02 February 2023

Interoperability is key to the future of warfighting

Ensuring equipment is compatible is only the first step—real interoperability shares goals, harmonious systems, and a whole lot of trust.

Becca Wasser: For so many years, the United States was fighting against terrorist groups, doing counterinsurgency operations. And now there’s been a shift to having to think about what would it be like if the United States and its allies and partners were to face another military that has some of the [most] advanced capabilities across domains, including space, that could actually hold some of the US military advantages at risk.

Tanya Ott: The world of warfighting is changing—dramatically. There are new players, new technologies, new frontiers. And defense organizations and adjacent businesses have to be prepared.

I’m Tanya Ott and this is the Press Room from Deloitte Insights. Today, on the show, we’re going to dig into some of the biggest challenges and what can be done to meet them. So strap in—it’s going to be a good one.

We don’t usually do this, but we’ve got four guests today—each with a wealth of experience … I’m going to let them introduce themselves.

Kim Crider: I am Kim Crider. I am the executive chair for AI innovation for National Security and Defense at Deloitte. In this capacity, I’m charged with driving artificial intelligence innovation across defense, security, and justice to help get after our country’s greatest national security challenges—how can we use AI to accelerate our ability to achieve mission outcomes, to derive better insights from data and to accelerate operations.

Tanya Ott: And what was it you did previous to Deloitte that prepared you for this kind of work?

Kim Crider: Before Deloitte, I retired from the United States Air Force [after] 35 years in uniform. I spent my career in the Air Force, in acquisition, communications, information technology, [and] cybersecurity, and then, at the tail end of my career, in space—and space innovation for operations, in particular. I was the Space Force chief technology innovation officer before I retired. I led the space science and technology portfolio, which included artificial intelligence and data analytics for space. And then prior to that, I was the Air Force’s first chief data officer. I stood up that activity across the entire Air Force to help air and space warfighters figure out how best to leverage data and artificial intelligence insights to support [their] mission operations.

Tanya Ott: I was going to joke and ask you if you had a Space Force uniform, but you probably do.

Kim Crider: Actually, I never got the uniform, but I do have a lot of cool Space Force paraphernalia, that’s for sure.

Tanya Ott: Let’s go to Paul.

Paul Scharre: I’m Paul Scharre. I’m the vice president and director of studies at the Center for New American Security (CNAS). Prior to this, I worked at the Pentagon as a policy analyst in the office of the Secretary of Defense. And before that, I was an Army Ranger with the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment [and] did a number of tours overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m also the author of Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War.

Tanya Ott: And we go to Becca next.

Becca Wasser: I’m Becca Wasser. I am a fellow in the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, where I also lead the gaming lab, which is the organization's unclassified wargaming capability. I’m a little bit of a jack of all trades. I do wargaming. I also focus on things like operational and strategic planning, force posture and management, as well as defense strategy more broadly. Prior to joining CNAS, I worked for the RAND Corporation for a number of years where I mainly supported the US Department of Defense on a range of studies and wargaming efforts.

Tanya Ott: And Darren, bring us home.

Darren Hawco: I joined Deloitte [Canada] after 36 years in the Canadian military. I was a naval officer. The first two-thirds of my career were doing what you would consider to be pretty traditional naval things, [roles in Canadian Warships], five operational deployments, etc. The last third of my career was in executive jobs in our national capital region headquarters in work related to cyber warfare capability development, C4ISR (Command, Control, and Communications, Computers Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) strategy, and capability development. I was also responsible in a role at our overall National Defense Force Development Authority, where I had the functional authority for coordinating our portfolio of acquisitions and capability development, such as how many tanks do you need versus money to invest in infrastructure versus the ITI backbone that you need to be successful in operations, our space program and all those sorts of things. My last role in national defense before retirement was on the military committee of NATO, [which is] kind of like a board of directors for military operations that oversees and provides guidance to activities that the alliance undertakes in support of collective security. I had the role as Canada’s national representative on that. When I retired, I joined Deloitte. My homeroom, as we would say, is in strategy and business design, where I help government public sector clients on the defense and the hard security side do the type of strategy, planning, and work that they need to be successful.

Tanya Ott: Great to have you here. One of the things that struck me immediately when looking into the future of warfighting was just how connected governments and militaries will have to be to respond to the challenges we face. You write a lot about the importance of interoperability. Help us understand it.

Darren Hawco: Interoperability ought not [just] be thought of as, “equipment can be interchangeable or work together.” I mean, it’s true. That is an element of it. And also, it’s not that we all have to have the same stuff. You need to have complementary things. Sometimes it’s about, well, if you’re going to bring that, I don’t need to bring it. If you think of getting together at your neighbor’s place and you’re going to have a potluck, you want to have everything [necessary] to make the event successful. In some cases, that means bringing more of the same things, and in some cases, that means bringing different things. Interoperability is also not a rhetorical thing. It needs work, it needs focus, it needs attention, and it needs curating to be successful.

If I were to give a practical example, in a maritime context, if you have six ships that are going together and someone's radar is not functioning and they don’t have that spare part on board, you want to be able to reach out to the other ships and say, “Do you have this particular part to make my radar work?” You need to have a process in place. Everyone needs to know what everyone else is holding. You need to have procedural commonality so you know how to ask in a way that the person will understand and be able to reply really quickly, within two hours, as an example. You need to have the ability to bring that part over. So, you need to have aircraft interoperability and procedures to receive the aircraft and parts. And then you need to be having the confidence that that person is going to provide a part that works properly, that follows a standardized process that has been tested in the right piece of equipment and will actually function. These are the kind of things that NATO’s standardized agreements and agreements between allies have enabled for years and years and years.

We’re so used to going to fueling stations and not worrying about things as a car driver. But when you think of the unique couplings needed to fuel high-performance aircraft, they need to be shaped the same. You need to have fuel of a certain quality and standard. When you’re talking about moving pallets around or carrying equipment on trucks, you need to make sure that the suspension can handle only certain weights and not more or less. All of these are inelegant, but very functionally practical parts of what interoperability means for modern warfighting.

Tanya Ott: When you talk about modern warfighting, it’s changed over the years in terms of the challenges that are facing militaries today.

Kim Crider: One of the hallmarks that we’ve seen in modern warfare today is the importance of space-based capabilities and the ability to leverage those space-based capabilities to support operations around the world amongst allies and coalition partners. We have a number of space-faring nations that we are partnered with that are all interested in being able to launch payloads into space, interested in being able to provide launch services, and interested in being able to pull down data from those space-based capabilities to support communications and imagery, for example, or GPS-based kinds of capabilities [like] precision navigation and timing. So, the reliance on space in the modern warfighting era is absolutely critical. It raises the importance of being able to be interoperable among allies and partners, to be able to integrate payloads onto different space vehicles that may be provided by different countries, integrating those space vehicles onto rockets and then being able to control the satellites and bring the data down very effectively. These are certainly examples of the importance of interoperability. And to the point that was made earlier, it’s more than just the technology. There’s certainly a need for collaboration, human interaction and cooperation, and processes to be able to ensure that we can, in fact, work seamlessly across our global nations in terms of how we’re going to leverage and access space, and between government and commercial entities, because commercial companies more and more are providing more of the capability in this space that others can leverage. Government and commercial interoperability, and government-to-government cross-nation interoperability as it relates to being able to effectively leverage space and integrate space into operations in other domains [of] air, ground, maritime, is all part of our modern age and something that is really requiring a lot of planning, coordination, and integration as we go.

Becca Wasser: I think we need to maybe take it a step back a little bit and talk about why maybe warfare is changing. And for me, it’s looking at the changes in the broader strategic environment. It’s looking at the fact that we have this return-to-great-power competition and the threat of great power conflict. For the first time in a very long time, the United States in particular, has had to contend with the almost near peers in the military space. For so many years, the United States was fighting against terrorist groups, doing counterinsurgency operations. And now there’s been a shift to having to think about what would it be like if the United States and its allies and partners were to face another military that has some of the advanced capabilities across domains, including space, as Kim has talked about, that could actually hold some of the US military advantages at risk. That actually creates a lot of operational problems for the United States that is shifting how the United States in particular, but also how a lot of its global allies and partners, are thinking about warfare and warfighting and how that’s actually changing. So, as we start looking at some of these specifics of how it is that war fighting is changing in a particular domain and how maybe we can become more interoperable to meet those challenges, we also need to recognize how the strategic context has changed and why it’s so important right now to start making some of the changes that will enable us to be able to fight against these more advanced military threats in the future.

Paul Scharre: You know, what several of these points highlight to me is just the importance of how much interoperability is more than just hardware. The technology certainly matters, and technology can be an asset to interoperability, helping to connect militaries, helping them share information and work together and make sure their systems are operating effectively together. It can be a barrier sometimes to interoperability. But beyond the hardware, there’s the layer on top of that, which is a social software of how organizations work, how militaries work, how they operate, the terms they use, the best practices they have, the tactics, techniques, and procedures. Working effectively together means practicing that, sharing that information. That doesn’t mean that they need to be the same. But we need to understand how we operate in order to work together effectively. Having ways to make sure that it’s not just the hardware but our systems, our people are able to work together. To give a concrete example, we have a lot of countries buying F35s. How do we make sure that we go beyond just having the same hardware, but making sure that our maintainers are certified to work on each other’s aircraft? So, when we are operating together, what we’re actually bringing to the fight is not just the sum of each military—one military fighting next to another—but we have literally more than the sum of its parts where there might be an aircraft over here that’s from one country, there’s parts over here from another’s, and they can work across systems effectively. They practice that, they’re able to employ that. Those types of things are really essential to making interoperability work. [Being] interoperable is not a spectator sport. [It] doesn’t happen on paper. We’ve got a practice it in order to make it real in a wartime setting.

Darren Hawco: The next natural extension to Paul’s point is trust between nations because ultimately, if we think of Canada/the United States, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) structure, where two nations agree to share the highest order of intelligence in relation to threats to our collective territory and we’re prepared to fight using tactics and techniques that we’ve codeveloped and that use the best attributes of all our assets in our sensors. We have Canadian refueling aircraft deploying to support American fighters over the Arctic, or vice versa, Canadian aircraft depending on the United States provided air-to-air refuelers. That kind of trust is built over a long time, and equally it speaks to when you have units or formations of military capabilities that work together from multiple nations. I’ll use a NATO example where you will have a group of ships. When you’re speaking to a certain nation, it’s going to be easier because you have the same cultural language, the same approach to business, the same approach to operations. Whereas when you’re interacting with another [non-NATO] ally, you might need to be a little more specific. You might need to take a little more care because English might be the third language, as an example.

If I use the Canadian example of the Enhanced Forward Presence Brigade in Latvia that’s comprised of essentially ten nations and their capabilities, you actually have an interesting microcosm of how interoperability can be made to work even when you have such a diverse set. You have innovation and make-it-work neurons firing away as these forces trying to make things better, rather than considering this challenge of different equipment types as a weakness. It requires innovation, it requires focus, but it also is founded on trust.

Becca Wasser: The other thing that it’s really predicated on is honesty, right? And honesty goes into trust. As we’re thinking a little bit about some of the barriers to interoperability, a lot of them hinge on this degree of trust, [and also] a degree of honesty. As we’re thinking about how to improve interoperability, it’s being honest about results. If you look at some of the most advanced militaries, how they train is with a degree of honesty where they can actually say when they failed and recognize their failures, incorporate them into lessons learned that they then put further into their training efforts, and rinse [and] repeat to get better again and again and again. Sometimes having that level of honesty is not something that’s part of a lot of different military strategic cultures. Sometimes it’s not part of the conversation because no one wants to embarrass an ally or a partner. But you need to be honest if you truly want to be able to operate with each other or even just alongside each other. That can be the missing link to improving interoperability.

Tanya Ott: Besides honesty, as you say, Becca, or transparency, what are some of the other challenges that you see to [achieving] interoperability?

Paul Scharre: One of the fundamental challenges that Becca and some others had touched on is we don’t know where militaries are going to operate or what they’re going to be required to do. That’s the nature of military operations—they have to be prepared for a whole range of contingencies. If you just look over the last 25 years, we’ve seen US and allied forces involved in a whole wide range of operations: In ’99, the Kosovo Air Campaign that NATO conducted; after 9/11, these large-scale ground occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan; since then, the air campaign over Libya. Now, we have NATO and other countries aiding Ukraine. All of those introduce different challenges with interoperability. The United States was working with partners and allies in all of those operations but conducting different kinds of operations with different mixes of partners and allies.

There are, of course, more routine things like humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, or noncombatant evacuation operations. Depending on where we are, we’re going to have different allies we’re working with, different people we need to be interoperable with, different types of missions. All [of these], I think, are a challenge, but we’ve seen over the last quarter-century [that] the United States is very effective at rising to that challenge and working effectively with others.

Tanya Ott: I’m glad you brought up the humanitarian angle, Paul, because when we say the future of warfighting, it sounds like it’s all [just] warfighting. And, yet, we have climate change and humanitarian efforts and all these kinds of things happening as well that factor into that.

Paul Scharre: Absolutely. Of course, the big war is something the military needs to be ready for. That’s something that they’re there for. But there are a lot of routine day-to-day crisis response operations that militaries are doing that happen directly with partner countries, as well as exercises that are regularly conducted. You don’t know where those are going to be and you don’t know where other allies are going to have interest there. Particularly for noncombatant evacuation operations, that’s a place where often allies are going to rely upon US infrastructure, whether it’s ships, aircraft, security, refueling, [or] airlift operations to aid them when they’re helping to rescue their civilians on the ground. That’s an important challenge, but one that we’ve seen is very effective.

Darren Hawco: There are always going to be examples where forces work together in a way that’s unexpected. You’re not always going to be working with allies. You’re often going to be working in the context of a coalition construct. If you think of tsunami-related relief efforts that occurred in [the] Asia-Pacific [region] in recent years, you have a sense that you’re going to combine logistics chains and there will often be regional capabilities who will do heavy lifting because of the circumstances of where they are. And, as mentioned, the United States is often in that position, in that role to support.

Some of the other factors that I think are worthy of consideration are just the nature of politics in the defense industrial base, and then industry needs. You will have nations able to asymmetrically invest in research and development that results in advances in capability development and the like. You’ll have reasonable expectations of nations that their [national] defense-industrial base [will reap] value and [positive] outcomes from the investments that [governments are] making. [Much as we’ve seen in other sectors] over several decades [there has been] a reduction in the number of companies that are producing military capabilities in a smaller number of countries. That’s a factor that needs to be worked out. How the F35 has been able to create a distributed supply chain [that] has recognized the participation of partners in the production of both the capability itself and the in-service support over decades to come is an example of how you can turn what some might say is a challenge into an opportunity and a value proposition of a very resilient supply chain.

If we just talk about innovation for a moment, there will be always advances in military capability that will be needing to be responded to by adversaries. That could be innovations we’re making and that adversaries will respond to or innovations that adversaries are creating that we will need to be able to respond. It will always be the case [that there will be] step changes of innovation that we will need to manage.

Becca Wasser: I’d like to throw out another challenge that I think is often overlooked. Too often when we’re talking about interoperability, we’re talking about capabilities, we’re talking about information-sharing, we’re talking about technology. But we sometimes don’t start with the basics, which is oftentimes in bilateral, multilateral, mini-lateral, or coalition contexts. Some of our strategic planning in peacetime competition with allies and partners is a little bit lacking. Every single nation has their own set of interests. Sometimes these align. Sometimes they don’t. Every single nation has a set of national caveats: when they might operate, when they wouldn’t, which countries they would come to the aid of, which scenarios are most pressing. Sometimes we don’t take those conversations as seriously as we should, or even have them. We need to have them in this peacetime phase to ensure that we can respond as a whole if a crisis or conflict were to emerge. So, thinking about ways in which various groupings can enhance some of their strategic planning in advance of these crises, it’s really important for interoperability. Talking about the types of scenarios that would garner a response, where they might respond, when they might need to respond. And frankly, if they’re emphasizing deterrence, ultimately, you need to have a goal of it. What are you trying to deter? Because [with] various countries national interests, they might not necessarily align on that.

We’re so focused on those tangible building blocks that we forget about your basic starting point, which is, okay, what is it that we’re trying to do? How can we do it? And what can we each contribute to get at some of those questions of interchangeability or complementarity, as Darren talked about before.

Kim Crider: To Becca’s point, space is the ultimate global commons. What we’ve seen since the advent of space as a domain in which we’re going to operate is the need to really work together across international boundaries, [and] between government and commercial, and that’s continuing to emerge.

In fact, a number of countries just came together with the United States and put forward what they call the Combined Space Operations Vision 2031. This document really speaks to a common vision, a common set of objectives, a common basis for why space is so important and what these countries will do in terms of working together as part of this ultimate global capability that they want to be able to secure and protect, and some of the ways in which they’re going to work together, not just from a technology standpoint, but from the standpoint of having organizational structures that bring them together on an established basis.

The space community is really the only domain that has a standing combined forces space component command that operates every single day, 24/7, in support of global space operations out of Vandenberg Space Force Base. The space community has an established commercial integration cell where commercial partners sit on the floor with the United States and other nations at this combined forces space component command, day-to-day, working through how they’re going to respond to different needs and contingencies together and in that very open and transparent way that we were talking about earlier.

The space community [is] now very much focused on what they call “allied by design.” So, from the very early steps of planning for new capabilities, coinvesting, working on integrated architectures all the way through to the deployment, launch and operation of these capabilities, this notion is a key piece of the overall set of activities that will bring this global community together to be able to fulfill their objectives for the safe and secure and free access and use of space for all.

Darren Hawco: To Kim’s point, if I double-clicked on two things, it would be the ability to have interoperability that intentionally includes industry. I think we will increasingly see a need to have industry able to support [incremental and continuous] interoperability demands, which could include scaling of the supply chain as much as it could include practical contributions like Kim has outlined. The second thing is to really echo, but in a broader sense, that [concept of] interoperability by design. The construct of standing agreements that NATO uses to structure capability development—it tells you how big a logistics truck door should be so that all allies will have entry and exit points of the same size. Or, that the mature rolling chassis of a logistics vehicle needs to have [specific] qualities to it. Or, that every part needs to have a NATO stock number so that you can transfer or understand what [weapons require] common ammunition types. These are inelegant, but very functional parts to interoperability and it’s got to be by design, which means a certain amount of forethought and proactiveness to it.

Tanya Ott: I guess one of the questions I have, and this may be very naive, but when we’re talking about barriers to interoperability, I imagine that cost and things like that just very practical, can people have the same types of equipment? Can countries afford to buy the same types of equipment and that sort of thing? Is that a concern?

Darren Hawco: Well, one ought not to presume that you can contribute to a capability, and you have to buy the whole thing. I’ll go back to the F35 example, where there are many countries that are participating in that program, with each producing specific elements (e.g., landing gear). That’s a phenomenally important thing for an aircraft. So, you can have many companies and many nations able to contribute. In the space domain. it’s often about intellectual property. It’s about thinking, how each individual nation is positioned and willing to contribute can include bringing bright minds to bear to support problems. Particularly in Kim’s domain and the relationship of artificial intelligence and where that’s going, there are so many opportunities for countries to participate in a way that is not cost-prohibitive.

Kim Crider: One thing I’ll point out: Australia is one of our strongest partners when it comes to space cooperation, and one of the ways that Australia contributes significantly to the safeguarding of space is literally their geographic positioning on the globe. We are able to launch things from Australia and get it into orbits faster and cheaper than we can elsewhere. Australia is bringing other capabilities to bear too, and they’ve just established a space command and space agency and they’re doing some phenomenal things and investing in a lot of ways, but the geographic location of Australia presents significant value. We’ve got countries like Luxembourg that are [bringing forward] unique capabilities in the MEO (medium earth orbit). We see Japan [partnering] with the United States [to host] important payloads on their space vehicles, [increase space domain awareness; satellite communications; positioning, navigation, and timing capabilities, and advance human space flight]. It’s really [about] everybody coming together, recognizing how important the domain is and wanting to find ways to contribute, even if they’re only going to be on the ops floor and provide ideas and insights from their country’s perspective.

Tanya Ott: If you were designing or reforming a military for greater interoperability, what’s going to guide or inform those changes? Is it going to be the technology? Is it going to be who the adversaries are? The allies, the partners, something else?

Darren Hawco: I’ve been doing that type of work for 10 years or so, and you have to look at it with a 20- or 30-year lens, which decreases in accuracy over time. I personally advocate for a capability-based approach, because you use militaries in so many different ways that [just] having a threat-based approach tends to be a little overly constraining. Naturally, when you’re doing the capability-based approach, you are threat-informed and you create use cases, then you understand what sort of future force-design requirements are needed. That allows you to do red teaming, the wargaming of the approach in these various situations. And you have to consider allies and the situations where you will work with them, both allies and coalitions, because there are some important differences in those different operational constructs. And you have to imagine how adversaries will [act] because they get a vote.

Paul Scharre: If you’re designing for interoperability, obviously, one of the things that you really want to strive for whenever possible is commonalities with other partners on hardware that’s going to make interoperability easier. There’s more to it than just that, but it’s a good starting point. And one of the obstacles today is our export controls. Export control reform can really help aid interoperability by making it easier for us to share technology and systems with close partners and allies—even some of our closest allies, [with whom] we have trouble sharing sensitive technology.

Tanya Ott: Okay. Final question. How can you test your assumptions about all of this and TTPs—tactics, techniques, and procedures—around interoperability to make sure that you’re making the right choices and adjusting accordingly?

Becca Wasser: I think here it’s looking at exercises and wargaming as being part of an iterative cycle. They’re quite reinforcing, and they allow you to try and test some of these assumptions and TTPs, but to also learn from them, and to see under different contexts when they work best and when they might not. It’s also a great way to socialize and to create that level of trust that’s needed, the level of cooperation and collaboration. But the most important part about both exercises and wargaming as it relates to interoperability, these are safe-to-fail environments. What we test out there, we’re not going to have real repercussions in the real world, where if we’re trying to test these on the battlefield, we might find things like loss of life if interoperability doesn’t work. So instead, using these safe-to-fail environments to try and learn, incorporate it into part of a broader learning cycle—that’s where this is going to allow us to enhance interoperability in a way that creates change.

Paul Scharre: You know, we talked a lot about changes in space and other areas where we’re seeing a tremendous amount of technological change that’s opening up opportunities and challenges for militaries. One of the things that working in coalitions or with allies and partners can really bring during a period of rapid change like that is a diversity of approaches. That’s vitally important when we try to figure out, what are these new technologies or new domains in space, in cyberspace for fighting? What do they mean? How do we operate most effectively? History shows that what matters most during these periods of rapid technological change is not having the technology first or even actually having the best technology but finding the best ways of using it. We don’t know what those are. In fact, sometimes we don’t even know until the war happens. We see through prior examples like tanks and airplanes that militaries had a lot of different ideas about how to use those technologies. Sometimes, there are major disagreements within a country, certainly across the different national approaches. And working with others can help us bring a diversity of approaches and then learn from each other through experimentation and help us try to get to the best understanding that we can of how warfare is evolving to be ready for the future.

Tanya Ott: Well, that’s a great way to end, I think. Thank you guys so much. Such an interesting conversation. So much that I learned just in the conversation. and I’m sure that our listeners will as well.

Tanya Ott: Kim Crider is executive chair for AI Innovation for National Security and Defense at Deloitte. Paul Scharre is vice president and director of studies at the Center For a New American Security. Becca Wasser is also at CNAS, where she leads the wargaming lab. And Darren Hawco spent 36 years in leadership with the Royal Canadian Navy and now works for Deloitte Canada with government public sector clients on the defense and the hard security side.

The Deloitte Center for Government Insights is in the midst of a year-long research project focused on the next 15 years of defense challenges. You can find many more insights about the future of warfighting on our website, Deloitte.com/insights.

Find us on Twitter at @DeloitteInsight and I’m at @tanyaott1.

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I’m Tanya Ott. Thanks for listening and enjoy the rest of your day.

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