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, such as the World War II allies, each nation fought in a specific area rather than together. Now that NATO allies are engaging in a growing number of joint exercises and missions involving troop units from a large number of countries, interoperability has grown all the more salient. Since the early 1990s, the number of NATO missions and exercises has significantly increased. Currently, some 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.

Beyond operations, much of the drive to standardize equipment is related to cost, as well as to the culture of procuring and operating equipment domestically. Allies have had to bring not just their own equipment but also their own spare parts, which can be expensive and often difficult to ship to combat zones. “There’s been tremendous duplication, not just in equipment but also in logistics staff,” said Dick Zandee, a senior fellow at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, and former head of the European Defence Agency’s planning and policy unit. Zandee recalled how Lieutenant-General Ton van Loon, the Dutch commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force’s southern area during the war in Afghanistan, was encumbered by all of his equipment. “He had eight different computers, which he needed in order to communicate with all the allied forces in that sector of the country,” Zandee told me. Making all of the equipment interoperable by allowing General van Loon’s computer to send messages directly to all troops would have reduced down to one the number of devices van Loon had to operate. (Furthermore, although the Afghan war is officially over, NATO troops are training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces as part of the alliance’s Resolute Support mission.)

“Military units are so expensive that these days equipment has to be interoperable,” said Rear Admiral Nils Christian Wang, the commandant of the Royal Danish Defense College. “Interoperability is a force multiplier. You won’t find a responsible procurement officer in any NATO country today who doesn’t think about interoperability.” Although the savings vary depending on the type of operation, 25 to 30 percent savings is a widely used estimate.

In fact, Vice Admiral Ferdinando Sanfelice di Monteforte, now retired, who formerly served as Italy’s military representative to NATO, pointed out that when NATO was first formed, it was intended to be fully interoperational, with its members using identical equipment. (This sort of complete interoperability is known in military parlance as “standardization.”) But since, realistically, that meant using all U.S.-made equipment, and since European countries had their own defense industries, which they wanted to keep afloat, standardization never happened.

It also wasn’t a priority. “During the Cold War, when countries were just defending their own territory, interoperability wasn’t that important for the armies,” Sanfelice di Monteforte said. These countries generally used smaller equipment, such as infantry soldiers’ communications gear, that were relatively inexpensive to make and so the militaries overlooked the value of making such equipment interoperable. Instead, armies limited their focus to ensuring that the meat and potatoes of land warfare, such as guns and howitzers, were of the same caliber and used identical types of ammunition. However, air forces and navies did make interoperability a priority. They purchase very large and expensive pieces of equipment—for example, the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke-class destroyers cost nearly $2 billion apiece, while F-16 fighters are nearly $20 million each—and it would have added tremendous clutter and cost if countries had to send additional planes or vessels because they couldn’t borrow from each other. 

But the big push to make everything interchangeable was “when international missions took off, starting with the former Yugoslavia,” Sanfelice di Monteforte said. Nobody today questions that complete interoperability—that is, one type of standardized equipment for all NATO members and close allies such as Sweden and Finland—would be the ideal solution. But the incentives are still not quite there. First off, even allied nations, rather logically, require defense equipment that suits their particular needs. For example, Denmark may want helicopters with the hoist crane on the left rather than the right, whereas Italy may want tanks with space for an additional soldier. But the more specific the equipment is, the less it is interoperable. “If you customize the equipment to meet your needs 100 percent you won’t be able to use the same spare parts as everyone else,” Wang said. “Instead you should go for 90 percent perfectness and only change the things that are absolutely necessary. You would never dream of telling the car dealer that you want a different car radio, but that’s quite normal when you buy defense equipment. If the hoist crane is on the other side of the helicopter than what you’ve had in the past, you just have to organize your crew differently.”

But customization usually means bringing spare parts on missions and to joint exercises. During the NATO-led air campaign in Libya, one country’s bombs could not be attached to another country’s F-16 fighters because the sizes of the rack were different. This problem was solved after the campaign with the design of a multi-use rack that could fit all bombs.

Financially, larger countries have less incentive to create interoperable materiel, as they can easily afford both major equipment and spare parts. Smaller countries, of course, can save by not having to supply their own spare parts or bring along combat engineers to fix equipment. “Yes, small things like ammunition are increasingly exchangeable,” Zandee said. “But ideally if everyone also has the same equipment, fantastic, you can start pooling resources.” In Afghanistan, rather than bringing spare parts for their U.S.-made helicopters, the Dutch armed forces could simply rely on U.S. armed forces for repairs. Although how much the Dutch armed forces could have saved is unknown, it is clear that interoperability would have enabled the Dutch troops to restore operational capability more quickly, which is essential in high-tempo operations. And following NATO’s 2011 mission in Libya, the member states agreed to jointly procure and manage precision-guided ammunition.

Still, the most efficient way of increasing interoperability is buying equipment primarily from countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. That would hurt domestic defense industries in other NATO member states. The question, then, is whether NATO members and their allies are willing to jeopardize jobs at home in order to reduce costs and clutter on the battlefield. At the NATO Industry Forum in November, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made the case for smarter spending. “NATO can make a big difference by encouraging greater multinational collaboration and better coordination of allies’ requirements,” he said. “In Europe we have 19 different types of infantry-fighting vehicles; in the United States they have one. In Europe we have 13 different types of air-to-air missiles, the United States has three. And European nations have 29 different types of naval frigates; the United States has four.” There is also the matter of cultural interoperability. Simply making machines talk to each other doesn’t solve the question of how seamlessly, say, French and Bulgarian troops will fight together.  

But as a result of recent electoral events, European NATO members and their allies may find that not only is interoperability a good idea—it is a necessity. Before being elected U.S. president, Donald Trump explained that if a NATO member did not spend enough on defense, he would tell that country, “You will defend yourself.” Even if the United States doesn’t completely abandon its NATO allies, Europe may have to take more responsibility for its security. That means pooling its resources—or, in other words, greater interoperability.   

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