In an age of coalition-run conflicts, interoperable communications are more important than ever before. No country can afford to operate on its own, and cooperation with partners is crucial.

The changing nature of conflict from industrial war to war among the people means allies need to be able to quickly and effectively communicate with each other to contribute to a common operational picture (COP). NATO recognizes interoperability as paramount for any deployment and ensures it is achieved through standardization. The NATO Standardization Organization (NSO) proceeded to introduce Standardization Agreements (STANAGS) for everything from HF radio equipment to surveillance reconnaissance tracking.

However, the recent conflict in Afghanistan presented NATO with new challenges. The expansive, mountainous territory made radio communication impractical due to its limited range and dependence on line-of-sight. The NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A) therefore introduced the NATO Friendly Force Identifier (NFFI). This “open source” standard allowed in-country allies to securely interconnect with one another over satellite and radio to route data into a COP and minimize friendly force casualties.

This was important in the context of Afghanistan as it allowed for flexible interoperability between participating nations often using different technology. It was about more than just being able to talk with the nearest commander in the field; it was the introduction of coordinated command and control.

The size and the structure of the battleground has changed, and soldiers are now expected to engage in intra-community warfare. Situational command and control (SCC) has become critical. A capability gap still exists for many organizations when operating beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) as radio communications cannot provide the capability satellite technology fulfils. Therefore it is not just the interoperability of data formats that is crucial but also the ability to combine both radio and satellite technology to ensure global coverage. The NFFI has allowed coalition partners to converge data and therefore operations, despite having their own communication legacy platforms and SCC technology in place.

The question of communications interoperability is now back at the top of the agenda as NATO and the coalition looks to hand power over to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The ANSF will stand up almost 200,000 troops, and while it has proven itself alongside coalition partners on the frontline, it is well known that background elements like logistics and communications require improvement. NATO cannot afford to equip the ANSF with state-of-the-art battlefield management systems (BMS) or dedicated milsat channels, after all, most NATO countries cannot afford either.

Effectively coordinating a large army over a country spanning thousands of kilometres requires a different skill set and new technology. Interoperable BLOS communications will be imperative, and with minimal communications infrastructure already in place, it makes sense to consider the U.S. Department of Defense’s commercial satellite strategy. Around 80 percent of DoD’s satcom is provided by commercial carriers, which allows it the bandwidth to effectively command and control its assets.

Commercial satcom works well for nations like Afghanistan. It can be AES256 encrypted, and is affordable, agile and interoperable. Unlike established militaries which must contend with rigid legacy systems, countries with developing military forces can exploit commercial opportunities to their full potential and build secure interoperable communications systems from the ground up. Afghanistan and other countries going through major restructuring, like Libya and Iraq, need to consider interoperability now, and set a communications standard which can be shared with organizations like NATO if assistance is required in the future.

While the short-term benefits, in Afghanistan’s case, are centred on stability and the ability to coordinate with NATO as it withdraws, it won’t be long before the ANSF has to communicate with first responder communities such as the police and ambulance services. But that’s the advantage of commercial off-the-shelf solutions; they’re not restricted to military use and could easily be adapted and deployed by the police.

Countries like Afghanistan don’t have to contend with rigid legacy systems that are hard to re-configure; they can set a communications standard and engage with commercial off-the-shelf solution providers from the outset, to secure high levels of capability at a low cost.

From the military perspective, if the ANSF can adopt the same data standards introduced by the NSO then it can ably contribute to a COP that allows coalition forces to withdraw from the region while still offering advice and assisting as necessary. But from a restructuring viewpoint, interoperable communications should be developed from the ground up so a range of organizations can take advantage.

Giles Peeters, Track24’s Canadian defence director, has almost 20 years of communications experience working for the UK Ministry of Defence and NATO. Track24 Canada recently won a Shared Services Canada contract to supply the federal government with satellite and short burst data services.