For more than half a decade, I have had the privilege to command or serve overseas. In addition, I have had the opportunity to serve on the personal staffs of senior leaders at the four-star level as they have traveled the world engaging other nations. Every one of those leaders I served with put warfighting first, but as we engage in the coalition and alliance warfare that are constants in today’s conflicts, we also must be relationship builders.
In two very diverse theaters, Southeast Asia and now Europe, I frequently have heard, “It’s all about relationships.” When one considers the strategic competition in these two theaters, the importance of these relationships becomes clear. In Europe, NATO serves as a counterbalance to a resurgent Russia and extends our defense dollar on the continent. In Asia, the United States and by extension our military-to-military relationships give the nations that ring the South China Sea (as well Japan and South Korea) the opportunity for a future of prosperity and self-determination that might not otherwise be a reality given some of their other neighbors in the region. With so much at stake, I offer a few thoughts that helped me in my interactions with partners.
Start with why. As author Simon Sinek charges in his superb book, we must “start with why.” In constrained fiscal environments, engagement for engagement’s sake is not enough. For the U.S. Navy, engagement helps us hone war-fighting skills, gain access, and makes us better. Over the years, strong relationships have opened points of access for maritime patrol aircraft, ships, and land forces. They have opened ranges that make our aviators and ships’ gunnery teams better in the theaters in which we need to operate. Finally, working with partners and allies helps us to understand the patterns of life in critical places such as the South China Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, two maritime hot spots. Share the “why” with your sailors so they understand as well.
You’re not in Kansas anymore. By almost every cultural scale, the United States is the minority relative to the rest of the world. We are more egalitarian, less formal, less process driven, and more outcome oriented than most nations we will work with. What does this mean if you are a new commanding officer or department head attending your first planning session or joint exercise? Almost always, meetings will be more deliberate and run longer. Interpreters may be used (which takes longer as you learn to speak in shorter “chunks” as your words are translated). In certain regions, a meeting won’t start without a photograph, the signing of a guest book, and the principals asking about each others’ families. These meetings require tactical and strategic patience, but they are the building blocks of planning with another nation.
Benefits run both ways. There are genuine benefits to these relationships, so be humble. In certain skills honed in their home theaters, allies may be better than we are. For example, navies used to operating in crowded seas often are whizzes at breaking signals and close-aboard shiphandling. In other places, such as the South China Sea, neighboring nations understand the hydrography of their local waters in ways that can help us.
Take an operational focus. Although you should approach operational planning with allies and partners in a collaborative way, the operational basics apply, with some additional considerations:
• Command and Control—Determining whether task groups are commanded in parallel, under U.S. lead, or with a shared command element often will be a core planning consideration.
• Battle Rhythm—While U.S. strike groups often have a well-developed battle rhythm, integrating that with another navy and at times another culture takes communication.
• Developing a Schedule of Events (SOE)—The foundation of an exercise in many ways, an SOE provides the script for what is included in an exercise and when it is sequenced.
• Scheme of Maneuver—To bring an SOE to life, it is essential to ensure that time and distance allow for a scheme of maneuver that enables ships and aircraft to execute events safely.
• Communications—On what networks, primary and secondary, will each aspect of the exercise be managed and executed? Is a communication system such as CENTRIX key to execution?
• Safety—Safety is paramount, but ensuring adherence to our standards while respecting the safety standards of other navies takes work.
• Experimentation—Experimenting with new tactics and technologies is a longstanding dividend of combined naval exercises. Leverage all you can in this area.
• Classification/Foreign Disclosure—What information at what classification level will be shared with allies and partners? Foreign disclosure decisions, including embarkation of foreign liaison officers, can take longer than you think to process and manage.
Know your partners. Quick scans of a nation’s history, its military heroes, favorite food, and great cultural figures will go a long way in the icebreakers that inevitably accompany planning conferences and will help you in your future dealings with your counterparts. Don’t overlook the tremendous asset that staff foreign area officers and embassy personnel can be. If you are leading an exercise in another country, the embassy will be the conduit through which those events are initially arranged.
Once you reach game day, it’s all about execution. Whether you are attending a “DV” day with your boss or pulling into a Form 1 on a foreign gun range, execution matters. Be early. Know the details of the event. Execute your battle rhythm, making sure you have a plan for your team to cover every meeting and planning board. Finally, do your best to manage your rest and avoid excessive revelry at the social events that often accompany bilateral and multilateral shore phases prior to getting under way.
The relationship does not end with the exercise. In many cases these nations also exercise with other nations—sometimes our competitors. Aim to be the partner of choice. Following up on requests and assessing progress made and what progress still is needed are a good start in creating momentum for the next tactical exercise. As you build on what you’ve accomplished, recognize that in places such as Europe and Asia, your partners will have a much longer sense of history, and they will remember what you promised next year.
Little things matter. Given that our partners often are more traditional, checking on things such as uniforms and gift exchanges will avoid any awkward moments. In parts of Southeast Asia, summer whites (at times choker whites) are the dress uniform choice—even if it is winter. Conversely, in Europe the majority of senior leaders wear service dress blue—even in summer.
Continuity counts. In annual exercise series, some consistency in U.S. participants counts. The rotational nature of our forces makes the change out of personnel and ships unavoidable, but strive for continuity when possible. As a new commodore in Southeast Asia, I saw the difference it made in our proficiency and our standing in the region when we returned to critical nations with the same teams. Further, when natural disasters struck—as they often do in that region—U.S. ships and command elements did not have to come from somewhere else; they were already there.
Leverage common experiences. Common experiences often lead to common understanding. Having traveled to places as varied as Afghanistan and Iraq and an aircraft carrier in the North Sea, I can attest that including partners and allies cemented relationships that senior leaders were able to leverage in the future. Going to sea as commodore of Destroyer Squadron 7 with the Singapore Navy, while embarked on their flag ship with my counterpart, created an incredibly powerful bond between our two command staffs. You may find yourself playing cricket in Bangladesh, sailing the fjords of Norway, or taking a historical tour with another country’s leader. Embrace those opportunities as they can build relationships that last decades.
Let’s Get It Right
Warfighting will always come first in our profession, but in today’s complex world, we won’t face these challenges alone; allies and partners will play a key role. They extend our defense dollars and expand our capabilities. In addition, exercises and engagements help set conditions for our toughest challenges and, in so doing, often deter and prevent the unthinkable from happening in the first place. (For a great testament to the strategic power of exercises read Oceans Ventured by John Lehman on how maritime exercises helped win the Cold War.)
In the end, these engagements and exercises advance our own readiness and interests as we help other nations advance theirs. They are one of the building blocks of coalition and alliance warfare, and it is important to get them right. Doing so will help us win America’s Away Game in the future.