Interoperability: Embrace it or Fail!

By Maj. Gen. Rodney Fogg, Australian Army Lt. Col. Simon Heritage, French Army Lt. Col. Thierry Balga, and British Army Lt. Col. Mark StuartFebruary 10, 2020

Maj. Gen. Rodney Fogg
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

You are deployed in support of Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) in an Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC) in Europe in 2030. Your ESC is the U.S. Army lead for the sustainment of a Multi-National Corps (MNC)--part of a larger Task Force consisting of NATO and other allied nations.

This coalition formed to prevent a peer/near-peer adversary from changing the present world order to one where it would dictate and dominate global affairs and security.

Your mission is simple (or so it seems): Contribute to the sustainment of the MNC in order to ensure it has the necessary combat power to win.

You make a list of key concerns and problems:

1. Each nation operates its own sustainment/logistics information system with little or no data transfer or information exchange capabilities.

2. There is no standardization of ammunition across the MNC; and highlighted at its very basic level is small arms ammunition consisting of 5.56 mm standard NATO, 7.62 mm standard NATO, and 6.8 mm, along with smaller quantities of other calibers.

3. Fuel interoperability is almost non-existent with each nation using different fuel blends.

4. Maintenance, repair, and recovery capabilities and standards significantly vary.

5. Transportation and intermodal transfer of out-sized and over-weight combat systems between platforms provided by contributing nations and services at the various distribution nodes have been an afterthought.

You quickly realize that the sustainment of this Multi-National Corps is going to be really difficult-- with each nation having its own stove piped supply chain from National Support Base (Strategic Support Area) through to its own warfighting capabilities.

This lack of standardization, along with limited interoperability is really going to make things difficult. If only we had previously considered the significance of interoperability and its importance in winning large-scale combat. Upon completion of mission analysis, you realize this may be "mission impossible!"


A review of large-scale combat operations (LSCO) in the last 100 years highlights numerous alliances and partnerships that were formed in order to successfully campaign against a peer/near peer adversary. There are numerous World War I and World War II examples of successful battles that were characterized by interoperability amongst allied forces. The level of interoperability within any alliance or partnership has a direct correlation with the collective force's ability to maneuver and sustain itself.

The U.S. Army has released its new operating concept: The Army in MDO in 2028, which describes how Army forces contribute to deterring and defeating peer/near-peer adversaries in competition and conflict. The central idea of MDO is how Army forces, as an element of the joint force, prevail in competition. When necessary, Army forces penetrate and disintegrate enemy anti-access and area denial (A2AD) systems and exploit freedom of maneuver to achieve strategic objectives and force a return to competition on favorable terms. The 2018 Army Strategy establishes four lines of effort (LOE) aligned with the objectives of the MDO Concept. The fourth LOE is "Alliances and Partnerships," which calls for the U.S. Army to continue to train and fight with allies and partners and strive to integrate them further into operations to increase interoperability.

As we move into a more challenging and complex future operating environment, it is time to take a look at interoperability and how it can assist the sustainment of LSCO.


Interoperability is vital to success. Army Regulation 34-1, Multinational Force Interoperability, defines interoperability as the ability to routinely act together coherently, effectively and efficiently to achieve tactical, operational and strategic objectives. Interoperability activities are defined as any initiative, forum, agreement, or operation that improves the Army's ability to operate effectively and efficiently as a component of the joint force and as a member or leader of an alliance or coalition across the range of military operations. It is unlikely that the U.S. Army will operate in 2028 and beyond without unified action partners. Interoperability is necessary to deploy and employ military capability across a unified action partnered force, to enable leveraging of economies of scale and specialized/unique capabilities and commodity sharing with allies and partners. An MDO force may have days, not weeks or months, to become operationally effective in key functions and capabilities. However, interoperability is often an oversight and not a part of the planning process at any echelon. Interoperability must become a fundamental condition of how the U.S. Army, as part of a force conducting unified action, plans to fight tonight, fight tomorrow, and prepares to fight in the future.

These efforts must be championed, made routine in training exercises, and captured in both After Action Reviews and Center for the Army Profession and Leadership (CAPL) publications whenever possible. Interoperability must be brought into mainstream Army practices (and more widely within the DOD). One way to do this is adding interoperability to doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy (DOTMLPF-P); this will enable strategy-led, resource-informed, funded capabilities with clear responsibilities through-life and interoperability by design.

Within this framework, the characteristics of interoperability are:

• Breadth. "Human" (mutual trust and understanding gained through routine connectivity), "procedural" (shared policy, concepts, and TTPs), and "technical" (adoption of agreed standards to inform design of capabilities and systems--i.e., NATO Standard Agreements (STANAGs) and American, British, Canadian. Australian, and New Zealand Standards (ABCANZ)).

• Depth. Interoperability in the near term (0-5 years), mid term (5-15 years) and long term (15+ years).

• Levels of Ambition. Interoperability requires nations to spend money, take risk and cede sovereignty in order to increase legitimacy, cohesion, mass and agility. The level of ambition for each relationship will depend on the cost/benefit risk appetite and likelihood of use.

The three levels are described as:

• Deconflicted. U.S. Army can coexist with key allies and partners but forces cannot interact together. This level requires alignment of capabilities and procedures to establish operational norms, enabling multinational partners to complement U.S. Army operations.

• Compatible. U.S. Army is able to interact with key allies and partners in the same geographic area in pursuit of a common goal. Multinational partners have similar or complementary processes and procedures and are able to operate effectively with U.S. Army forces.

• Integrated. U.S. Army is able to integrate with key allies and partners upon arrival in theater. Interoperability is network-enabled to provide full interoperability. Multinational partners are able to routinely establish networks and effectively operate alongside or as part of U.S. Army formations.


Coalition efforts are critical to sustain Force Elements (FEs) beyond the initial 30 days (currently a national responsibility). FEs need the ability to support actions after 30 days regardless of who provides the support. Such responsibilities include:

• Provision of sustainment functions (materiel management, distribution, maintenance, and recovery)

• Services (postal, operational contract support, and bath and laundry)

• Personnel support

• Basing requirements (energy management and waste)

• Winning resources, CBRNE, tactical air resupply and health sustainment (excluding health operations)

The sustainment provided by coalition partners should maximize the opportunities to harness economies of scale, share commodities, and seek to optimize the sustainment footprint to reduce the threat of enemy interdiction and increase operational agility.

This sustainment footprint should be underpinned by the creation of a dynamic Sustainment Support Network (SSN) that would provide the physical framework for the delivery of sustainment effects. The unique requirements of each nation's National Support Base (NSB) must be understood and mitigated to ensure the successful sustainment of the force. This requires centralized command, control, and coordination of the theater gateway and the movement of personnel, equipment, and commodities along the strategic Line of Communications (LoC) between respective NSBs and the operational theater.

In order to reduce the sustainment footprint and resource cost to contributing nations (personnel, equipment, and commodities), efficiencies must be identified to prevent unnecessary duplication of effort.

When a common requirement can be achieved by more than one contributor, a lead nation should be considered to provide that sustainment effect (i.e. bulk fuel management and bath and laundry services). Coalition members will have to commit national assets when their requirements cannot be met by a coalition partner or there is a national caveat. An effective coalition sustainment effort must be enabled by sustainment core services, providing seamless communications. Furthermore, it is imperative that all coalition nations adopt associated NATO STANAGs and ABCANZ Standards.

Opportunities for the sharing of assets and supplies must be maximized in order to reduce the sustainment footprint. The sharing of the following capabilities should be considered routine:

• General transport

• Movement Control

• Military Police

• Infrastructure support

• Postal and Courier Services

Compatibility and sharing of the following should be subject to further inquiry:

• Specialized transport (e.g. Heavy Equipment Transport, fuel)

• Aerial delivery

• Modular distribution

• Maintenance and recovery assets

• Classes of supply

Personnel Administration is unlikely to be shared other than providing the interface with national systems and NSEs.


A coalition force operating in an expeditionary, contested, austere, peer/near-peer, and A2AD environment needs to maximize shared sustainment and reduce unnecessary duplications of effort. Currently, sustainment is a national responsibility that perpetuates inefficiencies into the broader coalition network. This results in the duplication of sustainment capabilities and the inability to understand and capitalize on an individual nation's capabilities.

The future operating environment will be characterized by complex terrain, technology proliferation, information warfare, the need to shield and exploit signatures, and increasingly nonpermissive or denied environments. In response to our competitors' formidable and growing A2AD capabilities and systems, sustainment systems will need to be distributed, and embrace joint/coalition partners to achieve mass and posture to provide support at greater distances.

In a highly lethal battlefield, sustainment systems or key nodes may become overwhelmed where the capacity of platforms and sustainment units may be exceeded for significant durations of combat. In this environment, commanders need information to make decisions that allow them to shift their Main Effort (ME) as the conflict unfolds. Key to assisting the agility of decision-making is the generation of visibility effect through a Recognized Logistic Picture (RLP) The RLP will provide essential sustainment information to the Common Operating Picture (COP) and give visibility of the capacity and limitations of supporting coalition logistics nodes to enable a shift in ME.

MDO and sustainment of forces fighting therein will require a tailored approach. It is likely that economies of scale, congruent with the intent to optimize sustainment capabilities, will need to be achieved to reduce the logistics footprint and to increase the agility of the maneuver commander. The need for sustainment mass to support greater maneuver mass creates a greater target to the enemy.

In order to achieve optimal effects for sustainment of LSCO in a MDO environment, the coalition must place greater emphasis on interoperability when setting the theater. Setting the theater includes logistics (materiel management, maintenance, and transportation), financial management, personnel services, health service support to military engagements, and security cooperation as well as sustainment preparation of the OE. These sustainment actions are the foundations for ensuring coalitions have the necessary sustainment requirements to prosecute a quick transition to conflict with an ability to deliver effects at the level required to return to competition. A coalition that has agreed on standardization will be able to rapidly set the theater and effectively move into subsequent phases.


The biggest challenge to sustainment interoperability is the ability to share data between forces. Data from national Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tools (i.e., GCSS-Army) must be collated within a shared data warehouse that is "hosted" within the Mission Partner Environment (MPE). Coalition forces will need to adopt the use of a common logistic planning tool (i.e. Logistics Functional Services (LOGFAS)), that will use the data in the MPE to generate a RLP. This information provides sustainment situational awareness with graphically enabled displays showing critical information items: friendly forces, enemy forces, significant activities, warfighting operational graphics, and control measures. This complements common sustainment reporting and uses national command and control (C2) sustainment systems to digitally exchange information.

Impeding this sharing of information products is a constraint to maintaining national C2 systems. Common service applications were not designed for interoperable plug-and-play coalition information exchange. For years, nations have engineered 'add-on' software solutions either in forms of 'translator gateways' or common messaging formats to overcome this interoperability deficit. These ad hoc engineering processes necessitate significant coalition pre-exercise testing, pre-deployment testing, and risk-reduction activities to validate various levels of interoperability. The need for ad hoc engineering processes can be resolved by adopting a common approach to presenting logistics data into a shared data warehouse within the MPE.

Overclassification within the U.S. Army stifles interoperability. The Army struggles to effectively operate at the Secret//Releasable (S//REL) classification level that enables information exchange on an MPE. This is due to both the lack of integration of an MPE capability in the enterprise and the reliance on Secret Internet Protocol Router (SIPR) as the primary operational network for operations. The Army is in the process of transitioning from a primarily SIPR enclave to a S//REL classification and integration of the MPE capability into the Army's enterprise and tactical networks.


We have to train as we fight! A critical tenet of sustainment capacity enhancement through interoperability is the ability to conduct bilateral and multinational training. Sustainment has not been exercised to a satisfactory level, providing "life and administrative support" is what logisticians do on a daily basis. Sustainment coalitions need to be stressed and tested similar to maneuver units. Preparing sustainment force elements through multinational training must be a priority. DEFENDER-Europe 20 presents an ideal opportunity to train as we mean to fight and should be the springboard for subsequent interoperability development.

Training in environments that replicate the complexity of MDO is essential. The complexity of sustaining a force that is in constant motion, under constant contact, and requiring agile solutions to enable endurance requires challenging training scenarios that fully stretch the sustainment system and identifies the frictions of sustainment interoperability. The U.S. Army must develop its ability to "plug and play" with coalition, joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational partners and be able to effectively operate across the human, technical, and procedural domains to achieve tactical, operational, and strategic objectives.


There are many ways the U.S. Army can enhance its interoperability with allies and partners. The following are proposed sustainment priority aims:

• Adopt an open systems architecture, to enable "interoperability by design" in platforms and systems, thereby avoiding a plethora of bespoke systems (both materiel and information) unable to communicate outside of their design parameters.

• Actively pursue opportunities to conduct bilateral and multilateral sustainment training. Influence training designers to consider sustainment requirements (NOT life support) and the ability to stress test them.

• Add interoperability to DOTMLPF-P to ensure that it becomes everybody's business and facilitates "interoperability by design."

• Help to develop, ratify and adopt NATO STANAGs and ABCANZ Standards, as 'agreed standards' (with an open systems architecture) to form the basic building blocks that will form the foundations of successful interoperability. For example, commodity sharing is predicated on technical interoperability; unilateral changes to small arms ammunition from 5.56 mm NATO standard to 6.8 mm is counterintuitive to interoperability. Also the storage of ammunition and life of type standards vary between nations.

• Don't commit classification fratricide. Proper classification and routine sharing of sustainment information with trusted allies and partners through the use of an MPE is critical.

It is now 2035 and you find yourself deployed to a theater within the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command general area of operations where tensions are high. Your previous experience in Europe highlighted a disjointed approach towards sustainment and logistics yielding sub-optimal solutions. You remain hopeful that NATO and ABCANZ nations have learned from previous challenges and are better prepared for LSCO in your new theater.

Your mission remains similar to the previous one: contribute to the sustainment of the MNC, but you are hopeful that each nation has learned from more recent LSCO experience. You conduct a quick assessment of potential coalition sustainment challenges and realize that much has changed in the last five years:

1. Although there are still some logistics information system frictions, each nation is able to share and exchange logistics data, providing a RLP as a layer of the Common Operating Picture.

2. The types and natures of ammunition used across the MNC has significantly reduced and you are pleased that there is a single, agreed standard for most nations in use across the entire force.

3. Fuel interoperability has been significantly enhanced. Primary fuel blends and connectors have been standardized, simplifying the previous distribution challenges.

4. Each nation has agreed on similar maintenance, repair, and recovery doctrine including an agreed understanding of what can be done across each echelon--light, medium, and heavy repair/recovery.

5. Transportation and intermodal transfer has been enhanced with agreed modular packaging standards. This approach enables myriad different platforms to efficiently transport supplies from the strategic support area right through to the close area.

You realize that the level of interoperability has been significantly enhanced through building trust and through the development and adoption of standards by each nation.


Maj. Gen. Rodney Fogg is the commanding general of Combined Arms Support Command. He is a graduate of the Quartermaster Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, and U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He has a Master in Logistics Management degree from Florida Institute of Technology, and a Master in Strategic Studies degree from the U.S. Army War College.

Lt. Col. Simon Heritage is an Australian Army Exchange Officer currently serving with Army Futures Command, Sustainment CDID. Heritage's civilian education consists of a Master of Supply Chain and Logistics Management, from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and a Master of Management (Defence Studies) from Canberra University. Heritage's military education consists of completion of the suite of All Corps and Logistics Officer Courses and is a graduate of the Australian Command and Staff College. He has operational experience in East Timor, Bosnia and Kosovo, Afghanistan and South Sudan. He has been on exchange with the U.S. Army since January of 2017.

Lt. Col. Thierry Balga is a French Transportation Corps Officer. He's the French Liaison Officer to CASCOM since July 2017. His previous position was chief for international relationships in the French Army Logistics Command in Lille. He holds a degree in two foreign languages (English and German), he's a graduate from the French Command and Staff College and he is qualified by the French Joint Logistic School as a Unit Movement Officer and a Logistics Officer. He was deployed several times in support of NATO, UN and French national operations.

Lt. Col. Mark Stuart is a member of the Royal Logistic Corps with over twenty years' service, including Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and Bosnia. He has served as the British Liaison Officer to CASCOM since August 2017 and has been the British Army lead for sustainment interoperability with the US Army and ABCANZ for five years.


This article was published in the January-March 2020 issue of Army Sustainment.

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