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Networks Are Strategic

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

The National Security Strategy identifies US ally and partner networks as vital to advancing American Influence. In this short piece below, Lt Col Arnel David, writes about one Department of Defense (DoD) program that strengthens these human networks. It is about the Military Personnel Exchange Program (MPEP) and this article sheds light on this longstanding yet not commonly known opportunity. Read on to learn about the MPEP and how it is fostering relationships, improving interoperability and contributing as a deterrent factor by showcasing US partner power with these robust human networks.

Photo Above: Capt Bryan Von Dohlen with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment considers mission details with a Lithuanian officer during an exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, Hohenfels, Germany. Courtesy of US Army SPC Nathaniel Nichols

In the military, we often conceive of power as the ability to project and use force. While this form of physical power is fundamental for militaries, there are other expressions of power of equal importance to safeguard our ability to fight and win wars: our networks of allies and partners.

From assisting with strategy to instructing at professional military institutions and even flying together on combat missions, the U.S. Army has networks of exchange personnel embedded in armies around the world to work with our allies and partners.

One of these networks is DoD’s Military Personnel Exchange Program. This program has been in existence since late 1944 with the first exchanges in Mexico, followed by the U.K. and Canada. The effort has grown rapidly in the past decade, with positions in every region of the world and including general officers. A new general officer post and more opportunities in France are expanding early next year. The Army currently has over 150 soldiers involved in exchanges with 16 countries under the Military Personnel Exchange Program.

Soldiers in the program gain a rewarding experience by embedding within a host nation to understand its culture and national idiosyncrasies, but beyond the individual experience and benefit, the effort is strategic. The program nests directly up to the National Security Strategy, which in 2017 stated, “Allies and partners magnify our power.”

Above Photo: Then-Col Matthew J. Van Wagenen, far right, discusses plans with a British division commander, center, during a multinational command post exercise near Salsibury, England, in 2015. Courtesy of US Army MAJ Junel Feffrey

"Allies and partners magnify our power."

Relationships Count

Speaking in October 2018 at the U.S. Army Europe Conference of European Armies in Wiesbaden, Germany, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley said the United States’ network of allies and partners is 10 to 12 times more powerful than any network of any of our competitors. It follows that a centerpiece of modern deterrence is our network of key relationships. Like all relationships, maintenance is required.

The most senior Military Personnel Exchange Program officer in the U.K., American Army Brig. Gen. Matthew J. Van Wagenen, immediately recognized this upon his arrival in July 2018. After only a month on the ground, he realized the human network of Military Personnel Exchange Program officers in the U.K.—some 40 strong—was not mapped out so we could tell who was working with whom, in what U.K. units, and with what organizations back in the U.S. He implored me and a team of other program members to create a diagram to depict every soldier’s objectives and their connections within the network.

The team started by establishing a messaging platform through the commercially available communication program, Slack. This enabled the team to collaborate on channels of communication where files could be shared, data passed and information awareness sustained in real time using smartphones and laptops. The speedy communication aided in collecting data required to build a diagram of exchange personnel, and we leveraged the latest commercially available network analysis tools to study our human network.

The diagram helped myriad entities tremendously. For Military Personnel Exchange Program personnel, it showed the various expertise U.S. soldiers had on the ground across the U.K. For U.S. Army Europe staff and the U.S. Embassy team, they can now quickly navigate to a U.S. contact in the network for coordination.

For U.S. Army headquarters staff, the diagram shows what capabilities and knowledge each exchange officer can provide to the British Army, and enables the team to conduct a deeper analysis of the relative importance of each post having a purpose that is nested up against U.S. policy objectives. For example, an initial look at the diagram revealed heavy representation on the education and training side of the British Army rather than placement in its fighting units, which slightly contradicted the new focus of Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe.

Photo Above: US Army Europe commander Lt Gen Christopher Cavoli speaks at the Munich Security Conference. Courtesy of German Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Mark Winkler.

Cavoli has a primary focus of improving the efficacy of warfighting and “setting the theater,” which will influence changes to near-term placement of Military Personnel Exchange Program soldiers. Cavoli emphasized the importance of the network in a February discussion with a group of British exchange personnel assembled at the British 3rd Division Headquarters, stating, “Every one of you is a critical point of influence to help improve interoperability.”

Setting Goals

Lee Fennema, manager of the Military Personnel Exchange Program in Europe, seeks to improve U.S. Army Europe programs with three goals in mind. The first, and perhaps most important, is to find the right talent. Working in another country as an embedded soldier is not for everybody. It requires the right aptitude, attitude, communications skills and emotional intelligence. Placement in some countries requires language training, and this means identifying personnel early to coordinate school dates or testing for those who may already have requisite language skills.

The second goal is to build upon the network diagram by expanding its use into a cloud computing environment where artificial intelligence and machine learning can help manage data and illuminate key relationships. Imagine capturing all the relationships and connections between people in exchange assignments and school postings.

Fast forward 10 years to a war with a combined joint task force. You are a three-star commander with a deputy two-star from the U.K. By accessing a database of past exchange officer information, you discover your deputy worked closely with a friend of yours who was an exchange officer in the U.K. five years before. You reach out and consult him to learn that your new British deputy is a solid character who is trustworthy, competent and hardworking with unique skills that can be leveraged to support the command. Relationships move at the speed of trust, and anyone who has worked in a multinational coalition can appreciate the inevitable friction of learning to work together. It is important to leverage current technology to help track, manage and assess relationships to accelerate learning and knowledge discovery.

All efforts should nest within the broader theater strategy. Exchange personnel should be aware of foreign military sales efforts, have a shared understanding of interoperability challenges, and be aware of higher headquarters’ missions and objectives. Equally important, Brig. Gen. Van Wagenen emphasized that every exchange soldier should know their own army to be of best value to our partners. The general encourages discourse among Military Personnel Exchange Program personnel. They stay in touch and keep up with what the U.S. Army is doing with respect to modernization, training and operations. The team also helps work through the challenges of operating in such a unique assignment where the nearest American facility might be over three hours away. Each Military Personnel Exchange Program assignment has varying degrees of difficulty with administration and support depending on its distance from a U.S. base or facility.

The Right Character

Maj. Gen. Andrew Rohling, U.S. Army Europe deputy commanding general, is attacking such administrative challenges to improve the Military Personnel Exchange Program experience for those serving in Europe. However, it’s not for everybody, and the right type of character is essential for representing the U.S. Army in our partner formations. Many of our partners look up to the U.S. as the gold standard for defense and therefore, we must do our best to deliver on that expectation by selecting the right people.

Our network of alliances is a form of power that our adversaries try to erode to limit U.S. power and influence around the world. We cannot take this source of strength for granted. As Cavoli pointed out to Military Personnel Exchange Program members, “Every one of you is a critical contribution to the fight. We have to help improve interoperability with our partners and strengthen the alliance.”

History teaches that alliances matter. They can be the decisive edge to deter, and if necessary, win any future war.

U.K. Chief of the General Staff Gen. Sir Mark Carleton-Smith summed it up well in March during the 73rd Kermit Roosevelt Lecture at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, saying:

“The challenge is to ensure that our military relationship, underwritten by security forces of successive generations, and that we’ve paid for in blood and sacrifice, doesn’t come to seem like the final chapter in a fading affair, rather than the backbone of our future in a more competitive world in which history is far from finished with us.”

The web of Military Personnel Exchange Program human networks not only builds partner capacity but also provides points of influence, increases interoperability and ultimately, is the bulwark of protecting critical relationships with partners and allies.

Lt. Col. Arnel P. David serves as the U.S. special assistant to the chief of the General Staff of the British Army, Andover, England. Previously, he was chief of staff for the Army Future Studies Group, formerly the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group, Washington, D.C. He is a co-author of Military Strategy in the 21st Century: People, Connectivity, and Competition.


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