Caveats in coalition operations: Why do states restrict their military efforts?

PerMarius3Caveats refer to the reservations states impose on how their forces can operate when assigned to a military coalition operation. Many argue that caveats have been a particular problem for unity of effort in multinational military coalition operations in the post-Cold War period.

The practice of caveats rose to prominence in defense and policy circles with NATO’s ISAF-campaign in Afghanistan, often emphasized as one of the most significant causes to NATO’s lack of operational effectiveness. While states sent troops to Afghanistan, the problem for NATO was that many nations set heavy restrictions on what their forces were permitted to do. Some could not operate at night. Others could not take part in offensive operations. The most commonly used restrictions were perhaps geographical limitations for where forces could operate in Afghanistan.

Caveats are often mentioned in the context of NATO’s operations in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, similar examples of national reservations are well known also from other coalition operations in the post-Cold War era.

While it is unusual for states to fully surrender their military forces to operate under other nations’ command, caveats represent a particular puzzling type of reserved state behavior in military coalitions. Why would states provide a specific military capability and then prevent the coalition from using the full potential of the forces by applying caveats? If a state for some reason finds it necessary to adjust its support to the coalition, would it not be more meaningful to send a military capability that the coalition could use without reservations?

The use of caveats is further puzzling when we take into account how controversial the practice of caveats has become over the last decade. Operationally, caveats hamper coalition commanders’ operational flexibility and often require coalition forces to fight with one hand tied to their back – reducing the coalition forces’ military progress. One U.S. general even referred to national caveats as “a cancer that eats away at the effective usability of troops”. Politically, caveats are contested because they can easily be seen as part of a buck-passing strategy, adding more burdens to those states that do not apply caveats – risking breaking the cohesion among coalition partners.

So, what motivates states to apply caveats to their military forces in coalition operations when such reservations limit military progress and weaken the political cohesion in the coalition? In my recent study on the use of caveats by Denmark, Norway and The Netherlands during the NATO operation in Libya, I found that there are three possible causes that can lead to caveats.

First, confronted with the question of whether or not to join military coalition operations, many governments have found themselves between a rock and a hard place – between external pressure for supporting allies and domestic skepticism about what the external pressure demands and exactly how to respond to it. To gain sufficient domestic support for making a military contribution to a coalition, it might be necessary for a government to add caveats to address concerns among political parties that can block the decision to make a contribution. For a government eager to see their forces take part in coalition operations, it might be better to make a reserved contribution than to make no contribution at all.

Second, the use of caveats is rarely fully determined by the need to make a domestic political compromise. Domestic factors help to explain whether or not there will be caveats, while external pressure helps to explain the form that such caveats takes. Clever national policy-makers will spot opportunities for how caveats can be implemented. By adjusting how caveats are practiced, more of the units’ military value to the coalition operations can be maintained. As such, decision-makers can secure a better balance between, on the one hand, to make a more relevant contribution to a coalition’s demand for military support and, on the other, maintain domestic support for such a contribution.

Third, with unanimous domestic support for a nation’s military participation in a coalition operation there is another possibility for caveats. Ideally for the purpose of utilizing the military resources at the coalition’s disposal, a coalition commander would like to have no national strings attached to the contributed units under his or her command. However, cutting off every national string to a national military unit to ease the challenges with coordinating military effort might be counter-productive. In lack of clear guidance from their national principals, military officers might themselves apply reservations in fear of reprimands or of causing domestic political crisis by simply following coalition orders.

In military coalitions, operational effectiveness hinges on states’ ability to coordinate their military efforts. The phenomenon of caveats in post-Cold War coalition operations illustrates how national control have challenged states’ ability to coordinate their military efforts when operating together and how this has affected coalition forces’ operational effectiveness. With different causes leading to caveats, there is no easy solution to make a stop to the growing practice of caveats in coalition operations. To overcome the practical problems that caveats create, policy-makers and military decision-makers should develop a better understanding of the reasons for why caveats appear.

Per Marius Frost-Nielsen was a PhD candidate at the  Department for Sociology and Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences and Technology Management, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, Norway. He is the author of “Conditional commitments: Why states use caveats to reserve their efforts in military coalition operations”, Contemporary Security Policy, 38, forthcoming. It is available here.