University, told me. “But when allies’ equipment doesn’t work [with ours] it adds further complication.” They worked around the problem by installing a backbone network that the allied forces could tap into and by lending them equipment.
In Afghanistan, interoperability—which involves equipment that is either compatible with those of other countries’ armed forces or can be easily adopted by their troops, as well as common procedures, doctrines, and language—was a key issue in military operations. During the Cold War, as well as “hot” wars, military operations have focused on territorial defense. And even when nations collaborated, 18,000 NATO troops are serving in Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Mediterranean, and off the Horn of Africa, while 28 exercises have been scheduled between late November this year and early July 2017. And the international coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) has benefited from the improvements in interoperability developed within NATO. But even though units fighting together are more interoperable today than before the war in Afghanistan, armed forces have some ways to go before they are seamlessly connected. Call it the move toward a plug-and-play military.
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