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Research Questions

  1. What is meant by interoperability?
  2. What are the benefits of interoperability? What are the risks and costs?
  3. What guidance is currently being given to build interoperability? What guidance should be given?

Recent U.S. national defense policies have focused on the importance of multinational interoperability to meeting U.S. defense goals. However, even with the attention given to interoperability, the Army is still not interoperable with whom it wants, when it wants. One reason for this, the authors argue, is that policymakers do not have a precise enough understanding of why more and better interoperability is needed. In many ways, "interoperability" is a buzzword often asserted as the solution to an unexplained problem. Or worse, as a tautological argument: The need to be interoperable hinges on the fact that, historically, military forces have been rather terrible at doing so.

The authors of this report recount both their literature review and structured interviews with planners and leadership involved in multinational interoperability, focusing on describing the various benefits often ascribed to interoperability. They discuss the values of interoperability across multiple dimensions — shaping the strategic environment, increasing capabilities, and reducing resourcing demands. The authors also suggest strategies for realizing those benefits.

The authors aim to clarify the benefits of interoperability and spur conversations so that future decisionmakers can better articulate the intended rationale for investing in interoperability and better weigh the benefits against the significant costs and risks that interoperability might entail.

Key Findings

  • Interoperability is valuable as a means to an end, not as an end in and of itself. Interoperability is only beneficial for what it allows multinational forces to accomplish.
  • Various benefits of interoperability include enabling access, leveraging partner capabilities, filling gaps, increasing legitimacy, increasing safety, deterring adversaries, meeting treaty obligations, reassuring partners, reducing costs, shaping partner purchases, sharing burdens, and supporting partner-led missions.
  • Not all benefits from interoperability accrue in all situations.
  • The various benefits can be explained through three overlapping objectives for interoperability: shaping the strategic environment, building new capabilities, and reducing future demands on resources.
  • Three investment strategies arise from a consideration of the benefits: integrating capabilities with partners, sharing capabilities with partners, and enabling partners. Each strategy is linked to the objectives.
  • Interoperability is context-specific. For interoperability to be most beneficial, there is a need to choose in what scenarios, with which partners, and for what functions it should be used.
  • The drive to build interoperability can start with specific partner relationships, a need to accomplish a specific scenario, or a drive toward a more robust functional capability.
  • Identifying the benefits that can accrue from interoperability is only the first step. A more complete assessment of the (potentially significant) costs of interoperability is needed to address challenges in resourcing, strategy, and institutionalization.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-3/5/7, U.S. Army and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within RAND Arroyo Center.

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