The Many Challenges of Building an International Military Coalition

Coordinating several militaries with different budgets, capabilities and goals to carry out a strike against Syria isn’t easy. By Kathleen J. McInnis

As the United States weighs its military options in Syria, a key consideration for the Obama Administration is whether an intervention will be perceived as legitimate in the eyes of the international community. And for good reason. If the international community balks at military action, the interests of the United States will ultimately be undermined. 

But even if international support for action is secured, words are not enough. Allies and partners will need to actually participate in the mission in order to bolster its international legitimacy. In other words, the United States needs to prosecute the Syria intervention through a coalition in order to achieve its overall strategic goals.

Quite apart from the considerable political challenges of building a coalition, prosecuting a war multilaterally is always easier said than done. The problems that arise between coalition partners can be broadly lumped into three categories:  different ideas on what “success” looks like, diverging appetites for risk, and mismatching military capabilities. Indeed, a cursory survey of the post-Cold War experience of coalition warfare suggests that practically pulling it off is really, really hard. 

Operation Unified Protector – the NATO air campaign in Libya – demonstrated how difficult it is to build consensus among coalition partners on what “success” looks like. While the United Nations mandate authorized the campaign in order to protect civilians and enable the delivery of humanitarian relief, it quickly became apparent to some Allies that this objective could never be accomplished while Muammar Gadhafi remained in power. Other allies, notably Germany and Turkey, disagreed.  In so doing, they prevented NATO from adopting a more liberal interpretation of the U.N. mandate. Without getting into the relative merits of each capital’s position, the point is this: allies and partners can -- and do -- have significant differences of opinion on what successfully accomplishing a given military mission actually looks like. With respect to Syria, one imagines this dynamic would be even more acute; Turkey likely has different criteria for an intervention’s success than the United States or the U.K.

Even when there is agreement on the overall objectives of a military mission, not all coalition partners are willing to assume the same degree of risk to accomplish it. The use of caveats -- restrictions nations place on their forces when contributing them to a multinational mission -- is a prime example. Caveats can restrict the types of operations a nation’s force can conduct, the geographic areas in which a force can operate, and so on. It is hardly surprising that more risk-averse nations have generally tended to place more caveats on their forces. But without very careful management, caveats can impede (if not roll back) battlefield success. 

Another example of different risk tolerances having significant operational impact: the Kosovo air campaign. Each of the 19 NATO nations had their own conception of what constituted an “appropriate” target.  Accordingly, NATO capitals exerted tight control over military targeting, particularly during the initial phases of the conflict, much to the frustration of some of the military commanders at the time. Indeed, several Generals at the time argued that these restrictions ultimately ended up prolonging the campaign. Similarly, as the U.S. determines military options for Syria, it must consider that its coalition partners may deem some targets too risky, for humanitarian or other reasons. 

Finally, even when nations express willingness to participate in multilateral coalitions, they are sometimes unable to do so. This became painfully clear during the Libya intervention, when critical military shortfalls (ammunition, refueling, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and supplies) had to be filled by the United States.  As then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the time, “Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t.  The military capabilities simply aren’t there.”  At present, it appears that only France and the U.K. have both the capability and willingness to participate in the proposed sea-based Syria strikes. 

Looking to the future, the mismatch between capabilities will only get more difficult.  Defense budgets are being slashed on both sides of the Atlantic. Sequester is squeezing the U.S. military and follow-on budget reductions will likely make things worse.  And in Europe, as of 2011 austerity measures resulted in approximately $45 billion in defense budget cuts -- roughly equivalent to the entire German military budget.  Yet Libya, Mali and now Syria suggest that defense requirements are actually increasing. Unless nations begin aggressively -- and creatively -- addressing the capability gaps (for example, through pooling of assets and collectively purchasing military equipment), the very ability for allies to meaningfully work together through coalitions will be called into question. 

The Obama administration is undoubtedly considering these factors -- and how to manage them -- as it proceeds with building its Syria coalition.  But in the longer term, the Pentagon needs to take a hard look at how to better manage these dynamics in the future. Working with coalition partners will only become more difficult unless capitals on both sides of the Atlantic solve the capability shortfalls resulting from budget cuts.  

Kathleen J. McInnis is a Research Consultant at Chatham House.  She served as Pentagon strategist between 2006-2009.