Posted: 01 Dec. 2021 5 min. read

The changing character of military interoperability

At the recent UK Defense and Security Equipment International (DSEI) conference few ideas were discussed more than military interoperability. As defense leaders pointed out in conversations throughout the conference, defense challenges today are too large in scope and complexity for a single military to address them effectively alone. From cyber threats that sweep from one country to the next, to gray zone tactics that undermine international institutions, the nature of defense challenges today demands broad cooperation and deep coordination.

Military interoperability isn’t new. Its nature has allowed it to be a key feature in successful defense strategies for centuries. In the past military interoperability was mostly limited to combat operations or talent development. Today it needs to cover much more. Defense challenges require coordination across culture, decision-making, and even such critical processes as procurement and logistics. So, while the nature of military interoperability is unchanged, to be as effective as possible, its character should evolve.

Conversations at DSEI left me with a few key observations about the changing character of military interoperability, including:

Modern interoperability is nuanced: The spectrum and complexity of defense challenges today, from responding to climate change to preparing for intensifying great power competition, means that militaries cannot expect to interoperate the same way with each challenge. For example, whereas defending the rules based international order may require a certain level of collaboration, preparing for a near-peer war may require a more intense level of interoperability as troops, supply networks, and plans will need the ability to function as interchangeable parts.

Interoperability’s scope is expanding: Today’s defense challenges don’t fit neatly into military-specific domains, thus they require more holistic coordination. Cyberattacks that are intended to hurt military operations could target commercial supply chains critical to military projects. Information campaigns designed to undermine military legitimacy can target civilian groups or other government organizations. In these, and other instances, militaries must be as interoperable with non-military entities as they are with other militaries.

Interoperability is in high demand—but for different reasons: Different countries may have different objectives when it comes to military interoperability even when facing the same challenges. Defending against gray zone threats, like cyberattacks or mis- and disinformation campaigns, are common threats faced by many governments. But the implications of these threats are unique to each country and, as such, so are the reasons it will value and pursue interoperability.

Interoperability isn’t only for allies: The complexity of today’s defense challenges can require improving interoperability not only with allies but with adversaries. Take climate change. Cooperation among both allies and adversaries can improve outcomes for everyone, especially if an adversary is a major contributor of greenhouse gases or susceptible to climate change driven crises that affect other countries.

These character changes are likely to determine how defense organizations build their interoperability capabilities going forward—and there are some key themes that should be considered: 

Technology makes and breaks interoperability: Just like the modern battlefield, modern interoperability will be highly technology dependent. This means compatible radios, shared data across platforms, and unbroken digital threads from industry to the frontlines. Yet, while necessary, technology is costly and comes with security sensitivities that limit how militaries share it. As such, technology can quicky become a roadblock to interoperability.

Culture is key: Any level of teamwork requires a culture that supports cooperation, trust, respect, and appreciation for the value of others. The high stakes nature of today’s defense challenges can often impose counterproductive cultures on defense organizations. Over-classification, inter-organizational competition, or unfair expectations of partners are just a few examples of counterproductive culture.

Practice—but with care: While wargames or military exercises can demonstrate military interoperability for certain defense challenges, such as peer-warfare, other defense challenges, like gray zone threats, require a different approach. Demonstrating interoperability against a cyber threat or a divisive information campaign may require working through live operations. But a poor showing can have adverse consequences, including political ramifications or exposing weaknesses. Care must be taken to ensure live interoperability operations are demonstrated productively.

The changing character of military interoperability is a direct consequence of the changing character of defense challenges. Improving military interoperability to address complex global defense challenges is no easy task. Nor is there only one right way to achieve the military interoperability necessary today. Understanding the new character of interoperability and its operational impacts is one of the critical first steps.

To learn more about military interoperability and potential solutions, visit Deloitte’s Future of Warfighting site


Beth McGrath

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Beth McGrath

Beth McGrath

Global Leader, Government & Public Services

Beth is the Global Leader for the Government and Public Services Industry and a Managing Director at Deloitte Consulting LLP. In her global role she is committed to strengthening synergies across global Industries and Government and Public Services with a focus on client mission needs and solutions. As a member of the US Federal Strategy & Operations practice, she advises federal government and commercial organizations on strategies that help further innovation and improve business operations. Prior to joining Deloitte, she served as the Deputy Chief Management Officer for the US Department of Defense (DoD), where she brought a dedicated focus to improving business operations, oversaw a $7 billion information technology portfolio, and authored the DoD's Strategic Management Plan. She has also served as Vice Chair of the US Federal Suitability and Security Clearance Performance Accountability Council; as the Deputy Director for Systems Integration, US Defense Finance and Accounting Service; and has held numerous business/acquisition roles within the US Department of the Navy. She has also twice received the US DoD Medal for Distinguished Public Service and the Secretary of Defense Exceptional Civilian Service Medal.