Economic downturn and the planned winding down of the International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan are leading to budget cuts and force draw-downs throughout Europe and North America. To confront these realities, the transatlantic community is seeking efficiencies in its military capabilities. As defense budgets and military forces decline in size, specialization and efficiency initiatives like NATO's 'Smart Defense' will place additional demands on allied forces to work more closely with one another at lower levels. To do this, leaders should focus their efforts on three key areas. First, greater efforts must be made to harmonize military doctrines. Second, investments should be made to ensure the development and maintenance of facilities that allow forces from different countries to train together. Finally, resources have to be allocated in a way that reflects the importance of these concerns.
Multinational solutions are not just a question of common equipment, but also of common intellectual and human capital; in other words, people who know how to work together. Increased defense specialization within individual NATO member countries heightens the need to rely on multinational coalitions in order to pool expertise and draw on comparative advantages. During operations, this requires forces from more than one country to work closely together by combining in units as small as the company and even platoon. This is not only the case in Afghanistan today but will be common in future operations also. Under these circumstances, success crucially depends on practice and training together.
An important and relatively cost-efficient way of improving interoperability is to invest in efforts to harmonize doctrine across alliance members. While the NATO Standardization Agreements for equipment are relatively well-known and rooted in most countries' procurement procedures, common NATO doctrine is not as commonly employed – especially among larger military powers in the Alliance. Parallel processes that led to the development of the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine in use in Afghanistan are illustrative of the missed opportunities in this area. While the United States wrote new doctrine in its Field Manual 3-24 of 2006, initial efforts to make this a combined American-British joint publication were unsuccessful. The United Kingdom published its own doctrine in 2010, well after the U.S. document. International forces engaged in the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan have to work out differences in approach upon arrival in the theater of operations. Greater efforts to harmonize doctrine before operational deployments would increase the likelihood that international forces begin their efforts 'on the same page.'
However, compatible doctrine is only part of the preparation that international forces need if they are to work effectively together. Above all, they need practice and experience built on common training. As forces interoperate at lower levels, service members at increasingly low echelons will need to incorporate the challenges of international operations into their preparation. By training together, they are forced to work out interoperability issues related to equipment and doctrine. Perhaps more crucially, they are being familiarized with the challenges of dealing with differences in language and culture across countries and organizations. To enable this kind of training, leaders should promote the growth of facilities and opportunities to drill together and sustain existing efforts. The NATO certification of national 'Centers of Excellence' in various military specialties is useful in this regard. More important is the maintenance of large, full-scale training areas such as the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany.
Finally, leaders must place importance on the proper resourcing of these interoperability initiatives. Harmonization of doctrine is relatively inexpensive, but requires will and patience. Facilities and opportunities for multinational training involve greater investments of both time and money. However, more flexible funding arrangements for multinational training could help managing these costs. While many countries understandably and rightly require both foreign ministry and defense ministry approval - if not also parliamentary consent - to train with foreign forces, combined training among NATO allies should be relatively uncontroversial. Removing bureaucratic and administrative barriers to the funding of combined training would improve the flexibility and efficiency of such efforts.
Closer cooperation among the military forces of Alliance members is inevitable. While it is right to focus on the harmonization of equipment, the human component of interoperability is essential to the success of close cooperation in a multinational setting. Greater efforts to harmonize doctrine, support for multinational training, and the appropriate resourcing of both will improve the quality and capabilities of transatlantic forces to carry out their missions.