'Maddening' mission: Keeping NATO's interoperability on track
Lt. Gen. Frederick 'Ben' Hodges, commander of NATO's Allied Land Command, said he spends much of his time advising other NATO countries' army officials on equipment that enhances the alliance's quest for interoperability. Here, Hodges confers with Czech Republic soldiers in early April 2014.
VICENZA, Italy — Just a year after standing up its new Allied Land Command in Izmir, Turkey, NATO learned last fall that the Turkish government was planning to purchase a new missile defense system — from China.
That was problematic, because the Chinese manufacturer was under U.S. sanctions for supplying missiles to Iran and Syria. Even worse from NATO’s perspective were the cyber-security concerns raised by the new system.
NATO top diplomats warned Turkish officials that the Chinese system was a no-go. So did top U.S. NATO commanders.
“I took every opportunity, I had a duty, to reinforce the message from the SACEUR (NATO supreme allied commander) that there’s no way a Chinese-manufactured system is going to be allowed to integrate with NATO’s integrated air defense system,” Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, the head of Allied Land Command, said in an interview Thursday with Stars and Stripes.
Although choosing a weapon system is a national decision, NATO has often emphasized that any such items must be able to operate together with similar systems in the inventory of other alliance members, and that Turkey would have to comply with that requirement.
Turkey, under intense pressure from Western allies, now appears to be backing away from buying the Chinese anti-aircraft missiles, which analysts say are cheaper than comparable Western systems.
But the matter illustrates the difficulties inherent in maintaining a security alliance of 28 countries with diverging national interests and political concerns, Hodges said. It also demonstrates the importance of NATO’s efforts to increase the “interoperability” of the members’ forces, with shared doctrine and procedures, the ability to share bases and infrastructure and, ultimately, systems and technology.
“Each nation, including our own, has its agendas. Every nation, including the U.S., is going to protect its own defense industry,” Hodges said. “Can you find gaps? Is it maddening? Of course it is.”
Interoperability, according to a Rand study, “supports U.S. national security and U.S. national military strategies. It can enable coalition building with coalition partners. It can sustain coalitions by reducing the costs of participation and increasing burden sharing. And it offers an opportunity to enhance future coalition operations.”
Hodges’s command is designed to promote NATO armies’ readiness, competency and standardization. Hodges said the two pillars to that are sharing the same standard procedures and integrated communications.
Although getting the forces of its various members to operate and fight seamlessly together has been a lasting alliance goal since its foundation in 1949, this proved very difficult to implement in practice during the Cold War. Analysts and NATO officials say it has only really been achieved to a significant degree over the past decade, after years of joint combat operations in Afghanistan.
That cooperation is now being tested in the wake of Russia’s new assertiveness — annexing Crimea, sending special forces troops to infiltrate eastern Ukraine and massing troops on Ukraine’s border.
After Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia asked NATO to send contingents of troops as a sign of the alliance’s determination to defend their territories, standard procedures and previous joint training allowed the U.S. to quickly deploy four companies of paratroopers from the Vicenza-based 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and immediately start a training exercise, Hodges said.
But would the 173rd’s communications system integrate with the Estonians?
“We’ll see,” Hodges said.
The U.S. has traditionally been the dominant partner in NATO, from the beginning of the alliance after World War II as a deterrent to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. But following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact military alliance and the Soviet Union itself, military spending by European nations and contributions to NATO declined, with only three currently meeting spending obligations.
Currently, European NATO nations together spend a fraction of what the U.S. does on defense, raising questions about the benefit of continued alliance membership for the Americans. But experts say being the leader of the world’s largest military bloc allows the country to influence other members to achieve its foreign policy objectives.
“If you get everybody in NATO to do something, that is powerful,” Hodges said. “I think it is the most powerful, effective alliance in the world. I don’t want to oversell it; It’s hard.”
Furthermore, “what do you replace it with?” he asked.
The difference in spending and capabilities hampers interoperability. Although the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 was counted a success, with 14 NATO countries involved, it also highlighted a lack of capabilities in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that the U.S. had to supplement.
The crisis in Ukraine, with Russia demonstrating it’s still a military threat to Europe, could start to change that, Hodges said.
“All of this has generated a level of solidarity I haven’t seen in some time,” he said. “People had gotten complacent … or were naïve. We’ve been reminded: They are who we thought they were.’’
Hodges said it’s often the case that NATO allies gradually join in U.S. efforts, as they’ve started doing in the Baltics. “If you want to be the leader, you have to lead,” he said. “I think we’ll start to see countries saying, ‘Oh, good, we’ll add to that, and potentially it becomes NATO-led assurance measures.”