Sunday, February 09, 2014


What makes a military, or a military operation, effective? While it is difficult to concisely say, or narrow it down to one deciding factor, budget, training, culture, leadership, morale, technology, and more all play a role. Recognizing the complexity and interconnectedness of these factors can help in the overall evaluation of the quality and effectiveness of a military.

However, each nation has a unique way of creating a military and then training, equipping, and using it. So given the diversity between one nation’s military and another nation’s military, what happens when militaries work together? Not just in the sense of conducting joint exercises or training, but rather, what happens when troops from different countries come together to collectively fight a war?

For a recent example: NATO. After the September 11 attack on the United States, the United Nations Security Council created the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and eventually NATO was charged with supervising a coalition of troops ultimately assembled from 49 contributing countries. The countries represented were as varied as El Salvador, Germany, Montenegro, Tonga, and the United States.

How effective is a transnational coalition though? Are so many diverse countries able to work together and create meaningful progress? In 2013, reports that Taliban attacks in Afghanistan had decreased in 2012 were proven to be false, leading some to wonder if anything productive and long-lasting is being accomplished by the NATO troops in Afghanistan. The length of the war in Afghanistan is also troubling to many. Additionally, despite NATO’s multinational factor, that has not helped sway global public opinion in support of the war in Afghanistan. The Pew Global Attitudes Project conducted a survey in which the majority of respondents in 32 out of 47 countries thought all foreign troops should leave Afghanistan. Even countries in NATO who had troops in Afghanistan wanted the troops to leave. The war has also grown increasingly unpopular in America and many Americans view the war in Afghanistan as unsuccessful overall. If NATO is truly effective, why is the war so drawn out, why is the Taliban still thriving, and why do most people want the troops to leave?

Yet despite what many would call a futile attempt in regards to the war in Afghanistan, others cite Libya as a recent NATO success story. In 2011, NATO intervened in Libya and President Obama commented on the extraordinary effectiveness of NATO and how closely American and French soldiers were able to work together – even to the extent of having Americans pilot French fighter jets.

So while the merits and likability of NATO are certainly up for debate, perhaps what is most pertinent to this discussion is the question: just how effective can NATO potentially be, given the fact that it is a transnational military force?

Well, in order to be effective, troops need to have some amount of mutual understanding. For this reason, shortly after its creation in 1949, NATO realized the importance of standardizing and it formed the Military Agency for Standardization in 1951.  This later merged with the Office of NATO Standardization, which eventually morphed into the NATO Standardization Agency (NSA). Through this agency, NATO has implemented a number of Standardization Agreements (STANAG) to help coordinate the member nations’ militaries. These STANAGs allow countries to ratify agreements which establish common ground and synchronize operational procedures, technology, equipment, and so on. From aircraft marshalling signals, to doctrine for countering improvised explosive devices, to a glossary of abbreviations, to doctrine for special operations, the STANAGs give all NATO nations a universal framework that if jointly executed, creates a more effective multinational military. Instead of each country trying to accomplish things its own way, finding agreement and commonality with each other will enable more unity, and hence, a greater chance of effectively working together.

NATO’s STANAGs accounts for significant political, strategic, operational, and tactical cooperation that enables NATO to more effectively conduct the operations that it is involved in. But is it enough? Can STANAGs teach initiative, create morale, overlook social differences, and compel information sharing? Can unit cohesion and trust be created in a multinational force? Initial thoughts indicate that NATO has some of the ingredients needed for success. While the STANAGs do not help with the global perception of international war, and while they do not seem to strongly deal with all areas and considerations, they are a step towards ensuring NATO’s military capability is as efficient as possible by addressing issues that could hamper its effectiveness as a military force.

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