The digital newsletter Breaking Defense published this report, a few days ago, on 21 Nov: “Warships from several NATO allies tracked and knocked down ballistic missile targets from the sea for the first time sharing targeting information across a shared alliance network … [that, alone, is significant; planners and engineers have been talking about this since the 1980s but it has taken a lot of work to get from theory to actual practice, and] … The multinational, live-fire Formidable Shield exercise, which took place in May off the coast of Scotland, saw a French frigate knock down a supersonic target with an Aster 15 missile, while the Royal Canadian Navy tracked and hit another supersonic target with an Evolved Sea Sparrow missile. Both were firsts for the respective sea services.“
One of NATO’s real strengths is its “interoperability” programme which is, in fact, often led, in many areas, by a much smaller group that includes non-NATO members Australia and New Zealand along with Britain, Canada and the USA. It’s not that the five nations group is any smarter than NATO, but it is smaller and more agile and can, therefore, more quickly and easily, develop and agree on standards that are acceptable to America and at least parts of Europe (and in the case of radio and radar-based systems are in line with global radio frequency spectrum allocations which have the force if international law) at the same time. NATO also has a system for exercises and operations that makes coordinated allied tests and projects
easy easier to manage.
“The exercise,” the report says “simulated both ballistic and cruise missile threats … [and] … was a key test for integrating NATO’s sea forces across a single network that can push information across a deployed task force, something of incalculable importance in the confined spaces of Baltic Sea or North Atlantic if Russian missiles were launched from Kaliningrad or the Kola Peninsula.” It is to be hoped that the Russians (and the Chinese, Iranians, North Koreans and others) were all watching carefully.
The report tells us that “The 13-ship task force, which included Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, UK and the US, merged tactical information using NATO’s Air Command and Control System to coordinate movements … [a US Navy engineer said] … and was able to link sea [and air] and shore-base units together … [and] … Several allies were also able to track ballistic missile targets and share space tracks over tactical data links with the entire task group … [and] … the US Air Force Europe used F-16s to launch AQM-37 supersonic target drones.” Achieving this level of interoperability is no mean feat. It means that many nations have had to agree to adopt mandatory standards ~ which means that when they spend (always scarce) defence procurement dollars or €s they must, often, spend more than the bare minimum. And those standards had to be developed and agreed by nations, including the USA, that all compete, fiercely, in the global weapons market and that means that each had to give a little to achieve a common goal. Then, common operating procedures had to be written and agreed, again by nations, including Canada, that are very proud of their own, home-grown operating systems and are often loath to try something ‘foreign.’
I am often critical of NATO, especially the geopolitical and strategic aspects of the alliance, but NATO, at the operational and tactical levels remains the gold standard for any combined (multi-national) military effort.
This demonstration is, as some of my friends put it “neat” and “cool” ~ and it’s sometimes middle-aged, senior engineers using those words ~ but it is also an important strategic message that the US-led West (which still works at some levels and which includes e.g. Australia, Japan and others) has sent to the world: allied nations, working together, are more formidable than a simple paper calculation might indicate. In military operations, as in most things, unity, not diversity, is our strength. Canadians might do well to think about that.