Winner, 2016 International Navies Essay Contest, Sponsored by Leonardo Finmeccanicaa U.S. Navy air cushion landing craft enters the well dock of the HMAS Canberra during RIMPAC 2016—today’s sailors must be able to understand and accommodate different partners’ perspectives and ways of doing business.
Navies increasingly are required to participate in multinational operations, for a number of sound reasons. Evermore diverse transnational threats, the requirement for elected governments to justify military deployments, and mounting financial pressures have intersected to promote multilateral military cooperation.1 As a result, interoperability has been transformed from an esoteric issue to one of fundamental significance.
Historically, interoperability was considered to be generated from doctrinal and equipment standardization, but while both helped to create a platform for interoperability and eased the conduct of multinational operations, there remained room to enhance cohesion among international navies. In addition, as coalitions became more diverse and defense budgets fluctuated, equipment standardization proved difficult to achieve. Consequently, cultural interoperability—“the shared way by which multinational military coalitions or alliances ‘do business’”—has taken on increased importance.2 Developing a multinational mind-set can be extremely beneficial.
The Case for Multinational Interoperability
There is a practical benefit to multinational operations in that participating partners often can serve as a force multiplier. As the U.S. Navy noted in A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, “naval forces are stronger when we operate jointly and together with allies and partners. Merging our individual capabilities and capacity produces a combined naval effect that is greater than the sum of its parts.”3
For smaller navies that may have limited capability or lack “critical mass,” the benefits of multilateralism are obvious, but larger forces also can be enhanced by the involvement of multinational partners.4 Julian Lindley-French and Wouter van Straten, for example, have described a “capability-capacity crunch” that requires militaries to partner with allied forces and civilian agencies to meet their expanding missions.5 Whatever the reason for forming coalitions, the increasing prevalence of multinational naval cooperation across the range of operations necessitates ongoing efforts to improve interoperability.
Beyond Doctrine and Equipment
In the aftermath of World War II, equipment standardization was seen as the foremost means of facilitating interoperability. Some progress was and continues to be made in equipment standardization, but the extent to which it has been achieved has fallen short of expectations. Certain standardized capabilities nevertheless have provided a platform for increased interoperability. The NH-90 NATO frigate helicopter, for example, has been assessed to have “injected interoperability into allied and partner naval rotary wing aviation.”6
Although it has not proved possible to standardize platforms entirely, harmonization in a number of key areas has been fundamental to maintaining interoperability among standing and operation-specific coalitions. Naval historian John Hattendorf concluded that the success of NATO’s Standing Naval Force, Atlantic, which was created in 1968 and served as an archetypal collective naval force, resulted from “standardized logistics, standardized communication procedures and equipment, and standardized operational doctrine.”7
The production of standardized doctrine has been another important step in the enactment of interoperability. Indeed, the 2010 Australian Maritime Doctrine observed that “almost all modern navies operate from a very large base of shared international doctrine, allowing a level of mutual understanding.”8 British Maritime Doctrine acknowledges that “[w]herever possible UK armed forces use NATO doctrine and only produce national doctrine where there is a gap or significantly different approach.”9
Standardization in equipment and tactics, techniques, and procedures can facilitate the development of interoperability, but it is not a silver bullet. In reference to U.S. technological superiority, Leslie Eliason and Emily Goldman have cautioned: “The further we pull ahead, the more difficult it becomes for us to coordinate our military efforts with those of our allies, because our equipment is not compatible with theirs.”10 If the technology gap is too extensive, the best intentions can be rendered meaningless. It is equally true that interoperability—even if built on standardization—can be diminished by the absence of a collaborative spirit. Therefore, the development of a multinational mind-set is an important determinant in the achievement of interoperability within a coalition. Given the nature of contemporary operations, likely coalition partners will want to ensure that similar spirits and outlooks are imbued within each navy to generate a community akin to a multinational band of brothers.
A multinational outlook is particularly important among standing naval forces such as those maintained by NATO, which prompted Geoffrey Till to opine: “Here the national identity of the unit should become subsumed by its international mission, and the coalition, theoretically, is all.”11 For ad hoc coalitions, where the potential for incompatibilities is higher and the participants may be more disparate, the challenges are greater. This means that within national constraints, particularly rules of engagement, navies must operate with a multinational mind-set. That requirement has increased the significance of cultural interoperability.
Cultural interoperability can be developed in a number of ways, including through multinational exercises, personnel exchanges, the deployment of liaison officers, and international involvement in professional military education.
Multinational exercises have been a keystone in enacting interoperability since World War II. In reference to the ability of the Royal Navy (RN) to integrate with the U.S. Navy (USN) during the Korean War, Rear Admiral W.G. Andrewes, Flag Officer Second-in-Command, Far East Station, wrote that “the combined exercises with the United States Fleet in March, 1950, proved their value.”12 The exercises enabled the navies to address differences and, more important, to introduce or refresh knowledge of USN operating procedures.13 Throughout the Cold War and into the contemporary era, multinational exercises have been fundamental to the cohesion of NATO naval forces.
During Operation Stabilise in East Timor in 1999, the maritime component commander, Commodore J.R. Stephenson, Royal Australian Navy (RAN), found integrating the multinational naval coalition somewhat easier because of the shared understanding and personal relationships developed during a recent command post exercise.14 During Operation Iraqi Freedom, Admiral Robert Natter, dual-hatted as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, and Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, observed that little in-theater training was required between RAN, RN, and USN ships as the navies were accustomed to exercises and real world operations.15
Navies around the world, large to small, have used bilateral and multilateral exercises to increase interoperability with likely coalition partners. In explaining the merits of Southern Katipo 2015, a New Zealand-hosted multinational exercise, Commodore John Campbell, Royal New Zealand Navy, asserted, “We have to train the way we fight . . . and we have to do it with our coalition partners because that is the way we will do it in the future.”16 The dictum “train hard, fight easy” is still true, but it no longer adequately addresses the range of activities undertaken by militaries. A new aphorism, “exercise hard (and frequently), operate easily,” is more representative of current and future naval operations.
Creating Rapport, Sharing Cultures
Rank and reputation go only so far in engendering trust and respect, two essential tenets of successful coalition operations. Effective working relationships are developed through personal contact. Although these bonds can be formed during operations and exercises, they also can be established through personnel exchanges, which can build rapport and help avoid a cold start to multinational operations.
Even among close allies such as the RAN, RN, and USN, which “generally conduct business in fairly similar ways,” differences exist, and personnel exchanges are, in the words of one U.S. officer, a way of “greasing the skids.”17 During the Cold War, an RN exchange officer was deployed with the USN’s tactical submarine development squadron to observe and influence the development of concepts and tactics. More recently, Lieutenant Commander Travis Zettel, a USN submariner on exchange with the RAN, called the U.S.–Australia exchange program “an excellent opportunity to progress the interoperability of both navies.”18 Zettel was awarded a Fleet Commander’s commendation for “significant achievements in support of the Australian Submarine Force in the areas of battle-worthiness preparation and development of the Submarine Force Campaign Plan.”19 By enhancing the practices of the submarine force by infusing USN concepts, as well as absorbing Australian ideas, a small number of exchange officers had a disproportionate effect on the development of interoperability between the two navies. Although the benefits are not always tangible, they are real.
Exchanges with international partners also offer a means to gain competency in new capabilities that are to be introduced into navies. Australia’s current commitment to developing a robust amphibious capability has been enhanced through systematic exchanges. Notably, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has benefited from the deployment of a U.S. Marine Corps officer to serve as “colonel, amphibious,” which involves acting as the amphibious capability development lead within Headquarters, 1st Division Deployable Joint Force. The ADF also has reaped benefits by sending its own officers on exchange. Lieutenant Commander Scott Dixon’s exchange with the RN’s Commander, Amphibious Task Group, led to his involvement in planning NATO exercise Trident Juncture 2015 and, ultimately, his exposure to a range of navies.20 In addition, the RAN exchange officer who served as future operations planner for Amphibious Squadron 11 on board the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) was able to glean relevant concepts and practices for the Australian context.21
Not only do these exchanges generate a range of skills for the national context, but the development of that expertise in an international environment also can help foster interoperability as sailors gain a better understanding of the practices and cultures of their counterparts.
A further avenue for broadening the outlook of personnel and creating a multinational mind-set is by including international participants in professional military education (PME). Indeed, the opportunity to interact in the non-contentious setting of PME is extremely useful. Military sociologist Charles Moskos has emphasized that the war/staff college experience provides “a remarkable degree of interaction between all categories of students regardless of nationality,” exposing them to “an international perspective they would otherwise never have obtained.”22
The internationalization of PME is aided by the involvement of foreign officers as students, as typified by the Naval Command College, Naval Staff College, and Combined Force Maritime Component Commander Flag Course, which are run by the U.S. Naval War College and have graduated thousands of officers from more than 100 countries.23 However, further expanded horizons and diversity in thought can be encouraged by having exchange officers serve on the faculty of PME institutions. At Britannia Royal Naval College in the United Kingdom, liaison officers from a range of navies, including those of France, Germany, Oman, and the United States, contribute to instruction.24 These exchange officers are able to provide insights into the culture, outlook, and practices of their own services.
While only a relatively small percentage of personnel will have the opportunity to participate in overseas PME or to interact with international staff at domestic institutions, the potential reach of those individuals is far greater than their numbers. In her study of U.S. war/staff colleges, international relations professor and retired Air Force officer Carol Atkinson surmised that foreign officers “form an epistemic community of upwardly mobile military professionals” who maintain connections to both U.S. and international participants for the remainder of their careers.25 Such multinational collegiality is an important foundation for effective coalition operations and the generation of a multinational mind-set.
While predeployment engagement helps to create internationally minded forces, the conduct of operations inevitably exposes points of friction. These variances need not be breaking points, however, and liaison officers are essential to mitigating and even eliminating issues. “Use liaison officers in the right way, make them a part of your staff,” urged one NATO official. “They are worth their weight in gold; they know people at the other side so they can get the things done much easier.”26 Historical and contemporary experience has demonstrated that liaison officers are key cogs in multinational operations.
During World War II, the requirement for the European navies-in-exile to operate with the Royal Navy necessitated the development of an extensive liaison network. Other than the Dutch, who maintained a representative directly with the Admiralty, each Allied navy established its own headquarters in London, and a British naval liaison officer was collocated there.27 In addition, a liaison detachment, commanded by a junior officer and consisting of five to ten sailors, including coders, signalmen, and telegraphists, served on board each Allied vessel to help the ship “reach its potential as an effective component of the Allied fleets.”28 Vice Admiral Gerald Dickens, principal liaison officer, Allied Navies, reflected in December 1942: “Our navies have worked together in war and have become almost one force, we know each other technically and personally.”29 The goodwill and understanding that were cultivated were crucial for the successful integration of the Allied navies.
The exigencies of war drove that extensive liaison network, but the principles behind it have endured. In fact, the increasingly diverse array of nations participating in multilateral operations has made liaison officers more important than ever. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the RAN benefited greatly from the contributions of the liaison officer from the Kuwaiti Navy, Major Majeed Al Shameri. The long-standing links between the armed forces of Australia and Kuwait, forged by exchanges and international involvement in PME, ensured Major Al Shameri was able to integrate easily with the RAN. His regional knowledge and fluency in Arabic were extremely useful. His work communicating with prisoners and deciphering captured documents was vital in discovering and mapping mine locations and resulted in him being awarded a Maritime Commander Australia Commendation.30
As much as navies have in common, there always will be differences, and liaison officers are necessary to bridge the gap.
A Delicate Balance
Trust, respect, and understanding underpin cohesive multinational forces. Standardization in doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures remains key to multinational interoperability; however, as defense budgets dip and the technology gap between nations grows, equipment standardization could prove more difficult to achieve. Any potential difficulties can be mitigated by preserving and enhancing cultural interoperability—through exercises, exchanges, and international involvement in PME. The remaining rough edges can be evened out through the deployment of liaison officers who are able to merge the perspectives of their home and host navies.
Developing a multinational outlook is a delicate balancing act, as national interests must remain a priority. Nevertheless, today’s sailors not only must recognize and respect the value of a coalition, but also must be prepared to understand and accommodate different perspectives and ways of doing business. Doctrinal and equipment standardization are no less relevant—when they can be achieved—but they are merely the borders of a much larger interoperability jigsaw. While they are an important starting point, cultural interoperability is required to complete the picture.
2. Angela Febbraro, Brian McKee, and Sharon Riedel, “Multinational Military Operations and Intercultural Factors,” NATO RTO Technical Report, TR-HFM-120 (Neuilly-sur-Seine Cedex, November 2008), 1–3.
3. Department of the Navy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2015), 2.
4. Geoffrey Till, “Are Small Navies Different?” in Michael Mulqueen, Deborah Sanders, and Ian Speller (eds.), Small Navies: Strategy and Policy for Small Navies in War and Peace (Farnham, WA: Ashgate, 2014), 23.
5. Julian Lindley-French and Wouter van Straten, “Exploiting the Value of Small Navies: The Experience of the Royal Netherlands Navy,” The RUSI Journal 153, no. 6 (2008), 67.
6. Mark W. Lawrence, Tailoring the Global Network for Real Burden Sharing at Sea (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2015), 23.
7. John B. Hattendorf, Talking about Naval History: A Collection of Essays (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2011), 313.
8. Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Maritime Doctrine: RAN Doctrine 1, 2010 (Canberra: Sea Power Centre-Australia, 2010), 1.
9. Ministry of Defence, Joint Doctrine Publication 0-10: British Maritime Doctrine (Shrivenham: Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, Ministry of Defence, 2011), 3–5.
10. Leslie C. Eliason and Emily O. Goldman, “Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives on Innovation and Diffusion,” in Leslie C. Eliason and Emily O. Goldman (eds.), The Diffusion of Military Technology and Ideas (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 4.
11. Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 244.
12. The National Archives, United Kingdom (TNA), ADM 116/6228, Office of the Flag Officer, Second-in-Command, Far East Station, “Summarised Report of Proceedings, No.1, 25 June 1950–9 July 1950,” 4 November 1950.
13. Imperial War Museum, Private Papers of Commander P.D. Hoare, 96/6/1, P.D. Hoare, autobiographical account, August 1992.
14. Commodore Stapleton personally knew a number of the ship’s commanding officers. Edward J. Marolda, “Summary,” in Gary Weir and Sandra Doyle (eds.), You Cannot Surge Trust: Combined Naval Operations of the Royal Australian Navy, Canadian Navy, Royal Navy, and United States Navy, 1991–2003 (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2013), 286; Sarandis Papadopoulos, “Conclusion,” in Weir and Doyle (eds.), You Cannot Surge Trust, 297.
15. Admiral Robert Natter, interview with the author, 16 February 2012.
16. Major Giselle Holland, “Canada, New Zealand and Seven More Partner Nations Take Part in Exercise Southern Katipo 2015,” 16 December 2015, <www.army-armee.forces.gc.ca/en/news-publications/national-news-details-no-menu.page?doc=canada-new-zealand-and-seven-more-partner-nations-take-part-in-exercise-southern-katipo-2015/ii1b57d6>.
17. Lieutenant Commander Nick Kristof, “Joining Britain’s Royal Navy via the Personnel Exchange Program,” Undersea Warfare 44 (Spring 2011),
18. Gary McHugh, “US Exchange Submariners Right at Home in the West,” Navy Daily, 9 April 2014, <http://news.navy.gov.au/en/Apr2014/People/978/US-exchange-submariners-right-at-home-in-the-west.htm>.
19. Andrew Bujdegan, “Commendation for USN Exchange Officer,” Navy Daily, 15 May 2015, <http://news.navy.gov.au/en/May2015/People/2034/Commendation-for-USN-exchange-officer.htm#.Vxvn703wtMs>.
20. Department of Defence, “Exercise a Highlight for Royal Navy Exchange,” Navy Daily, 23 December 2015, <http://news.navy.gov.au/en/Dec2015/People/2577/Exercise-a-highlight-for-Royal-Navy-exchange.htm#.VxvtSE3wtMs>.
21. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Karen Blankenship, “Exchange Program Strengthens Partnership with Royal Australian Navy,” 1 October 2012,
22. Charles Moskos, International Military Education and Multinational Military Cooperation (Alexandria, VA: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, 2004), 7.
23. John N. Christenson, “Promoting Global Maritime Partnerships,” Naval War College Review 65, no. 1 (Winter 2012), 10, 12-13.
24. Royal Navy, “Recognition for BRNC’s German Navy Liaison Officer,” 15 January 2014, <www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2014/january/15/140115-brnc-german>.
25. Carol Atkinson, Military Soft Power: Public Diplomacy through Military Educational Exchanges (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), 103.
26. Marten Meijer, “Agility in Command and Control in a Multinational Exercise,” paper presented at the 18th International Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium, Alexandria, VA, 19–21 June 2013.
27. Richard Hammond, “Fighting Under a Different Flag: Multinational Naval Cooperation and Submarine Warfare in the Mediterranean, 1940–1944,” The Journal of Military History 80 (April 2016), 462.
28. Mark C. Jones, “Not Just Along for the Ride: The Role of Royal Navy Liaison Personnel in Multinational Naval Operations during World War II,” The Journal of Military History 76 (January 2012), 157.
29. Mark C. Jones, “Friend and Advisor to the Allied Navies: The Royal Navy’s Principal Liaison Officer and Multinational Naval Operations in World War II,” The Journal of Military History 77 (July 2013), 1022.
30. Peter Jones, “Task Group Command, 1990-2003,” in John Mortimer and David Stevens (eds.), Presence, Power Projection and Sea Control: The RAN in the Gulf, 1990–2009 (Canberra: Sea Power Centre-Australia, 2009), 82.