The colour purple typifies both the style and content of the UK's Strategic Defence Review, with Purple commands (joint posts covering two or more elements of the armed services), very much to the fore.

Perhaps prophetically, purple is also not far removed from the colour of blood; metaphorically, at least, more than a little could be shed in attempting to turn UK Secretary of State for Defence George Robertson's desires into reality.

The word "joint" litters the SDR paperwork like spent shell casings on a battlefield. Mouthing the word is one thing, creating the Joint Rapid Reaction Force, or the Joint Force 2000, or the Joint Support Helicopter Command will make the trials and tribulations of the past 14 months of SDR debate look like the proverbial vicarage tea party.

In averting too much inter-service blood letting, lucid communication will be of critical value as joint structures are put in place and operational doctrine is hammered out. This, however, will mark only the first frame of Robertson's vision of the UK armed services' "reinforced international commitment."

The capability to communicate effectively across the whole of the electro-magnetic spectrum exploited by the military is of ever-increasing importance. True of national armed forces, it is of even greater significance for units operating in a coalition environment.

The arrival of the digital battlefield heralds an extraordinary opportunity - but only if those forces trying to exploit it are capable of communication - whatever the chosen medium, bandwidth, or format. So far, even at a national level, the track record is far from impressive.

Recent operational deployments have all to often thrown up instances of incompatibility: be it the Royal Air Force's standard of identification friend or foe (IFF) (in the run up to the Gulf War) or the US naval fleet failings in terms of communications during recent Gulf operations.

The IFF saga reflects particularly poorly on NATO's attempts at standardisation. Irrespective of having collectively identified a common threat in the former Soviet Union, the Alliance singularly failed, despite more than a decade of effort, to come up with a common IFF standard for member states' combat aircraft.

Thankfully for NATO, its IFF shortcomings were never to be exposed as a result of the Cold War warming up. It would, however, be a cruel irony if some of its member states' current incompatibilities were to be fully exposed in the post- Cold War world.

Robertson says that"-we [the UK] should discharge our responsibilities in the world". If these responsibilities are to be "discharged" effectively, and the weapons are to be discharged accurately, then communication among the armed services and its allies across a variety of technologies is essential.

Joint training, both at the national level among different arms of the services, such as the UK's Permanent Joint headquarters, and at the international level, will play a critical role if the operational effectiveness of genuine coalition forces is to be maximised. Such exercises will also rapidly expose the many shortcomings that need to be addressed.

The ability to exploit high-precision weaponry on a digital battlefield in the context of a multinational force will be curtailed unless blue and red force identification is both real time and transparent. It is difficult to imagine, for example, a free-fire approach to beyond visual range air-to-air engagements unless the requisite elements of any coalition air deployment are readily identifiable in real time.

Robertson's emphasis on "jointery" is correct. It is also extremely challenging. At the national level the UK has begun to take the necessary steps to pulling together effective multi-service combat packages.

If a coalition force, be it under the guise of NATO, United Nations, or even the Western European Union, is to exploit fully the digital combat technologies now being developed, with the Pentagon in the van, the issues of co-operative operations need to be addressed.

Once this is out of the way, all that remains is to figure out a coherent foreign policy for the European Union, NATO, or even the Western European Union.

Source: Flight International