Seek, Develop, and Share…Multinational Understanding

By COL Gary R. Graves


Saber Junction photo
Norwegian soldiers assigned to the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Battery, Artillery Battalion and a U.S. Airman assigned to Bullseye Team, Joint Multi-Readiness Center watch as a helicopter flies by during exercise Combined Resolve III at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, Oct. 28, 2014. Combined Resolve III is a multinational exercise, which includes more than 4,000 participants from NATO and partner nations, and is designed to provide a complex training scenario that focuses on multinational unified land operations and reinforces the U.S. commitment to NATO and Europe. Photo by SPC Brian Chaney, U.S. Army.

According to the new Army Operating Concept (AOC): Win in a Complex World, the U.S. Army describes how it will protect the homeland and engage regionally to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and resolve crises in the future (2025 and beyond). However, because of current fiscal constraints, declining budgets and downsizing the force structure of the Department of Defense (DoD), to include similar reductions among U.S. allies/partners, it is unmistakable that U.S. forces, whether as a leading or subordinate component of a multinational force, is the primary means to achieve the AOC’s vision. In essence, multinational interoperability among the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance has become a vital and necessary component of U.S. strategy and a means to balance the expenditure of national resources (blood and treasure) against national goals and interests.

…the United States will plan to operate whenever possible with coalition contributions. Regardless of mission type, interoperability of some degree is necessary for coalitions to operate together successfully,” 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance.

As stated by GEN Raymond Odierno, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, “we have to better understand what all our [NATO] capabilities are” and “work together to build multinational capability to solve these problems.”

Unfortunately, though the U.S. military has operated as part of a multinational force for more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, interoperability is far from ideal and has typically occurred at the higher levels of war (strategic and operational-levels of war). Furthermore, current and future conflicts contain uncertainty and an ever-changing operational environment leading Odierno to further warn, “we have to do it [interoperability] at a much lower level, which makes it actually more difficult.”

What Odierno emphasizes is the importance of interoperability at the tactical-level of war, but more importantly, that U.S. units need to prepare for the unexpected challenges that come from multinational operations at this level of war.

According to NATO, the term interoperability is defined as:

The ability for allies to act together coherently, effectively and efficiently to achieve tactical, operational and strategic objectives… it enables forces, units and/or systems to operate together and allows them to share common doctrine and procedures, each others’ infrastructure and bases, and to be able to communicate…reduces duplication, enables pooling of resources, and produces synergies among the 28 allies, and whenever possible with partner countries.”

Yet, what does this mean to a Field Artillery battalion commander leading a multinational Field Artillery task force (TF) composed of Czech 152 mm DANA and U.S. 105 mm M119 Howitzers, tasked organized to a Lithuanian multinational brigade? More importantly, within the context of integrating and synchronizing Fires, how is interoperability achieved at the tactical-level of war?

A response to these easily stated, but complex questions can be answered with three words: Seek, Develop and Share. Seek a detailed understanding of both the capacity and capability of task organized allies/partners. Develop a common understanding of how every unit and agency of a multinational force will partner, train, and execute collectively across unified land operations (ULO). And Share multinational standard operating procedures (SOPs), tactics, techniques, procedures (TTP), and battle drills so everyone operates with the same operational terms of reference and has the same common operating pictures and situational understanding.

Seek a Detailed Understanding…of your Allies and Partners

As the Deputy Commanding General, U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR), MG Walter E. Piatt routinely notes “one must seek understanding, before demanding to be understood.” When planning, resourcing, and executing multinational operations, seeking an understanding is the first step in achieving interoperability and multinational team building. Military planning, specifically mission analysis of the military decision making process should produce this detailed understanding. However, for most U.S. formations, this understanding typically focuses solely on their own combat power, the enemy’s capabilities and military objectives, and/or the environment they are fighting in. However, in multinational operations, this analysis and understanding must go further. The commander and staff who lead or support a multinational force must acquire the same depth of understanding and knowledge of their allies/partners, as they do of their own organic forces. This familiarity proves vital for a commander and staff in that it will correlate directly into multinational staff estimates/planning considerations, and impact the ability of the multinational force to interoperate during tactical operations.

A Danish army officer of Guard Hussar Regiment and U.S. Army CPT Geoff Hertenstein of 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division coordinate artillery plans during exercise Combined Resolve III at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, Nov. 6, 2014. Combined Resolve III is a multinational exercise, which includes more than 4,000 participants from NATO and partner nations, and is designed to provide a complex training scenario that focuses on multinational unified land operations and reinforces the U.S. commitment to NATO and Europe. Photo by SGT Ian Schell, U.S. Army.

Multinational Planning Considerations

To successfully achieve interoperability and employ multinational assets in an appropriate manner, units must quickly achieve a thorough understanding of allied/partnered equipment capabilities (caliber/range/rate-of-fire), their standard forms of tactical employment (control of Fires/support relationships), their mission command equipment and communications procedures (digital/analog/secure/unsecure), and logistical and sustainment capacity (organic/contracted). Units must also recognize that many allies/partners will operate under specific national caveats that may limit or restrict their use (unionized military/special munitions restrictions) or other historically rooted friction that may impede cooperation with other allies/partners. A commander and staff must take into account these specific planning considerations as they develop the plan. Furthermore, an intangible but crucial variable is the commander’s and staff’s ability to put aside any preconceived bias or mindset and acknowledge that interoperability does not require identical military equipment, hardware, armaments and systems. Interoperability is not about achieving congruency; instead, it is about compatibility and understanding how to integrate each contributing country’s unique capabilities and capacities effectively into an operation.

European Rotational Force Training Rotations

At the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC), the observer/coach/trainer (OCT) Teams consistently recommend a detailed multinational mission analysis to rotational training units (RTU) as a means to identify these unique planning considerations early during military planning and to understand how to better build a multinational team. This is especially true for the U.S. Army’s European Rotational Force (ERF) during the Combined Resolve (CbR) Rotations, a series of ‘proof-of-principle’ multinational decisive action training environment (DATE) exercise, at the JMRC. Though this U.S.-led multinational force is complex, and a challenge for a commander and staff to integrate, this detailed multinational mission analysis helped several U.S. units understand how to plan, resource, synchronize, and execute multinational operations at the tactical-level of war.

Planning Considerations to Tactical Operations

Objectively speaking, most multinational Field Artillery units that train at the JMRC retain Cold War era doctrine, focusing primarily on area/rolling barrage Fires. Furthermore, from a Field Artillery battery operations perspective, a typical multinational firing battery focuses predominantly on concealment and perimeter defense, sacrificing responsiveness for security and survivability. One commonly observed TTP is the establishment of ‘hides,’ approximately one to one and a half kilometers away from planned firing point (FP) locations. Once a call-for-fire request is received, the unit displaces from the hide to the FP, and occupies until in-position-ready-to-fire (IPRTF). Though this TTP is not dissimilar from M109A6 Paladin operations, the greater distance associated with the movement, coupled with the lack of digitized systems among multinational units, the standard for timely and accurate Fires is approximately 20-25 minutes.

Within the U.S. Fires warfighting function mindset, this is a significant limitation; U.S. formations are accustomed to a much faster response time, approximately three minutes IAW TC 3-09.8 (Field Artillery Gunnery) for a M109A6 Paladin equipped unit. Fortunately, during CbR the commander and staff recognized this adjusted response time early during mission planning and mitigated this perceived lag in responsive Fires by establishing independent tactical movement triggers for the multinational firing battery. By using a simple event/time-based formula of IPRTF Time, minus 25 minutes, the commander and staff clearly identified when the multinational firing battery had to move from hide to FP to achieve its IPRTF Time. It also allowed the unit to operate within its own established TTPs. Most importantly, this practice added a degree of predictability for the commander and staff which translated to more responsive Fires amongst the other multinational task forces. End result: transparent Fires and achieved interoperability within the Fires warfighting function.

Develop a Common Understanding…learn to speak NATO

One of the greatest challenges that a commander and staff will encounter during an exercise is the requirement to quickly build an effective and efficient fighting formation. This starts during the multinational forces’ reception, staging, onward movement and integration (RSOI). This is a daunting task even among U.S.-pure formations, but becomes even more difficult as tactical units from multiple allies/partners come together for the first time. A priority must be made towards team building by identifying how the multinational force will operate together.

As one can imagine, within a multinational force unit diversity is the norm, but a common language and doctrinal terminology is not. While complicated and time consuming, building the team it is not an impossible task.

However, success remains dependent on how well a unit integrates and quickly achieves synergistic effects across all the warfighting function. As observed at the JMRC, several units address these team building tasks and commonly related friction points by adhering to the following principles:

Using Doctrine as a Common Language

According to John Deni, a former advisor to senior U.S. military commanders in Europe, there are several tools available for building and maintaining interoperability in NATO formations. Common NATO doctrine, Allied Joint Publications (AJP) and NATO Standardization Agreements (STANAGs) provide common terminology and address operational and tactical concepts and methodologies which foster interoperability. From a Fires warfighting perspective, NATO has published a large amount of applicable doctrinal references that effectively address Fires planning (AJP-3.9.2 Land Targeting), Field Artillery TTPs (AARTYP-5A NATO Indirect Fire Systems Tactical Doctrine), Artillery Procedures (AARTYP-1B), and Airspace Deconfliction (STANAG 3736 Air Interdiction and Close Air Support). By using the AJPs and STANAGs as a foundation for SOPs used by the multinational force, a commander and staff can quickly build efficiencies amongst the diverse multinational force. This foundation enables an effective, detailed SOP to: provide the ‘how to’ for common tasks, achieve consistency by reducing variation, offer a means to train new members of the organization, and establish a method to mitigate risk. All of this fosters interoperability and a means to operate collectively.

Control of Fires and battle drills

Unfortunately, though NATO doctrine and STANAGs suggest there is a common multinational language for the Fires warfighting function that transcends the armed forces of different nations, this is not the case. There are significant doctrinal differences that must be mitigated or controlled. For example, a commander and staff, historically, must address control of Fires, supporting relationships, clearance of Fires, counter-fire, and airspace deconfliction.

After more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, most U.S. formations have become comfortable with the decentralized control of Fires. However, as we return to a training focus that prepares units to fight against a near-peer/hybrid threat, a commander and staff must acknowledge, and become proficient with, the responsibility of distributing finite resources across a broad front, while still accounting for an asymmetrical threat throughout the operational environment. Logically, this generates greater demands against fewer resources, producing the requirement for the commander and staff to clearly understand when to prioritize, allocate and restrict the use of finite resources. From a Fires perspective, this typically results in centralizing Fires at the brigade-level. By centralizing Fires, multinational forces increase their ability to manage a more intense counter-fire fight against an opposing force (OPFOR) that maintains near Fires parity with the RTU. It also results in a more efficient clearance of Fires and airspace deconfliction, as it codifies roles, responsibilities, and procedures by answering who clears and de-conflicts ground or airspace, and at which echelon. Furthermore, it alleviates the possibility of a unit interpreting its own supporting relationship and thereby limiting the multinational forces’ ability to shape fights in the Security Area or otherwise. Saber Junction (SJ)-14 highlighted all of these facets, but unlike CbR I-III, distinguished itself as the first multinational-led DATE rotation at the JMRC.

Dutch soldiers of B Battery, Fire Support Battalion scan the area for simulated enemy during exercise Allied Spirit at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, Jan. 15, 2015. Allied Spirit is a multinational decisive action training environment exercise focused on enhancing and refining interoperability, integration, and combat-readiness of NATO, allied, and coalition partners. Photo by PVT Courtney Hubbard, U.S. Army.

Saber Junction 14…Fighting with Multinational Fires Assets/Systems

During SJ-14 an Infantry brigade from Lithuania led the multinational force composed of units from Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and the United States. This was also the first multinational DATE rotation at the JMRC in which a multinational firing battery was task organized to a U.S. Field Artillery battalion, effectively creating a multinational composite Field Artillery task force composed of towed 105 mm and self-propelled 152 mm howitzers. For the commander, the task organization proved unique and challenging. However, it also represented an opportunity to validate the possibilities of interoperability and its advantages.

Immediately, the FA TF executed a very deliberate and detailed multinational mission analysis, giving the commander an understanding of the unique capabilities of the entire formation (organic and task organized) and the advantages/disadvantages associated with each unit. This understanding allowed the quick development of standardized TTPs and battle drills that dictated how the FA TF would operate. The commander first directed the use of pre-existing AJPs and STANAGs as the standard with respect to call-for-fire format/procedures, and Fires planning/targeting. This action circumvented the lack of a specific national or service doctrine by the multinational component; it used AJPs and STANAGs as their common doctrine and source of terminology. Furthermore, the obvious similarities between NATO and U.S. doctrine allowed U.S. units to quickly adapt to these TTPs and battle drills, adding a level flexibility for the entire FA TF. The commander then directed the staff to execute a tactical task to asset analysis (fire support to Field Artillery task) during COA development. As previously discussed, many new NATO members are trained in or use old Soviet doctrine (volume over precision, survivability over responsiveness and preparatory Fires versus supporting Fires). This analysis allowed the FA TF to align the correct firing asset against each task to achieve the desired effects. For example, using self-propelled Field Artillery units with a prolonged response time against relatively static targets versus a reactive shooter for counter-fire. Last, the commander directed the multinational firing battery co-locate its fire direction center (FDC) with the U.S. battalion FDC at the FA TF command post. By co-locating the appropriate echelon FDCs together, the FA TF gained the ability to quickly coordinate and mass Fires, while enabling the subordinate multinational firing battery to work within their national technical fire direction systems. Overall, the task organization and the collective TTPs and battle drills proved extremely successful at providing timely and accurate Fires in support of the entire multinational force.

Share the Common Understanding…everyone speaking NATO

Though all commanders and staffs encounter multiple challenges executing multinational operations, they must realize that their greatest source of frustration, and most likely single point of failure, will revolve around communications. For a multinational force, the means to communicate (receive, analyze and distribute information) is challenging, especially with dissimilar operating systems and language barriers.

The Fires Net

With its high density of radio systems and heavy reliance on digital messaging, the fire support system/structure (sensor – shooter) of a typical U.S. brigade is designed to support the complexities and challenges of establishing and maintaining communications. However, during a typical multinational rotation at the JMRC, the Fires Net experiences a much higher volume of FM voice traffic. This is attributed to the fact that the majority of allies/partners do not have the means to transmit formatted Fires messages digitally to U.S. systems. Though there is an ongoing interoperability program, known as the Artillery Systems Cooperation Activity (ASCA), to develop a common interface that allows the automatic transmission of formatted Fires messages between national automatic data processing systems via a wire-line medium, the system itself is still in testing. Further, the number of countries currently involved in this initiative is limited to Turkey, France, Germany, Italy and the United States. These communications limitations significantly affect the integration and synchronization of Fires. Therefore, it is crucial to develop, disseminate, and enforce a communications architecture for both voice and digital communications that is prescriptive. Fortunately, communications interoperability is not dependent on having identical communications hardware, it is reliant on having at least a compatible medium to interact, connect, communicate, and exchange information.

Tactical Radios and Standardized Formats

As a general rule, most of the allies/partners that participate in exercises at the JMRC have tactical radios capable of communicating in the VHF/UHF range of most U.S. military frequencies and the ability to operate encrypted. The JMRC recommends that all commanders and staffs research and confirm what fire support communications systems will be used, the capabilities and technical procedures of those systems, and most importantly, whether these systems function with one another. For the Fires warfighting function, this analysis allows the development of the fire support communications network. Experience suggests that when creating this network, focus on four overarching considerations. First, enable allies/partners to operate within the comfort of their own organic communications systems and if possible, with common NATO encryption keys. Second, avoid imposing chat portals (Jabber/MiRC) that are not readily used by allies/partners and typically display a myriad of non-standardized reports and muddled information that add confusion to the Fires common operating picture. Third, enforce NATO standard calls-for-fire/messages-to-observer formats. Fourth, enforce the use of analog products. These actions provide efficiency through common systems and processes. More importantly, they facilitate shared information and understanding throughout the entire multinational force.

Czech soldiers of 1st Fire Battery, 131st Artillery Battalion, await firing orders during training exercise Saber Junction 2014 at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, Sept. 4, 2014. Saber Junction 2014 prepares U.S., NATO allies, and European security partners to conduct unified land operations through the simultaneous combination of offensive, defensive, and stability operations appropriate to the mission and the environment. Photo by SSG Randy Florendo, U.S. Army.

Coalition Fires Liaison Teams

The most successful units at sharing common understanding amongst their allies/partners were those that resourced and incorporated liaison teams at both brigade and task force-levels. Within the Fires warfighting function, this involves creating liaison teams at the appropriate fire support and/or fire direction echelon. In exercises at the JMRC, units successfully integrated and synchronized Fires and employed Field Artillery assets, regardless of type and country, by providing robust liaison at the appropriate echelon. During one exercise, the Field Artillery battalion commander consolidated both the U.S. and task organized multinational FDCs at the battalion command post. In general, tactical fire direction and the empirical requirements for the Field Artillery battalion remain unchanged. By collocating the FDCs, the unit achieved a high degree of success by sharing a common operating picture (analog), massing Fires, and enabling subordinate firing elements to work within their national technical fire direction systems. Another example of this practice occurred during an exercise when the U.S.-led multinational force incorporated fire support liaison teams (FSLO) into two multinational TFs. In this instance, the liaison team took the form of an attached Bradley fire support team vehicle (BFIST) and its fire support personnel. Not only did these FSLOs bring U.S. fire support subject matter expertise with it, it also injected a U.S. AFATDS into the multinational TF command post to create an efficient digital data link throughout the multinational force, improving communications efficiency. In both cases, not only did the liaison teams assist with Fires communications (digital and voice), it facilitated mission command by providing a persistent digital communications link for the maneuver commander. Furthermore, it ensured a shared common understanding of Fires despite differences in equipment and TTPs.

Though ‘winning’ is relative in a training exercise, the key to executing successful multinational operations is not. For a commander and staff, it boils down to team building through interoperability at the tactical-level of war. In essence, a commander and staff can gauge their success by answering four simple questions.

For a commander and staff, it is important to realize that interoperability is not about trying to make allies/partners operate in a manner in which they are not accustomed or prepared to do. As discussed in this article, doctrine, TTPs and battle drills rarely transcend national borders completely, each contributing country’s military capacities are different, and equipment sets/systems are never identical. For a commander and staff, improving interoperability is achieved by seeking a thorough understanding and identifying the compatible similarities and conflicting differences among the entire multinational force. From this, a commander and staff can develop the procedural means that maximize the multinational forces’ ability to operate within the similarities, while mitigating the challenges associated to the differences that are ever present in multinational operations. Finally, and most importantly, a commander and staff must share common understanding continuously to ensure allies/partners are integrated and capable of visualizing, describing, directing, leading and assessing operations in complex environments against adaptive enemies. By doing so, the AOC’s vision of strategic, operational and tactical success, facilitated by interoperability, is achieved.


Colonel Gary R. Graves is currently the senior Fires trainer at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC), Hohenfels, Germany. Previously, he commander 2nd Battalion, 77th Field Artillery, Fort Carson, Colo., where he deployed the battalion to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. As the senior Fires trainer at JMRC, Graves supervises the Fires training for U.S., NATO, and partnered forces in a decisive action training environment, focusing on identifying lessons learned and best practices for multinational interoperability within the Fires warfighting function.