By Air Commodore Chris Westwood
Royal Australian Air Force
Combined Forces Air Component Commander
I have long believed that we make interoperability more difficult than it needs to be, whether it be between coalition or combined forces, between our own national services, or indeed internal to our individual service. The main reason for this is that we focus on technical interoperability and largely ignore the other more important aspects. The most important aspects in my mind are relationships, doctrine and policy – but more of that later. I want to try and de-mystify the technical piece.
I have stated my belief that technical interoperability is the easy bit in several public forums. I often have folks in the audience point out the continual failure of services, be they air, maritime or land (let alone joint), to be able to talk with each other. We collectively still seem to be able to introduce major capital equipment that can’t connect to its partner platforms. My point is that just because we might continually do that, doesn’t mean we have to.
I contend that we can connect any platform to any other platform – all we need to do is lock a couple of smart network and comms folks in a room with smart operators and a way will be found. This has actually gotten much easier as networks have become commonplace and point-to-point is becoming old school. Most of us have experienced how quickly a technical interoperability problem can be solved when it really needs to be.
What’s hard about interoperability?
The most important part of interoperability is to know the people you are trying to operate with. To have a genuine, trusted and personal relationship with them. To understand what is important to them, what they are good at, what they are not so good at. In this case I think the Navy often gets it right with its focus on the shore phase of an exercise – which I recently learnt was Navy code for sports, briefings and receptions. Relationships can take a long time; in fact generations to become routine. There is no short cut. Developing and maintaining relationships is a long, but thankfully enjoyable key component to interoperability.
So once you know each other, you need to understand how you plan to fight. Forces will not be able to interoperate unless their respective doctrines are at least deconflicted, perhaps aligned and indeed complementary. This requires training at all levels. It requires a pragmatic approach to doctrinal development, cognisant of who you are likely to fight with, and a commitment to exercise routinely and to ensure doctrinal lessons feature high on the exercise objectives.
The policy of interoperability.
Policy is created by well meaning folks addressing real issues. Unfortunately there are often unintended consequences of policy that simply prevent other parts of the machine from functioning. My experience is that interoperability is often a victim of well meaning folks. My advice in this regard is to be alert to flow-on effects of policy, and remember that we can always adjust it. We need to raise our hands when we have issues.
Interoperability is easy; well the technical piece is. Aligning doctrine and addressing policy obstacles are the ‘continual improvement’ elements of interoperability. But, if you want to focus on one piece, the nugget of interoperability, I recommend you get to know your friends.
Relationships are the key to interoperability.