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Preparing for the unknown – from an operator’s perspective

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Preparing for the unknown – from an operator’s perspective 

Political involvement in missions carried out today warrants a change to military equipment used in conflicts and calls for an attitude change at the operator level. In a political setting where smaller countries actively contribute to military operations to help promote national values and their benefits in international relations, carrying out complex missions with political success has increasing value. As a result of the increasing importance of political aspects in military operations, procurement of military equipment must be thoroughly analysed and update programmes must be sustained throughout the lifespan of that equipment for it to maintain its political relevance. Also the mindset of operators must change to make generic doctrine work in a political context.


The political value of military contributions to coalition operations
After the termination of Operation Unified Protector over Libya in late 2011 American President Obama publicly complimented Danish Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt for the Danish military contribution to the conflict. Obama also noted that the Danish military effort had enabled the country to ‘punch above its weight in international affairs’.1 Obama’s statement demonstrates the increasing political value of using military contributions as a means of promoting small-state agendas in international politics. Danish military contributions are being used equal to, for example, economic trade agreements and political diplomatic efforts to promote national agendas and improve international relations. At the political level, the number of forces deployed and their overall effect on the military campaign are not as important as the symbolic value of contributing to the alliance, thereby signalling the intentions of the Danish government in broad international forums. With contributions to most major conflicts since 1990, the Danish government has clearly stated its intention to use military force as a means to achieve political goals. This highlights the importance of the success or failure of a single mission. Denmark dropped a total of 923 weapons on missions in Libya. However, a single bomb hitting the wrong target would have caused political and international concern. As a result, Denmark might have had to withdraw from the conflict. The political aspect of military operations adds to the complexity of missions both at operational and tactical levels, presenting operators and equipment with different challenges. Having participated in the 2011 air operations over Libya I have experienced these challenges. Since military contributions have come to play a significant role in the political affairs of small Western states, in the remainder of this article I identify some of the desired characteristics which military equipment and its operators need in order to be successful in future conflicts.

Desirable characteristics of military equipment
To be politically feasible, military contributions have to be rapidly deployable. The political value of being ‘first in’ in international conflicts is substantial. A small, rapidly deployable military unit gets more public and political attention if it manages to be ‘on site’ within days or sometimes even hours. On the other hand, larger military contributions that arrive on the battle scene well into the conflict tend to attract less attention. In addition, military contributions have to be highly flexible. In a political context where participation per se is more important than the size of the contribution, military equipment has to be useable in multiple scenarios. It is near impossible to predict the characteristics of future conflicts. Instead, military capacities have to be designed to be flexible enough to deal with multiple scenarios.

Future challenges to military equipment:

  • Rapidly deployable
  • Highly flexible
  • Provides maximum protection to own forces
  • Minimises collateral damage
  • Network centric


  • Correct procurement considerations
  • A long-term update programme


The political value of participating in military operations decreases as unwanted loss of human life increases. Military equipment has to reflect this dynamic by providing maximum protection to the intervening forces while at the same time minimising collateral damage. ‘Clean fought’ wars where only the designated targets suffer losses are those with desirable political value for the intervening states. This requires that the equipment used is designed to find new ways of detecting targets, separating friend from foe, insurgents from civilians, while using as little firepower as possible. Furthermore, the equipment used has to be network-centric in the sense that multiple units should be able to communicate and share information. No existing platform is able to generate perfect situational awareness on the battlefield. Therefore, high compatibility across the different types of equipment results in greater degrees of situational awareness, less collateral damage and higher efficiency in meeting the mission objectives. Also, the political value of network-centric military equipment enabling operators to combine efforts transnationally should not be underestimated.

So what are the consequences of all these requirements for the military equipment used today? Older equipment must be adapted to new missions. Alternatively, new equipment that can meet contemporary mission objectives has to be procured. Most countries buy military equipment with a life expectancy between 10 and 30 years. To keep this equipment politically attractive, basic characteristics like deployability have to be considered at procurement, because subsequently this will be hard to change. On the other hand, flexibility and network-centric capabilities will be part of an ongoing update cycle to ensure that the equipment stays (politically) operational throughout its lifespan.

Challenges to operators
Military contributions used as political tools present the operators with new challenges. Most military personnel is probably familiar with the term ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ (SOP). This is a generic way of operating equipment or synchronising effects. Within a purely military context this often makes sense and proves to be the most efficient way to carry out missions. However, political concerns of non-military matters are rarely reflected in these operational ‘patterns’. The complexity of military operations within a political context makes it close to impossible for SOPs to cover the various options in a specific scenario. The same problem exists in ‘Rules of Engagement’ (RoE). Whereas most military RoEs address potential political consequences of bombing religious buildings, their usefulness is less obvious when bombing a terrorist stronghold in a densely populated residential area.

Future challenges to military operators:

  •  SOP and RoE inadequate
  • Complex decision making within a short time frame
  • Decision depends on the political context of the specific scenario


  • Operator's mindset adapted to the political context


The political implications of military operations seem to rule out generic ways of creating standards for the operators to follow. Instead, they must be able to interpret core military RoEs in a political context and only then decide if it still makes sense to carry out the necessary action. Instead of following execution orders ‘by the book’, the operator must adapt to the complex military and political context of the specific mission and only then make a decision. The operator needs a complex decision making matrix that cannot be found in any book or deduced from generic rules. As a result, the operator must develop a mindset that can encompass complex and autonomous decision making within a short time frame. This mindset should consist of simple rules so as to not further complicate the mission. An example could be ‘If in doubt, no doubt’ – meaning that an attack should not be executed if there is any doubt (military or political) about the consequences of that attack, not even if it complies with formal RoE. Furthermore, this will not undermine the use of either RoE or SOP as a proper mindset, taking into account both political and military complexity. It will refine the use of these generic terms and provide the operator with the contextual touch and finesse that is needed to make the general rules applicable in a political context.




Last updated 2015-11-16 - 10:20

About the author

Peter Melgaard

Royal Danish Air Force 

Peter Melgaard has been a F-16 fighter pilot for more than 12 years and has participated in flying duty in Operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector over Libya in 2011.