WASHINGTON — As the shrinking US Army places greater emphasis on working with and through partner-nation militaries, it is struggling to link its communications networks with theirs.
The issue was highlighted during a multinational force-on-force exercise in Germany this year when an allied unit made a failed call for artillery fire from its Army partners. After waiting 30 minutes without success, the friendly forces advanced on the target — as the faux artillery finally arrived.
"Am I satisfied with where we are with interoperability, no I am not, and I can tell you our partners and allies aren't either," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel Allyn said on July 9. "The good news, between all of us in this environment of constrained resources, is that dialogue is happening at the developmental stage, and in our modernization process."
Speaking at an Association of the US Army event on networks (the electronic kind), Allyn talked about networks (the organizational kind). Specifically, he stressed the value of the "global land power network," which he described as linking Army forces with Marine, special operations and host-nation forces with the goal of preventing conflict by showing force, not using it.
"The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting," Allyn said, quoting Sun Tzu. "This global land power network is focused on doing just that."
Allyn's remarks came on the day the Army detailed reductions of 40,000 troops over two years. As the Army shrinks, it has been focused on achieving strategic gains with small units, particularly through multinational exercises executed by regionally aligned forces, trained in the culture and language of assigned regions.
Allyn was asked, as Army troops field the latest generation of networked electronic systems, how allies will plug in beside them. The service is working on the issue, he said, in part by including foreign militaries in upcoming Network Integration Evaluations and war-fighting assessments.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, which is based in Vicenza, Italy, has operated in 22 countries with 30 different nations, a sign that the service is tackling interoperability at the operational as well as strategic level, he said.
Operation Atlantic Resolve, the US' show of commitment to Europe in response to Russian aggression, is characterized by multinational training exercises with a variety of countries, and as such has forced the Army to confront interoperability, said Brig. Gen. Willard Burleson, director of the Army Mission Command Center of Excellence.
The Joint Multinational Training Center in Hohenfels, Germany, which conducted exercises with a tactical radio bridge in January, was given the mission two years ago to sort out multinational interoperability, in part because it routinely incorporates partner and allied forces in its exercises. Burleson called it a "bright spot" in the effort, as US Army Europe and US Army Pacific have called for improvements.
Through the Pacific Pathways exercises, a single Army unit — the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, of Fort Lewis, Washington — participated in exercises in Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan last year. Among other training activity with partners in Europe linked to Atlantic Resolve, US Army troops launched a "dragoon ride" of 120 armored vehicles on a 1,100-mile trek through six countries.
Maj. Gen. Bruce Crawford, the commander of Army Communications-Electronics Command, the service's provider and maintainer of electronics, said the Army is not organized to tackle multinational interoperability, yet its new direction depends on them.
"Our entire strategy of regionally aligned forces and rotational forces depends on our ability to be interoperable from a multinational perspective," Crawford said. "If you're in a division or a corps today, and you've got a coalition interoperability issue — whether it's tactical radio, blue force tracker — where do you take that? … Right now it's a tough question."
While NATO agreements allow for interoperability at the highest echelons of the Army, the need is at lower echelons, such as company-sized units attached to brigades, according to Col. Michael Thurston, lead acquisition official for the Army's tactical communications.
Some nations can only contribute small elements to a coalition, and these may lack advanced technologies, support and experience with sophisticated systems, Burleson acknowledged. An interoperability solution would have to allow them to plug in easily.
"We fight as coalitions, and we don't want to limit anybody based on their ability to integrate," Burleson said.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.