NATO’s naval force structure has dwindled since the end of the Cold War. Fewer units mean different operating patterns and lower levels of collective activity, which have combined to lead to the atrophy of Alliance interoperability. A resurgence of Russian activity in Central Europe and naval operations in the North Atlantic have driven renewed interest in the Atlantic maritime security environment, which had rested for many years on post–Cold War peacetime assumptions.
NATO and the United States have begun to turn the tide this year with the reestablishment of the Atlantic- focused U.S. Second Fleet and activation of the Joint Force Command Norfolk (JFC-NF). The operational and strategic success of these organizations will depend to a significant degree on improvements in Alliance integration and interoperability.
In practice, the priority of interoperability varies among the allied nations, subject to national prerogatives and the effects of continued technological development. Most Western European navies operate on established, common NATO standards and procedures. This stands in stark contrast to the U.S. Navy, in which the preponderance of Alliance naval power is concentrated. There, interoperability is driven more by U.S.-joint-force rather than Alliance concerns, in pursuit of a technological strategy that is by design not always conducive to the integration of allies and partners.1
While new strategies and reorganization of command structures are key aspects of NATO naval strength, Alliance interoperability—the essential ingredient for operational success—depends on improving and sustaining engagement between U.S. and allied navies at sea.
NATO doctrine defines interoperability as “the ability for allies to act together coherently, effectively and efficiently to achieve tactical, operational and strategic objectives.”2 Interoperability informs manufacturing and standardization processes and simplifies supply chains and maintenance activity, thereby enabling, for example, aircraft of the various services and allies to use common radio and tactical linkages or refuel from each other’s tanker aircraft. At the strategic level, according to a recent RAND study, interoperability harmonizes “world views, strategies, doctrines, and force structures of the United States and its allies,” enhancing the ability of all to “work together over the long term to achieve and maintain shared interests.”3
NATO uses force interoperability to mean “the ability of the forces of two or more nations to train, exercise and operate effectively together in the execution of assigned missions and tasks.”4 In practice, the Alliance divides this concept into three components—technical, procedural, and human—which in turn are realized mainly through the mechanisms of standardization, training and education, exercises, and lessons learned.
Alliance efforts to achieve interoperability mostly focus on standardization under the aegis of the NATO Standardization Office (NSO). NSO manages a large body of formal standardization agreements (StanAgs) that cover everything from common small arms ammunition to ship rotary-wing certification to fueling attachments. The StanAgs constitute agreed-upon technical and procedural specifications that allow Alliance forces to more easily integrate in the field. They depend on a baseline of commonalities such as language, radio communication, and basic professional usage.
Together, the baseline competencies and the StanAgs create assurance by establishing the architecture of a credible integrated force. These are necessary (but not sufficient) conditions to create a decisive warfighting capability, on which deterrence depends. The capability results directly from the degree of successful interoperability created among Alliance members.
Thinking about interoperability in this way allows us to account for specific national capabilities while considering variables not necessarily captured by StanAgs. These include limitations (in terms of resourcing, technical capabilities, and political will), ability to share information, levels of ambition, and national interoperability objectives.
Because standardization agreements and training curricula are part of the heartbeat of institutional NATO, they constitute a sort of passive interoperability. They are refined continually and thus represent an important part of NATO’s ability to bring the military forces of member nations together effectively. But this gets us just so far. Active interoperability can only be achieved through sustained commitment to direct and frequent engagement among operational forces.
At sea, a commander must integrate ships and crews into effective operational formations; success or failure results from the personal interactions of leaders, staffs, and crews. This is where national and service cultures and behaviors intermingle to deliver functional interoperability. Combat units provided by Alliance members must make a leap from working within established national standards to actually integrating with NATO command-and-control structures and other Alliance units, which themselves may demonstrate varying success at interoperability.
NATO exercises require Alliance naval forces to “train as you fight,” executing and refining systems and processes in real time. Standards are never ready for instant use—they must be enacted, not merely unboxed. Only in active execution is interoperability effectively realized, when problems integrating people and platforms can arise and be resolved. In this way, NATO sea power becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
But the skills learned are perishable. They quickly atrophy if not frequently exercised, because they derive from relationships, mutual confidence, and trust. And these require sustained, long-term engagement through repeated cooperative exercises and real-world operations.
Two 2018 exercises off the U.S. East Coast illustrate the process.
A Multinational CompTUEx
The 2018 composite training unit exercise (CompTUEx) that marked the final phase of deployment certification for Carrier Strike Group (CSG) Eight was designed to incorporate a NATO component. HNoMS Roald Amundsen (F311) and the FGS Hessen (F221) joined the Harry S. Truman strike group in Norfolk at the end of January 2018. Both the Norwegian and German navies already interact frequently with the U.S. Navy, including many group sails and CompTUEx events over the years, and German ships have been part of three CSG deployments since 2010.
In this case, the experiences of the Roald Amundsen and Hessen illustrate how interoperability can be achieved and sustained. Each identified issues with connectivity, personnel exchange, information sharing, and communication planning. Personnel from each navy worked together to improvise solutions cooperatively, overcoming a variety of technical and procedural obstacles. While both ships were integrated reasonably effectively into the Truman CSG’s formations and operations, both were excluded from key U.S.-only information channels and linkages. This left them unable to some extent to exercise all capabilities fully in what should have been the most demanding of training events. For example, each was able to take control of the airspace for only a few minutes using fully NATO-certified air controllers—perhaps not the best demonstration of capability or trust.
Despite such limitations, overall the CompTUEx was a successful event, and the inclusion of NATO partners was highly beneficial to all involved. It allowed the Norwegian, German, and U.S. navies to cooperate in large-scale evolutions, improve integration and familiarity, and renew relationships. This was especially timely, as Hessen immediately moved from its experience in CompTUEx to deploy as a member of the Truman CSG.5
The French and U.S. navies have developed a close relationship through a variety of exercises and operations in recent years. In 2008, six Rafale-M fighters and two E-2C Hawkeyes deployed to the United States, with the Rafales embarking on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). More recently, in 2016 and 2017, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (R91) cooperated with the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) in the eastern Mediterranean conducting integrated sustained strike operations against ISIS. And last year, France again sent a naval aviation contingent to the United States for the “Chesapeake 2018” deployment in April and May to maintain French flight deck certifications while the Charles de Gaulle underwent maintenance. This was an expanded version of the 2008 evolution, with 350 personnel, 12 Rafale-M fighters, and an E-2C Hawkeye aircraft deployed with ground support equipment to Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana and NAS Chambers Field.6
Chesapeake 2018 began with five weeks of extended exercises with Carrier Air Wing Eight, simulating a variety of missions with strike and airborne early warning assets, integrating the platforms of both countries in various roles. Then the French air group embarked on board the USS George W. Bush (CVN-77) for two more weeks of training, focusing on flight deck certifications and additional operational integration, this time at sea. Because Chesapeake 2018 was part of an established pattern of engagement, U.S. and French staffs, units, and platforms enjoyed a highly developed level of interoperability; in consequence, they had few issues deploying, integrating, and operating together.
Many personnel had previously worked with their counterparts, so there was little difficulty identifying or resolving such issues as did arise. The French air group commander noted that while French and U.S. naval aviation forces understand each other’s capabilities and limitations, more important is the mutual comprehension of exactly how each operates. This minimizes confusion during mission execution, even when practices differ as a result of national doctrine and procedure. Chesapeake 2018 demonstrated a high level of trust, familiarity, and integration between U.S. and French air wings, a direct result of the sustained engagement and established relationships developed over more than a decade.
Sustained Engagement Is the Key
Creating active interoperability requires commitment to persistent engagement and careful coordination. Procedural familiarity comes through repeated exposure to each other’s staffs and leaders, allowing communication issues to be resolved with the least friction.
Large U.S. East Coast fleet training evolutions offer a golden opportunity for European navies to send major fleet units to integrate directly into strike groups for intensive exercises at sea, with a long list of operational and tactical challenges to resolve hand-in-hand with U.S. Navy organizations and systems. For the U.S. Navy, including allied ships enables it to close gaps between U.S. and NATO tactics, techniques, and procedures and to adapt a firmly U.S.-oriented battle rhythm to NATO standards and platforms. The U.S. Navy should strongly consider making integration of NATO ships mandatory for strike group certification, providing institutional incentives to see such efforts as more than something extra.
East Coast U.S. carrier and expeditionary strike groups similarly should incorporate large-scale European/NATO exercises into deployments; a passing exercise (PassEx) has some fleeting value, but it is no substitute for extended activity. Alliance fleet schedulers already are closely integrated and working together. Featuring larger events as part of deployments only requires making them a priority.
Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMGs), intended as both operational assets and long-term training formations for all nations involved, are ideally suited to form the centerpieces of multiple NATO maritime exercises. SNMG operations should coincide with both NATO and national training events and major exercises, the prime near-future opportunity being Dynamic Mariner 19, scheduled for October in Spain. NATO’s Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Center of Excellence published the Allied Interoperability and Coordination Guide in 2018 specifically to pave the way for Alliance forces to more easily participate in U.S. Navy exercises and integrate deployed operational formations.
Finally, several actions could be taken at a procedural or organizational level to move NATO maritime interoperability forward:
- Lessons from joint exercises should be shared across the Alliance maritime enterprise, not locked behind a bilateral agreement. Recent memorandums of understanding (MOUs) have successfully enabled this type of sharing; this should become the standard practice.
- The U.S. Navy needs to take a hard look at how the foreign disclosure process affects its ability to integrate partner units and coordinate operations with them. When the sharing of even unclassified items with allied forces is obstructed, this function has probably become more of a burden than an asset. Overclassification can weaken strike group capability and capacity by cutting out allies with a desire to do their part and shoulder operational burdens. Even if it is not possible to link partners with every communication or command-and-control system, the Navy must find ways to optimize real systems integration and information sharing at sea.
- In partnership with the NATO Joint Force Command in Norfolk, the U.S. Navy must start teaching its staffs and crews how to work with NATO partners; the U.S. Army and Air Force are already more closely integrated with allies in general.
- Guidance and procedures for U.S. naval engagement with allied navies are not consistent across fleet areas. If the Atlantic is to be secured cooperatively by NATO forces, the Navy should adopt a single such architecture.
- The U.S. Navy should reestablish a dedicated NATO integration cell to address strategic issues with our partner navies, maintain NATO expertise, and develop servicewide policies regarding interoperability.
The Way Forward, Together
In the wake of the July 2018 NATO summit in Brussels, forging a path for maximized interoperability will become a growing priority. Under the dual-hatted command of Vice Admiral Andrew “Woody” Lewis, both U.S. Second Fleet and Joint Forces Command Norfolk will have overlapping Alliance responsibilities. This will necessarily make Second Fleet more NATO-facing than the other numbered fleets, and it will need to inherently focus on Alliance interoperability. Partner operations in the Fifth and Sixth Fleet areas of operations in recent years offer numerous lessons to be captured and acted on.
Many such lessons can be applied beyond NATO. To a large degree, NATO doctrine and standards have become the basis of interoperability for U.S. partners worldwide, and some of the United States’ most important allies in the Pacific have largely adopted NATO doctrine and standards, suggesting that we are moving toward an era of extraordinary interoperability with Allied navies. Indeed, there are now recommendations for formation of a “Combined Maritime Task Force–Pacific” based on NATO organizational usage.7
To best demonstrate the Alliance’s commitment to collective defense and deter potential adversaries, NATO would be wise to lock shields as effectively as possible. This can only be achieved by bringing our forces together and allowing them to effectively interact consistently over time. This is originally what NATO was fundamentally designed to do. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted at the February 2017 Munich Security Conference: “Can we match the ambition, the ideals and the achievements of those who crafted our institutions all those years ago? The post-war generation rose to their challenge. Now we must rise to ours.”8
1. Tim Geehan and Douglas Wahl, “Minding the Interoperability Gap,” CIMSEC, 10 May 2017.
2. NATO, “Interoperability: Connecting NATO Forces,” 6 June 2017.
3. Myron Hura et al., Interoperability: A Continuing Challenge in Coalition Air Operations (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2000), 9–10.
4. AAP-06, NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions 2017 ed., 50.
5. “German, Norwegian Frigates Arrive in Norfolk to Join Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group,” Naval Today, 30 January 2018.
6. CAPT Jean-Emmanuel Roux de Luze, FN, “French Naval Aviation Trains with U.S. Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 4 (April 2018).
7. Eric Sayers, “Time to Launch a Combined Maritime Task Force in the Pacific,” War on the Rocks, 1 Jun 2018.
8. “Speech by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Munich Security Conference,” 18 February 2018.