When the Canadian navy thinks about interoperability, it thinks about people. While technical issues will always be present as it strives to integrate with an increasing number of nations in coalition operations, the navy has discovered that most of them can be overcome with a few good men and women.

“We found the best way to make sure that understanding is crystal clear is by the human touch – [by] having people in key positions to make sure that tactical procedures, doctrine and so forth are understood clearly in the same way by all the different parties,” says Commander Dermot Mulholland of Navy Operations.

Canada, of course, has a long history of working the United States Navy and NATO allies. It is a member of NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 1, known as Standing Naval Force Atlantic, which its has led on multiple occasions over the past 50 years.

“We’re used to the interoperability thing. I think it’s safe to say we do it very well,” Mulholland claims. “The [technical] challenges have been overcome for the most part. It’s when we step outside of our comfort zone and start looking at nations that we don’t work with as frequently, be it Asian countries – South Korea is a recent example – or South American countries, that there are greater challenges. But that’s not to say we are not used to meeting and overcoming them.

“When we are operating with other countries, we have a liaison officer in place or we do a lot of extensive staff planning ahead of time to make sure that all of the problem areas that might pop up are ironed out. A ship never arrives to [on station] in an exercise or operation that hasn’t already done months of extensive planning and staff work beforehand. We’ve found that usually eliminates 90 percent of any interoperability problems that would otherwise occur.”

Commander William Quinn concurs. For two weeks last September, he commanded HMCS Calgary in a multinational exercise, Panamax 2009, to among other things promote interoperability in securing the Panama Canal.

“There are significant disparities between navies when it comes to equipment fits and communications capabilities,” he acknowledges. “Those are overcome, I think, by the personal relationships.”

The Calgary served as the flagship for Peruvian Rear Admiral Edmundo Deville Del Campo, who, along with four staff officers and two liaison officers, an American and a Mexican, was tasked with leading a warship task group of six ships from Ecuador, Chile and Peru to provide surveillance of all Pacific approaches to the Canal. That included monitoring, hailing, visual identification and radar fingerprinting of all incoming traffic, and responding to intelligence tips on vessels of interest.

“Communications is always a big hiccup when it comes to spreading ships over many, many miles of ocean, and trying to make them all do what you want them to do. We used our communications capabilities to enable them to execute the mission. But the greatest part of that were the personal relationships between myself and my staff and the admiral and his staff.”

Communications, of course, is the key facilitator of interoperability. And not all countries are created equal. Operating with NATO, the USN, New Zealand and Australia, for example, poses few problems “simply because we all speak the same tactical language, we use the same tactical procedures that have been developed over many, many years,” Mulholland admits. Most importantly, “we share a common crypto – that is the long pole in the communications tent. You need to get onto the same crypto to be able to speak to one another in a tactical sense and to pass key sensor data back and forth.

“When we step out of that [familiar] context, we’re still able to do interoperability with other countries but perhaps not to the same extent. It’s not that we are not capable of it nor are the countries we are working with; it’s just that in some cases the lack of hardware doesn’t enable computers to talk to each other seamlessly. So we have to look for other means. There are ways we get around that, but it’s not as seamless.”

Among those solutions are people and planning. English may be the common language of the sea but not everyone understands its nuances.

“Coordination, especially in the Horn of Africa area, is probably one of the biggest challenges. But it has largely been ironed out because various staff and command organizations, whether it’s the E.U. Maritime Force or the U.S.-led CTF150 or the NATO force – they’ve all gotten together, even some of the international independent players like China, and come to a common agreement on who is going to operate where, when and how,” Mulholland states.

For Quinn, one of the key lessons is the use of liaison officers. “Personal relationships are the number one factor in coordinating multinational exercises of this scale. [If] they don’t operate with your protocols and procedures, you can’t expect that they are going to understand what you mean. Sometimes it needs to be explained in clear language and the only way you can do that is face to face.”

Perhaps most surprising is the growing use of internet protocols to share unclassified information.

“That’s one of the ways we’ve been able to get around crypto problems of passing data from computer to computer,” Mulholland says. “That’s worked very well where we can do so. You’d be surprised but a lot of the data we share at sea would fall under the category of unclassified. So when it comes to situational awareness in that sense, we are able to share information with each other in that way.” Often in such exercises, liaison officers are equipped with a laptop to permit information exchange.

During Panamax, which comprised 20 countries, internet protocols were among the communications pathways tested by the crew of the Calgary. “I think you will see much more of this, especially when it comes to operating with other nations that are not part of our normal security group,” Quinn said.

If there is a technical challenge to interoperability with the United States, it’s that the U.S. sets the standards for networks and communications, and those standards are continually changing. As technical organizations, navies the world over regularly upgrade equipment, but it does strain the reserves of smaller navies. However, they offer an expertise Quinn, for one, greatly appreciates. “[Small navies] fill an important niche that, perhaps until you are there doing it, you don’t see. They also know the normal traffic pattern through their waters, they know what looks suspicious.”

The value of exercises such as Panamax, particularly in strategic locations of the world, cannot be overstated. For 2009, organizers incorporated a scenario involving a semi-submersible carry drugs to be used to finance an attack on the Panama Canal. The Calgary found and intercepted it. As luck would have it, a month and half later, on its way home, the ship was involved in an operation tracking a real drug-carry semi-submersible.

“The search we did in Panamax was the exact search we did in real ops, and the nations we were working with in Panamax were the nations we were working with during our real ops,” Quinn explained. “Any time you are in another part of the world, it doesn’t matter what type of exercise you are doing, you are always pushing that interoperability button, practising working with them and have some idea of what their expectations and capabilities are, so when you come into a real operation, even though you are not part of their task group, it makes things much easier.”