Small Wars Journal

Future Conflicts: The Risks and Rewards of Coalition Operations

Share this Post

Future Conflicts: The Risks and Rewards of Coalition Operations

Mark A. Carter

Rose Keravuori, a Reserve Army officer and CEO and Founder of ROSE Women, LLC, stated the following: “On its 200th anniversary, Waterloo should be a critical piece in the education of today’s U.S. Army officer corps as they prepare for joint and multinational service.” She goes on to say Waterloo imparts several basic lessons: the need for coalition support, the inherent difficulty of fighting using a multinational coalition, and the need to be careful of biases in multinational operations.[1] Interagency and coalition partners are critical to a successful campaign strategy and cannot be overemphasized. In the words of retired Admiral James Stavridis, former Commander of USEUCOM: “The Marshall Plan…still reverberates and serves as a beacon of light guiding us to maintain and enhance security in a globalized world through political-military partnerships.[2] This paper identifies challenges faced by Geographic Combatant Commanders (GCC) when operating as part of a multinational force, or an interagency team. It proposes that there is progress with integrating Phase 0 (Shape) into campaign planning, but an artificial seam remains between pre-conflict shaping and the rest of the campaign. It also establishes that Phase 0 security cooperation efforts are undermined by national and diplomatic policy that interferes with its potential to shape or prevent conflict. Lastly, the paper makes some suggestions to improve multinational and interagency operations.

There are three security and stabilization missions in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) that are crucial to winning “the war.” The missions consist of military engagement and security cooperation, stability and counterinsurgency operations, and humanitarian assistance.[3] The U.S. military is responsible for security and stability operations in the immediate aftermath of combat operations, but enduring security and stabilization missions as part of Phase IV (Stabilize) and Phase V (Enable Civil Authority) operations are heavily dependent on the competencies of other agencies. As a result, interagency collaboration must be established early, during the development of a Theater Campaign Plan (TCP) through all phases of an Operation Plan (OPLAN). GCC’s understand the importance of planning for pre-conflict and post-conflict security and stabilization, but institutional dysfunction across the interagency interferes with their efforts. During efforts to coordinate Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) across the interagency, Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) called the current system a system “designed for another era” with rigid processes that are too cumbersome to address today’s security challenges.[4] Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that although the strategic environment has changed drastically since 9/11, U.S. Cold War programs have advanced much more slowly.[5] These sentiments were put forth three years ago, but unfortunately there is little improvement in the interagency process.

A particular challenge for GCC’s is competing goals and priorities of the DOD and executive departments. During OPLAN development and execution, the primary focus of the GCC is on fighting and winning the next war, with a secondary focus on securing and stabilizing post-war countries or regions. As an example of the competing priorities, during planning for the war with Iraq, General Tommy Franks assigned Lieutenant General Jay Garner, head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA), to Kuwait in a quasi-subordinate role to Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC). The result was dysfunctional. General Franks was in Qatar, Lieutenant General Garner was in Kuwait, and integration of the two efforts was virtually nonexistent; one focused on rebuilding Iraq, the other focused on winning the war.[6] In another example of competing priorities, a 2010 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report noted instances where the GCC failed to involve federal agencies in the formative stages of planning saying: “GCC’s tend to plan activities first and engage partners after the fact.”[7] Irrespective, the State Department does not have the resources to fulfill its responsibilities for establishing enduring stability in post-conflict environments, and in the end, the national problem gets punted into the lap of the GCC.

The Joint Interagency Coordination Group (JIACG) represents an opportunity and a challenge. To improve collaboration and unity of purpose following 9/11, the JIACG was created at GCC Headquarters.[8] The JIACG has great potential to create synergy throughout the interagency, but the lack of a federal mandate to fully staff JIACGs plagues the program. Departments and Agencies routinely detail members to a JIACG resulting in constant turnover; and in some cases, they send representatives on an as-needed basis.[9] In other cases, JIACGs are staffed during wartime using mobilized Reservists, but the JIACG staffs disappear following the end of hostilities.[10] GCC staffs often say that no two JIACGs look or function alike. This arrangement does not cultivate the level of continuity, assimilation, and trust needed to make JIACGs highly effective.

A final challenge for the GCC that interferes with a unity of effort is an overzealous NSS. Many years ago the Tower Commission cautioned the White House on the thin line between the NSA advisory role and that of directing active operations.[11] Many argue the current NSS has crossed the line and meddled in planning activities of the DOD and the State Department. Unfortunately, the institutional challenges referenced by Admiral Mullen in 2012 remain, and one area negatively affected is multinational and coalition operations.

In 2005, General Richard Myers, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, labeled multinational and coalition operations as “integrated operations.”[12] Successful integrated operations are dependent on key tenants outlined in Joint Publication 3-16, Multinational Operations: (1) respect for the national honor and prestige of a contributing nation, (2) knowledge of the doctrine, culture, and history of each nation, and (3) patience to develop a trusting, mutually beneficial relationship with partners. JP 3-16 further states: “While these tenants…cannot guarantee success, ignoring them may lead to mission failure due to a lack of unity of effort.”[13] An objective of the Army’s Regionally Aligned Forces (RAF) concept was to support these tenants by improving TSC with allied nations. A weakness in the concept was evident when the DOD rolled out the program in 2012 saying the U.S. wanted to be the “security partner of choice” by using “low-cost and small-footprint approaches”—objectives that are not mutually supportive.[14] In fact, when it comes to funding TSC in a GCC’s AOR, there is limited money available unless he has to execute a contingency plan.[15] Fearing the rhetoric didn’t match U.S. force presence, Europe cautioned U.S. leadership from “viewing regional cooperation as justification for US disengagement from the region...[as it] would undermine the motivation among the nations to pursue regional cooperation.”[16]

There are also institutional factors that interfere with force development for multinational and coalition operations. A 2008 RAND study based on tasks contained in the Joint Chief’s of Staff (JCS) Universal Joint Task List (UJTL) revealed that tasks most closely related to coalition operations ranked at the very bottom of six categories in terms of their importance to the Army mission.[17] Not surprisingly, the areas of emphasis for Army training and education followed a similar pattern, resulting in a lack of acculturation in critical areas. The same RAND study identified Military Transition Team Training (MiTT) as severely lacking in language skills, cultural awareness, and “teach and advise.” In fairness, there has been a recent emphasis on tasks related to coalition operations, but a similar survey today would likely yield the same results. In addition to institutional and acculturation issues, there are challenges inherent to coalition forces. Coalition forces present challenges related to language, culture, experience levels, interoperability problems affecting command and control and logistics, and varying degrees of commitment to the fight. Pre-conflict shaping is a critical element of managing these challenges.

Pre-conflict “shaping” can mean the difference between winning the war and losing the war. In October 2006, General Charles Wald, Deputy Commander of U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), introduced Phase Zero (0) into the joint lexicon.[18] Joint doctrine establishes Phase 0 to assure relationships with friends and allies and to deter potential adversaries.[19] Even today, USEUCOM has led the way in fully implementing a Phase 0 campaign philosophy. In his 2015 USEUCOM posture statement to Congress, General Phillip Breedlove said: “As the Commander of EUCOM, we need the resources to remain decisively engaged in the EUCOM theater…if we do not stand up and take the initiative to set the theater, someone else will.”[20] Phase 0 operations support 6 of the 12 Joint Force Prioritized Missions in the 2015 National Military Strategy; yet U.S. resources and efforts remain fixed on one or two mission sets related to direct armed conflict.[21] This leads many to argue that there is an artificial line between security cooperation and contingency planning. Some call it a reflection of a U.S. strategic narrative that is based exclusively on the Clausewitzian tradition, which sees a battle of wills only as a competition of armed force.[22] “Setting the theater” as mentioned by General Breedlove is a Phase 0 mission that consists of more than setting operational and logistics capabilities. Setting the theater also involves understanding the human terrain of another culture where face-to-face interaction provides the context.[23] The RAF concept attempts to do some of this, but ongoing operational requirements for U.S. forces have significantly limited participation in Europe and other Areas of Responsibility (AOR).[24]

Finally, Phase 0 integration is undermined by a national and diplomatic policy that interferes with its potential to shape conflict. Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, describes shaping as interagency activities that are executed to enhance international legitimacy and gain multinational cooperation—activities designed to ensure success by shaping perceptions.[25] Unfortunately, perceptions of U.S. national policy abroad are one of tentativeness and disengagement. Because Phase 0 activities are interwoven with diplomatic policy, the lack of a focused and consistent national strategy interferes with a GCC’s ability to implement Phase 0 objectives. After WW II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander, Supreme Allied Command Europe (SACEUR) said: “mutual confidence” is the “one basic thing that will make allied commands work”…it is the product of a fully integrated campaign plan.[26] The U.S. military must ensure that it has established institutional rigor to inculcate the tenants outlined in JP 3-16, or it will not create the kind of “mutual confidence” mentioned by General Eisenhower.

The challenges with operating as part of a multinational alliance or coalition are many, but there are also opportunities—opportunities that begin with setting the theater in Phase 0. There must be a continuous U.S. presence in the region beyond exercises. A continuous presence builds strong relationships and trust that produces greater actionable intelligence, commitments for basing and infrastructure, improved sustainment laydown, and coalition force commitments. Improvements are possible to create more synergy with the interagency. As the GCC’s arm of the interagency, the JIACG staff composition should be standardized and its staffing made mandatory through Presidential Policy Directive (PPD). GCC’s should follow the CENTCOM model and make the JIACG Director a career Senior Executive Service (SES); improving dialogue with career SES’s at the executive departments. Finally, the Director of the JIACG must become part of the GCC’s inner circle by reporting to the Deputy Commander (DCOM), and not to a director below the DCOM. These actions will improve operational effectiveness by moving the JIACG from the back of the room to the front of the room, and out of obscurity to become more relevant in the process.

There are twelve missions outlined in the 2014 QDR, all of which depend on the work of multinational alliances or coalitions, as well as interagency partners. The U.S. cannot wait until a conflict erupts to focus on the culture, history, and relationships of coalition partners. The military needs the coalition to win the battle, and it needs the interagency to win the war; yet two hundred years after the Battle of Waterloo, scholars still deal with the operation in tactical win/lose terms…in Wellington/Napoleon comparisons.[27] Strategic theory is a product of a time, space, and condition that is not universally prescriptive for future conflict. But, there are enduring strategic lessons enshrined in history, and particularly in the Battle of Waterloo, that the U.S. would be wise to consider as it plans for future conflict.

End Notes

[1] Rose Keravuori, “The Battle of Waterloo on its 200th Anniversary: Relevant Lessons on Fighting with a Multinational Coalition,” July 7, 2015, (accessed December 22, 2015).

[2] Benjamin D. Kauffeld, USAID and DoD: Analysis And Recommendations To Enhance Development-Military Cooperation, (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, August 2014), 3-4.

[3] Charles T. Hagel, Quadrennial Defense Review (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, March 2014), 60-61.

[4] Michael G. Mullen, A Statement on the Posture of the United States Armed Forces, Fiscal Year 2012, Posture Statement presented to the 112th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2011), quoted in Kristian M. Marks, Enabling Theater Security Cooperation Through Regionally Aligned Forces, USAWC Strategy Research Project, (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, March 2013), 32.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Neyla Arnas, Charles Barry, and Robert B. Oakley, Harnessing the Interagency Harnessing the Interagency for Complex Operations (Washington, DC: National Defense University; Center for Technology and National Security, August 2005), 14.

[7] U.S. Government Accountability Office, Improved Planning, Training, and Interagency Collaboration Could Strengthen DOD’s Efforts in Africa (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Accountability Office, July 2010), 36.

[8] Alan Whittaker et al., The National Security Process: The National Security Council and Interagency System (Washington, DC: Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, August 15, 2011), 54.

[9] Terry R. Sopher, Joint Interagency Coordination Groups (JIACGS), A Temporary Solution To a Long Term Requirement, USAWC Strategy Research Project, (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, May 3, 2004), 12.

[10] Matthew Bogdanos, “Transforming Joint Interagency Coordination: The Missing Link Between National Strategy & Operational Success,” Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Forces Transformation and Resources, (2007): 15.

[11] Whittaker, The National Security, 28.

[12] Richard B. Myers, “A Word from the Chairman,” Joint Force Quarterly, 36, no. 1 (2005): 10.

[13] U.S. Joint Chief’s of Staff, Multinational Operations, Joint Publication 3-16 (Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chief’s of Staff, March 7, 2007), I-3-I-4.

[14] U.S. Department of Defense, “Defense Budget Priorities and Choices,” January 2012, (accessed November 5, 2012), quoted in Kristian M. Marks, Enabling Theater Security Cooperation Through Regionally Aligned Forces, USAWC Strategy Research Project, (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, March 2013), 1-2.

[15] Mullen, A Statement on the Posture of the United States, quoted in Kristian M. Marks, Enabling Theater Security Cooperation Through Regionally Aligned Forces, USAWC Strategy Research Project, (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, March 2013), 33-34.

[16] Damon Wilson and Magnus Nordenman, “The Nordic-Baltic Region as a Global Partner of the United States,” September 4, 2013, (accessed December 26, 2015).

[17] Michael Spirtas et al., Department of Defense Training for Operations with Interagency, Multinational, and Coalition Partners, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2008), 7-17.

[18] Scott D. McDonald, Brock Jones, and Jason M. Frazee, “Phase Zero: How China Exploits It, Why the United States Does Not,” Summer 2012,,-Why-the-United-.aspx (accessed December 22, 2015).

[19] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Operation Planning, Joint Publication 5-0 (Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chief’s of Staff, August 11, 2011), III-42.

[20] Philip Breedlove, A Statement on the Posture of United States Forces Europe, Fiscal Year 2016, Posture Statement presented to the 114th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2015), 26.

[21] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, The National Military Strategy of the United States of America 2015 (Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, June 2015), 10-13.

[22] McDonald, “Phase Zero: How China Exploits It,” 9-10.

[23] Ibid., 131.

[24] Kristian M. Marks, Enabling Theater Security Cooperation Through Regionally Aligned Forces, USAWC Strategy Research Project, (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, March 2013), 20-21.

[25] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Operation Planning, III-42.

[26] U.S. Joint Chief’s of Staff, Multinational Operations, I-3.

[27] Keravuori, “The Battle of Waterloo," 1.


About the Author(s)

Mark Carter is a government civilian employee with the Department of Defense. Mr. Carter retired from active duty in 2006 after 24 years of military service. Following military retirement he entered federal civil service in 2007 and has held positions in Data Management, Logistics, Nuclear Strategic Deterrence, plans and programs, and budget development. He holds a Master of Science in International Relations from Troy State University.