Interoperability at sea: A tradition of excellence
Interoperability is a key concept in the modern western defence literature, whether it relates to global strategy or operational capabilities. This often misused notion can lead to confusion and approximations regarding its proper objective.
What does interoperability stand for? Interoperability refers to the notion of operations and partnerships. To wage war choosing your allies can be almost as decisive as knowing your enemies.
Today, as it often serves to structure military capabilities, interoperability above all relies on a common political vision that should respond to several key questions: what are the operational ambitions? What type of operations? Who are our partners? Therefore, this concept covers three precise and ancient military functions: understanding each other, communicating and acting together. The ultimate aim of this human-centred idea is to be able to plan and conduct operations. Hence, this notion has always been supported by a demanding level of mutual knowledge, common culture, definition of tactics and processes. This can only be implemented by steady and realistic training.
For more than two decades, the battlefield digitization, the striking evolution of command and control systems, and the implementation of the concept of networkcentred warfare have deeply transformed the traditional understanding of interoperability. The double-sided phenomenon of horizontal interconnection between information systems and understanding of the situation versus the vertical integration of operational action-oriented systems leads to consideration of interoperability as a central parameter for the definition of modern complex systems. Thus, the notion of interoperability is currently crosscutting to all the domains of defence.
However, these two evolutions raise the substantive issue of the right balance between dependence and sovereignty. Modern naval air operations do probably constitute the best illustration. Sharing and exchanging raw data (distributed between naval and air platforms) are an undeniable capability for the future in every warfare domain.
Recent operational experiences showed that merging data from the upper layer – qualitatively enriched by classification and identification processes – is way more complex: both processes are the bases for the engagement of the decisionmaking process. This is particularly true for interconnected systems that are external to the naval task force. Attributing identification could indeed generate the initiation of nation-specific reaction process (rules of engagement) to a given contact.
With the vertical integration of systems, it is now possible to conceive an evenlydistributed engagement process. In an international context, and since the action of a naval task force involves the responsibility of the State associated to the pavilion, this possibility raises the question of liability and control of the use of force, in coherence with national rules of engagement and directives.
As far as France is concerned, NATO has always been and remains the crucible of our interoperability with our main partners. The last 30 years in particular have confirmed the key role of the United States as a major partner in our external military operations. France attaches particular importance to maintaining the highest level of interoperability with US forces. Thus, this essential aspect of our defence policy is highlighted in the last two editions of the French White Paper on Defence and National Security.
Regarding the naval domain, after a long tradition of cooperation in the Mediterranean Sea – in particular during the operations off the shore of Lebanon and in the Adriatic Sea – the French Navy interacts on a regular basis with the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean. Since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, the French carrier battle group constituted around the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier has been regularly deployed in the Arabian Sea to conduct combat strike missions and air traffic control in tight coordination with U.S. naval forces.
More specifically, during Operation Sharp Guard in the Adriatic Sea in the 1990s, FN air defence destroyers (F70 Cassard type) held the responsibility of Fleet Air Defence Identification Zone Coordinator (Red Crown) within USN CVBGs. Since 2009, the French navy has been directing its efforts towards the integration of air-defence units (in particular with the Horizon-class air-defence destroyers, and in the near future with the new FREMM air defence variant) within allied naval forces in the northern Indian Ocean. These frequent operational deployments have allowed France to reach a very high level of integration and interoperability with US naval/air forces: this clearly shows through the major responsibilities held in the domain of the air defence of the Carrier Strike Group and of the air traffic control in a real operational context.
The 2013/2014 deployment of the French CVBG in the Indian Ocean has made the case for the efforts undertaken over the last several years to maintain interoperability at its highest level. Another example: in late 2013, the Chevalier Paul Horizon-class destroyer was integrated within the USN Carrier Strike Group 11 with the responsibility of the air defence of the USS Nimitz in the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, the new FREMM frigates have been designed for such a level of interoperability. This is particularly true for the area-air defence variant that will be replacing the F70 Cassard-class destroyers.
At this point it should be noted that the French navy is one of the very few navies to have reached this level of capability and expertise.
Similarly to the relationship with the Royal Navy, the high level of interaction with the U.S. Navy is essential. As Admiral Rogel, French Chief of Naval Staff, underlined: “Our three countries are sharing global political ambitions and a common vision of the role of oceans in their defence policy. It is therefore necessary that they can be allied and rely on each other.”2
1. It is worth noting that, up to now, the French navy is the only allied navy to implement a true aircraft carrier and a homogeneous and powerful air group. Both the ship systems and the air assets are fully interoperable with US CVs; cross-decking training between FN and USN are organized as often as possible.
2. Cols Bleus magazine, June 2014.
Capt.(N) Christophe Balducchi is currently the defence attaché at the French embassy in Ottawa. As an expert in the field of air-defence, he served on Jean Bart-class F70 air defence destroyers (operations officer from 1998 to 2000 in support of the KFOR) He was also the first to command an Horizon-class destroyer (Forbin) from 2005 to 2009. He led the integration of the Forbin within the USS Eisenhower CVBG in 2009. Most recently he was J3 at the French CPCO (Joint Planning and Operations Command Centre) from 2010 to 2013.