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Canadian Military Journal

Language and Interoperabililty in NATO: The Bureau for International Language Co-ordination (BILC)

Rick Monaghan
Dr. Richard D. Monaghan is the Senior Staff Officer Language Planning and Policy at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston. He chairs the Bureau for International Language Co-ordination (BILC), and has extensive experience in language education and assessment as a college and university teacher, manager, and administrator.
Abstract :

The complexity of mounting operations in a multinational context is enormous.  Experience in Libya has underlined some of the more obvious problems – coordination of supply chains, compatibility of refuelling systems, and coherence in gathering and communicating intelligence, as examples. But challenges to effective interoperability have existed within NATO from the start. In theory, communications ought to be seamless, and all systems, hard and soft, should be compatible.  But in operations, the seemingly irrelevant kinks and crevices become threats to both internal security and the security of non-combatants.  At the basic level of language, establishing and maintaining a shared communication system is fundamental. After more than a half-century in being, and given the new memberships and affiliations in the Alliance, NATO is still wrestling with the issue of language itself. This is not surprising, given that language is the most complex of human behaviours. However, there has been steady progress and increasingly positive results after years of coordinated effort and commitment.

Multinational exercises in the 1950s brought language standards to the fore.  NATO started flexing its muscles with a series of international exercises to demonstrate its capacity to respond to Soviet aggression in north-western and south-eastern Europe.  Exercise Rainbow (1950) involved the US, UK, and France, and was followed by Holdfast (1952) with the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, France, and the US participating.  Mainbrace (1952), conceived by Eisenhower, identified some significant gaps in the joint language of command and led to identification of a need for standards in gunnery, refuelling, and supply at sea.  In 1957, an ambitiously-massive series of exercises and simulations stretched in a 8000 kilometre arc from northern Norway to south-western Turkey, and it involved the US, UK, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and Norway in Strike Back. This naval exercise comprised 200 ships, over 600 aircraft, and 75,000 personnel in the North Atlantic. Deep Water saw the landing of 10,000 US Marines at Gallipoli, and Counter Punchtested air operations and air defence operations in central Europe. There were dozens of exercises conducted by NATO forces throughout the decade. At the time, the stakes were high. Both antagonists had nuclear capability, other nations were developing that capability, and the ideological war was erupting in the discrete conflicts of Korea and south-east Asia, while both super powers jockeyed for power and influence in the Middle East and Africa. Concerted and joint international exercises were seen as preparation for the inevitable operations that loomed in an uncertain future, and the lessons learned from these exercises initiated a rigorous development of standards in all aspects of military engagement and collaboration.

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Language and Interoperabililty in NATO: The Bureau for International Language Co-ordination (BILC)

Date Deposited : 08 Apr 2015 10:59

Last Modified : 08 Apr 2015 10:59

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Volume 13, Number 1, - 2013

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