Holy cows: NATO and Interoperability

Interoperability is a big topic in NATO, and I'll take some shots at it.

On land

The way allies cooperated in ages long gone was that they simply exchanged liaison officers to headquarters who had their means for secure communications with their own folks. Allied armies also preferred to fight alongside each other rather than mixed. The British Empire and the French Republic's armies fought side-by-side in the First World War in France (and a small strip of Belgium), with only one point where French and British Empire positions were neighbours. Neighbouring formations have to keep in contact (knowing what the other intends, does and where it is), and this is not terribly much more complicated across language and doctrine barriers than within an army. In worst case you keep some extra reserves to secure such a joint against trouble.

There was no chaotic British corps-French corps-Canadian Corps-French corps sequence or similar along the front line. It took thousands of years of military history until finally NATO mobilised the amount of stupid required for such a chaos,* based on end of WW2 occupation sectors.

(about mid-late Cold War)

Nowadays we have multinational battalion battlegroups, one each in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. These are for show only. These battlegroups are composite battlegroups of multiple nations with different doctrines and languages each. Such battlegroups shouldn't manoeuvre in battle as a whole, but rather with company-size taskforces. So the mixing actually happens at the company level at least in the Latvia and Lithuania battlegroups, which is insane!

I'm generally not a friend of tripwire forces (rather of actual quick reaction forces a.k.a. reserves),  but if you must have a tripwire formation you better rotate full national battalion battlegroups in. A mix of Dutch/Belgian or especially British/Canadian troops might be sensible as well within a battalion battlegroup.

Interoperability on land is a way for NATO to try make its nonsense work. It would not be a huge topic if NATO and its members (hat tip to the Franco-German brigade!) weren't behaving so stupidly in how they organise for war.

In the air

Interoperability in the air is a different topic, and this extends somewhat to battlefield air defence. The absolute minimum requirement is to have compatible cooperative IFF (identification friend or foe, a directed radio signal requesting an identifying answer with a code, and the radio signal answer has to have the correct reply code to be identified as friendly). 

Compatible datalinks (Link 16) and voice radio comms are also things that I readily agree are indispensable in modern air war unless we can separate the theatres of war very well (such as Turkey/Caucasus front and Norway would be well-separated and could use completely different norms).

Compatibility with midair refuelling tech (there are two different systems in NATO) is not a must-have, as midair refuelling seems more like a nice-to-have, particularly for offensive actions. NATO is too lazy and too reliant on regular air force bases far away from the action.

At sea

Interoperability at sea is -other than refuelling at sea- primarily about the air war, so the previous remarks apply. 

The USN sometimes incorporates non-U.S. escorts into its convoys, and to integrate these foreign escorts into the AAW (anti air warfare) coordination requires technical compatibility (or else that foreign ship could get the undesirable job of a non-essential picket ship). ASW (anti submarine warfare) coordination can be improvised a bit better because ASW actions are much slower. We should remember that it's absolutely not necessary to add such foreign ships to USN convoys. The Dutch, Norwegians, Spanish, Germans, British, Italians and French can run their own convoys each. Navies too small to run a full convoy escort group (ASW+AAW) should be reformed into paramilitary coast guards and abstain from buying anything bigger than patrol boats anyway.

The doctrine argument

Warfare has many examples of things not working as intended, misunderstandings, distrust, ignorance. Some historically relatively well-functioning armies benefited from standardised training that enabled officers to anticipate what fellow officers of another unit or formation would do, for they both had the same training for the situation. Likewise, NCOs and enlisted personnel was to some degree exchangeable becuase of standardised drills. You could take a gunner from one tank crew to replace a sick gunner in another tank crew and the tank crew would still be very effective because the tank commander's verbal commands and the processes inside the tank are standardised by training. The British Empire benefited from this kind of doctrinal similarity between British, Canadian, Australian and Indian troops, for example.

It's a futile and risky dream to expect such homogeneity from NATO armed forces, or only from some imaginary "EU army". I call it risky because an agreement on one doctrine could petrify us and be a vastly inferior path compared to having diverse doctrines with pursuit of different ideas and experimentation.


NATO is exaggerating the importance of interoperability. Interoperability is largely only required as a fix for voluntarily created problems.

Yes, NATO members should not operate Cold War era air defences and aircraft without compatible IFF and communications, but they shouldn't do so because it's a waste of budget to use useless equipment. Interoperability requirements are a superfluous argument here post-2010.

It could be a lot easier and lower-risk to keep diverse forces with arrangements for working side by side, rather than to expect much cross-national cooperation. 

It is in the NATO bureaucracy's self-interest to claim that interoperability and standardization efforts are super-important, for this makes itself super-important.



P.S.: This is obviously a superficial view and despite the presence of a conclusion (thesis) not comprehensive at all. Read it as a push to think about it.

*: The English-speaking Brits were adjacent no English-speaking allies, despite Americans being there as well. The French- and Dutch-speaking Belgians were adjacent to neither of both. The West Germans were split into three sectors with two very different landscape types (North German flatlands, South German hilly). The two American corps being neighbours and the Dutch (who knew German by television) being adjacent to Germans were the only non-idiotic parts of this setup.



  1. You seem to overestimate the importance of national languages and underestimate how widespread knowledge of English is, even among people who didn't see much school.

    1. Frenchmen
      combat stress
      analogue voice radio "clarity"
      background noises in voice radio
      very different doctrines enabling confusion even with standardised terminology

    2. I see your point, under stress people can be difficult to understand. but as a general rule, English is the lingua franca of Europe and should be taught for all kinds of professional communication.

  2. The working language for LANDJUT was usually German in practice, although English would be used formally.

  3. SO:

    The same you mentioned here is even more an problematic developement in the bundeswehr. The actual bw concept of the framework nations concept, under which it is assumed, that german high ranking officers and staffs would command foreign troops makes the mentioned doctrine of interoperability the number one mantra of the current bw doctrine.


    1. It is a nice concept to give allies too small to muster a full corps (or only a well-supported stand-alone division) the opportunity to join a binational corps.
      The cohesion & friction issue are huge challenges (problems), but there's another:
      Such organisations are an excuse for the Bundeswehr to remain heavy on staffs and support that doesn't directly intervene in battle (medical, for example) while neglecting actual combat and combat support capabilities. It's preserving our Wasserkopf.