Planning and Liaison

Interoperability – The Right Mindset drives Good Practice

By Pat Henriques July 2, 2020

Defence maintains five separate definitions for ‘Interoperability’ within its joint and single service doctrine. They refer in equal parts to the human skillset as much as the technical ability of hardware to interface. Headquarters elements are a custodian of interoperability due to the requirement for foreign information, personnel and systems to co-exist and cooperate. This is also where friction can become the most pronounced, with well-intentioned but misinformed assumptions, hindering a permissive working environment. Strategic and operational headquarters like Joint Operations Command and the 1st Division have well established procedures for integrating foreign personnel into their organisations. It is becoming more common for tactical headquarters (up to the Brigade level) to be reinforced with foreign personnel during routine activities, which can present as a problem for the unprepared. This post will seek to address some common points of friction associated with foreign access to a deployed tactical headquarters and provide some practical recommendations to resolve them.

Most collective training conducted by Brigades and below is designed to achieve tactical outcomes, but the inclusion of foreign personnel immediately elevates the strategic risk and opportunity. New Zealand and United States service personnel are routine inclusions in our exercises and headquarters with engagement at the working level spread across dozens, if not hundreds, of touchpoints in Army. Nations such as France and Japan, increasingly vital strategic partners, may only have a few working level touchpoints in a training year. Their organisational familiarity and assessment of interoperability with the Australian Army is entirely couched in these touchpoints, which significantly elevates their impact. Ensuring the lived experience of those personnel is a positive one is how strategic relationships are enhanced and progressed. Making them feel valued in their contribution, respected for their experience and ultimately reflect positively on working with Australians, can be considered of equal or greater strategic weight against the achievement of training objectives. They will return to their home nation and contribute to their organisational assessment of interoperability. A well prepared activity will ensure this assessment is a positive one.

Preparing the Information – A little effort goes a long way

The ability to exchange information is critical to interoperability. Whilst information exchange with Five Eyes nations is routine, Australia has acknowledged the growing importance of regional partnerships with non-Five Eyes nations such as France, Singapore and Japan[1]. As these regional partnerships continue to strengthen, so to do the challenges in exchanging sensitive information. Australia enjoys several information sharing agreements with partner nations from around the globe. This enables us to share sensitive information up to the classification limits of the agreement (which can range to TOP SECRET), where appropriate and required. During the planning phase of any instance of foreign integration, the Unit Security Officer must review policy and consult subject matter experts to determine what agreements exist and apply. Your partner nation equivalents will be in a similar position to you and may not know of the existence of these agreements either. This review should be conducted in parallel to a formal Request For Visit from the partner nation’s High Commission or Embassy to the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency. They will provide a determination of foreign personnel security clearances to enable them to be recognised against an Australian equivalent. For nations in the Southwest Pacific this will be challenging as they do not have a recognised reciprocal agency. Incorporating risk mitigations such as those described below will work towards achieving a compromise. The result of this easily overlooked investment can be a fully permissive working environment, critical for the efficiency of any headquarters.

While a detailed understanding of the information sharing agreements and security clearance of specific personnel sets the conditions for information sharing, the onus is on the Headquarters element to ensure its information is appropriately classified and caveated. Information that requires a caveat (and thus may not be able to be shared) may only make up a small, niche portion within a broader scenario and will not be required for the routine conduct of staff duties. Isolating and caveating only this information is critical. This may not always be in the control of the exercising headquarters, especially when information is TOP SECRET or authorised by external organisations. If you are operating at SECRET or below however, it is still worth interrogating as isolating caveated information or rectifying an over-classified document will pay dividends for interoperability.

Preparing the People – Embracing the difference

It would be bold to assume that foreign personnel will have experience or training in staff planning. It would be a bolder assumption again to assume that their method of integrating into a planning staff will naturally complement our processes. In some partner nations those skills are reserved for field grade officers preparing to assume staff or command appointments, with junior officers and SNCO having no formal training or experience. This issue is compounded by nations that do not speak English as a first language or those that do not utilise NATO doctrine to articulate manoeuvre. A period of integration training prior to full employment is critical to setting up the individuals and the headquarters for success. Even if this integration training occurs after they have commenced employment, the time lost will be regained through increased efficiency. Establishing a baseline of skill and collaboratively determining their best method of employment in the headquarters will produce the best results. An effort should be made at a minimum to understand the following:

  • Australian and Foreign staff roles and responsibilities, and how they overlap / diverge
  • the training / operational scenario as it applies to each stakeholder (understanding of national limitations, caveats, legal requirements, etc)
  • a table top discussion of a planning process from Mission Analysis to Concept of Operations brief to get a shared understanding of expectations
  • exchanging of playbooks or local SOP

Every effort should be made to enable the foreign staff to work within their own processes and adapt the required outputs. It will generate greater efficiency, and in turn greater interoperability, if foreign staff are able to plan in their language and methods up until the point when the information needs to be communicated to a broader audience, where it then transitions to the common language of the headquarters. This will incur risk if the process needs to rapidly reorientate with new staff and it is in a foreign language, but that is balanced against the risk of reduced efficiency in trying to force the use of a language skill that is underdeveloped.  Accepting that briefing formats or styles will not be perfectly symmetrical is also necessary. Interoperability is not necessarily doing things the exact same way, but working together within your individual strengths to achieve a collaborative outcome.

Preparing the Systems – Balancing Security with Flexibility

The technical systems that facilitate staff work and the passage of information carry a wide variety of security limitations, which introduces ambiguity when it comes to implementing a security policy. A common approach is to cordon areas with sensitive equipment and deny access, however in the deployed environment that is often extended to denying access to the entire headquarters. A more nuanced approach is required to facilitate access in a manner that retains security whilst providing flexibility. There is a difference between an ability to operate, view and be proximate to an information system. In reality sensitive equipment that has restrictions on foreign visibility of or proximity to is typically established in areas that headquarters staff do not have regular contact with or a need to be familiar with. Examples of simple yet effective risk mitigations include:

  • The use of shrouds or covers over sensitive items
  • the verbal passage of appropriate information from a sensitive system
  • the use of physical data transfer methods (such as thumb drives or an operator typing information from one terminal to another)

A deliberate foreign access security risk assessment that identifies, delineates and mitigates risks that is accepted by the appropriate authority should be conducted by Intelligence and Signals staff prior to integration. Determining who the appropriate authority is will require investigation, however a good starting point is working with the experts on sensitive systems to determine who the Information System Owner is and engaging with them. For example the Information System Owner for the Battlefield Management System is the Director of Land C4 in Army Headquarters.




Interoperability is as much a mindset as a practice. The desire to create a permissive environment where information, personnel and systems are able to co-exist and cooperate will pave the way for innovative solutions. Headquarters, as custodians of the interoperability practice, must rigorously challenge assumptions that deter or deny access. Common sense and collaborative solutions do exist if they are sought out. Interoperability is intended to reduce friction, and if the correct mindset is applied the practice will follow.


End Note

[1] The Defence White Paper (2016) and Foreign Policy White Paper (2017) are consistent in their messaging of the importance of regional relationships and cooperation in security and disaster preparedness. The tempo of exchange through activities such as Ex Croix Du Sud (France), Ex Trident (Singapore) and Ex Southern Jackaroo (Japan) has also increased significantly since 2016.



Pat Henriques

Captain Pat Henriques is a former Brigade Operations Captain and coordinated international engagement for the 7th Combat Brigade.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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