NATO’s multinational battlegroups need help transitioning verified technical interchangeability into national policies that allow them to operate, train, and maintain readiness from a common ammunition stockpile that is legally permitted and safe to use. In February and March of this year, the NATO Standardization Office coordinated with a team from the US Army War College (USAWC) to conduct a ground-level survey within three of NATO’s eight multinational battlegroups.
The team’s most salient observation was this: battle group key leaders believe that national policies prevent ammunition exchange within their multinational formation. This perception may hinder a multinational unit’s wartime interoperability, and certainly impedes operational efficiency in peacetime.
NATO’s multinational battlegroups need help transitioning verified technical interchangeability into national policies that allow them to operate, train, and maintain readiness from a common ammunition stockpile that is legally permitted and safe to use. In February and March of this year, the NATO Standardization Office coordinated with a team from the US Army War College (USAWC) to conduct a ground-level survey within three of NATO’s eight multinational battlegroups. The team’s most salient observation was this: battle group key leaders believe that national policies prevent ammunition exchange within their multinational formation. This perception may hinder a multinational unit’s wartime interoperability, and certainly impedes operational efficiency in peacetime.
NATO Allies produce common caliber ammunition, but often do not share ammunition (or, occasionally, ammunition data) for reasons of legality, safety, and misunderstanding. In some cases, strategic policy is not aligned with the demands of tactical operations. Local commanders’ understanding of what is allowed is in high contrast with the intent of Alliance and national-level policies that require standardized ammunition across NATO. The 2010 and 2022 NATO Strategic Concepts led to the creation of tactical-level multinational formations, but strategic-level ammunition policies have not kept pace. The current strategic environment has changed. Until nations adjust ammunition policy and acquisition processes to match those changes, NATO’s units are compelled to accept risk regarding ammunition resupply and exchange.
NATO has an opportunity to enable ammunition interoperability for the foreseeable future. Many Allies’ ammunition consumption in support of Ukraine is beyond any national industry’s annual production rates. Pundits and policy officials are concerned about looming shortfalls, yet there may be a silver lining. While supplying the current conflict consumes the short-term capacity of NATO’s stockpiles, this has also primed the pump for massive recapitalisation efforts across national industries.
The work beginning in many armories presents opportunities to foster agreements, cooperation, and standardization between the internal defense industries of multiple NATO Allies. For NATO to make the greatest gains during this ammunition replenishment, each member should shape weapons and munitions production to bridge the gap between the agreed strategic concepts and tactical reality. Multiple Allies and partners already participate in NATO’s established ammunition and industry cooperative programmes. Now there is an unprecedented opportunity to implement initiatives that broaden the use of NATO ammunition standards.
NATO’s ability to exchange munitions is limited by legal policies and safety concerns. Where these limitations are based in fact, they constitute mismatches, and where they are rooted in misunderstanding, they are myths. Mismatches can be technical issues with ammunition sharing that members can address through acquisition policy and participation in standardization programmes. Other mismatches come from policies that have not been updated to match the current multinational environment in support of interoperability. Myths refer to the unintended rumours and misunderstandings that occur as a side effect of safety and legal mismatches. Both mismatches and myths limit intended cooperation and hinder interoperability.
Safety challenges that lead to technical mismatches are the focus of many of NATO’s existing ammunition standardization programmes. Many ammunition challenges are really about stocks on hand and available data. Some nations have partial stocks of non-standard ammunition that is not able to fire safely in NATO standard weapons. Occasionally, non-standard munitions produced by national industries for the purpose of foreign military sales end up in NATO nations’ supply chains for economic or other reasons. In other instances, the ammunition may have been produced within NATO standards, but appropriate data does not exist to make a safety determination. Other issues exist with legacy weapons systems and munitions that were acquired before nations joined NATO. There is also an area where certain advanced capability ammunition, such as precision guided munitions or rocket assisted projectiles, may challenge the limits of some weapons system designs.
These safety and supply mismatch problems are known. The NATO Military Committee Land Standardization Board’s Interoperability Ammunition Working Group and the Integrated Capability Group Indirect Fire (ICGIF) are two of several collaborative entities made up of national weapons and munitions experts within NATO’s technical interoperability programmes. These groups are identifying problems and working through technical solutions to known challenges. Safety issues are often resolved as members cooperate through standardization programmes and acquisition initiatives.
A recent example of the work these groups provide demonstrates the tactical relevance of their policy-level action. Several safety and supply mismatch challenges arose among the nations that donated 155mm artillery systems for the defense of Ukraine. Because most donor nations were NATO Allies or partners, groups of ammunition experts like the ICG-IF were able to use NATO standardization as a common starting point in order to provide Ukraine with firing tables that ensured accurate firing data for ammunition combinations that were (at least preliminarily) deemed safe and resolved many of these issues. Interchangeable ammunition is a battlefield necessity. Greater standardization and information sharing reduces real-world issues.
Mismatches that arise from national law and policy constitute a different challenge. These issues can include restrictions on munitions data sharing, national laws regarding certain munitions types, and policy issues that exist below the level of national law. Issues of national law are often accounted for through national reservations on NATO standards. NATO members have the right to limit the types of munitions their military will employ.
The legal mismatches that may be more appropriate to adjust in order to support multinational battlegroup missions would be those policies that are below the level of national law. For example, the US Army War College team observed a multinational battlegroup that was limited by a policy restricting troops from one nation from allowing another NATO member nation’s troops to transport their ammunition. This policy was not a matter of national law, so it was eventually overturned when the Senior National Representative (SNR) requested an exception to the policy. However, not every SNR is positioned or informed enough to request policy exceptions to caveats that lead to mission challenges.
Caveats based on policy below the level of law can vary from simple rules about transportation to complicated differences in storage standards. There are many more challenges that are not related to ammunition. In each of these cases, local leaders must find the best solution. SNRs cannot always judge which caveats are based in law and which are based in lower-level policies. Additionally, bottom-up change requests consume valuable time at the wrong moment and echelon for the mission.
“Myths” grow from misunderstandings of safety or legal reasons. The example of the confusion surrounding the 155mm artillery systems in Ukraine showed limited capability on the battlefield in specific and resolvable ways, yet rumors of the incongruity have spread a myth that NATO’s standards may not enable real-world ammunition sharing. This rumour makes the problem seem ubiquitous, yet it is limited or even false. Ammunition built to NATO standards with available firing data can be safely interchanged between guns built within NATO standards. NATO’s tactical leaders should be confident in that fact, but the documents that prove this are difficult to find while the myth is readily available. Additionally, real mismatches that limit ammunition exchange can encourage further myths rather than encouraging interoperability.
At the opposite end of the munitions myth, the USAWC team’s interviews among officers and non-commissioned officers from NATO Allies uncovered that many personnel falsely believe that permission for ammunition exchanges between troops of different nations would be immediately granted if NATO transitions to a wartime status, wherein current rules will be “turned off.” Many troops within NATO’s multinational battlegroups believe there will be some expedient changes in policies that apply to them once a war begins. This misunderstanding may derive from unaccounted for informal ammunition exchanges that occurred in recent conflicts such as Afghanistan. This is also an error since rules for ammunition exchange remain in place during peacetime, wartime, or training operations to maintain safety standards, govern accountability, and ensure interoperability.
The challenge to limitations or misinformation around ammunition standardization is that some tactical leaders are uncertain as to the conditions and requirements that NATO ammunition standardization is meant to support. Cooperation through NATO’s various munitions programmes will resolve safety issues, but not policy issues. NATO can assist Allies in reassessing how national ammunition policies are applied and communicated at the tactical level if ammunition interchangeability meets a member’s respective national intent. During the NATO Summit in Vilnius in July 2023, Allies committed to improve interoperability through transparent compliance with NATO standards. Allies should follow through on this pledge so that in the future, tactical commanders are able to interchange ammunition across their formation without seeking special permission or overcoming technical limitations.
Safety, legality, and policy cannot be set aside, but more consideration needs to be given to NATO’s tactical interoperability. Each member’s safety and legal considerations drive participation in Alliance-wide munitions standardization programmes. These programmes are an opportunity to seek agreement between national requirements and NATO standards. The goal of several NATO munitions interoperability programmes is to resolve national reservations to satisfy all participants.
NATO is dedicating the time and resources to make sure that member ammunition is interchangeable through technical programmes. For collaborative acquisition, the NATO Support and Procurement Agency Ammunition Support Partnership enables NATO Allies and partners to acquire standardized ammunition from other NATO members. There are programmes that help NATO categorise and maintain munitions standardization. Additionally, nations can join cooperative programmes around air, land, and maritime battle-decisive munitions (BDM) that provide domain-based frameworks for multinational munitions acquisition “to increase flexibility in stockpile management by decreasing legal and technical constraints for participants to exchange munitions.” BDM enrolled nations take advantage of the multinational ammunition warehouse initiative (MAWI) which “provide(s) … scalable, expandable and flexible solution(s) for [multinational stockpiles]”. Nations that have joined MAWI have already begun to develop mechanisms for common storage, interchange, and sharing of ammunition. The next level includes the deliberate interchange of munitions during training and deployments.
Enrollment across NATO in cooperative programmes can also develop further cooperation between nations and national industries. NATO’s transparent ammunition standards provide a position of advantage for NATO to deter and defend. As NATO Allies increase resources to grow the defense industry and rebuild stockpiles, they should seek to develop greater ammunition interchangeability. Acquiring or developing ammunition with the requisite ballistic fire control information needed to use S4 products, meeting all relevant NATO Standards, and enrolling in MAWI can benefit readiness, training, and the interoperability of multinational battlegroup formations. NATO’s units can reap the benefits of increased munitions standardization during live fire exercises and forward deployments.
Sharing in practice
To demonstrate the feasibility of ammunition interchangeability and practice the safe implementation of NATO acquisition programmes, a deliberate exchange can be built into several exercises allowing NATO soldiers to experience the interchangeability of their ammunition and leaders to practice the necessary procedures to enable the exchange. Training in ammunition exchange could be accomplished at events as basic as known-distance firing ranges or as complex as scenario-driven multi-lateral live fire exercises. Training audiences would benefit further if these events were regular and publicised in order to educate soldiers and reduce some of the myths surrounding ammunition interoperability. As NATO’s Secretary General recently emphasised to Allied National Armaments Directors, Allies’ compliance with their NATO Standardization Agreements to share information on their ammunition testing programmes and results has become a strategic imperative.
The multinational Artillery System Cooperation Activities (ASCA) implementation exercise, Dynamic Front, could provide an opportunity for 14 ASCA-participant nations to exchange artillery ammunition on a one-for-one swap to demonstrate confidence in safe, legal interchangeability. Each participant could designate the same quantity for exchange, thereby protecting national accountability to ammunition supply chains.
Other events like multinational tank competitions and live-fire exercises present opportunities to exchange ammunition. Most bilateral, multinational, and NATO-sponsored live fire exercises could become candidates for exchanges of everything from small arms to our largest calibers.
NATO can begin to fully integrate ammunition sharing through policy adjustments and implement these changes within the multinational battlegroups. Other multinational tactical forces could be given the same consideration during deployments. The multinational battlegroups present a credible deterrent and provide formidable defensive and denial capabilities. Battle group commanders and national support elements currently keep national ammunition segregated at both training ranges and in readiness stockpiles. In order to increase capability to deter by denial on NATO’s flanks, the multinational battlegroups need the authority to integrate ammunition for training as well as for readiness.
A concept for ammunition sharing inside multinational battlegroups could be managed according to weapons system allocation within a training plan. The troop contributing nations could provide a standard combat load and a training package. The training package could then be consumed across the unit throughout the deployment, returning every element to their home stations at a higher level of readiness, while assuring ammunition interchangeability and interoperability across NATO. The combat load would return to the troop contributing nations, but NATO leaders would have the confidence that the combat loads were available for real world use if necessary.
The concept offered here is just one vision of what is possible at a decisive moment when members are already restocking their national munitions. NATO’s weapons and munitions experts are laboring over ammunition interchangeability details but require national policy in Allied countries to support follow-through for tactical interoperability. There are opportunities to improve ammunition sharing across NATO right now. Encouraging greater participation in initiatives to implement practical ammunition exchanges will further enable the multinational battlegroups to deter war and defend NATO territory.