The Changing Face of Military Liaison
by Peter Williams
Military dictionaries, including the recently published Russia-NATO Glossary, persist in characterising military liaison as an activity that occurs at the operational and tactical level. There is, however, another, higher level dimension to military liaison and it is on this aspect that this short article, based largely on my personal experience, will focus.
Military Liaison in the 20th Century
As an activity conducted by the military, liaison was not invented in the 20th century, but it evolved greatly during the two World Wars and the subsequent Cold War. This is not the place to attempt to document a history of military liaison during that period, but the doyen of the activity was surely Major General Sir Edward Spears who played the role of high level liaison officer between the British and French strategic authorities in both World Wars. A great self-publicist, Spears’ experiences of the politico-military interface are well recorded and covered periods of great importance in the relations between these often uneasy allies.
It was Spears who described his own duties as ‘liaison’, using an apparently simple French word. In reality, however, he was adopting a term from the tactical level and adapting its meaning to cover a more complex set of activities that were played out at a much higher level. However, having been given this new and broader meaning, ‘liaison’ remains a term that has re-emerged at the politico-military level on many occasions over the last half century or so.
Some high level military groups conducted activities that conformed to this broader definition of ‘liaison’, but did so without using the term in the title of their organisation. Thus, during the Second World War, numerous ‘Military Missions’ were set up to enable the Allies to communicate effectively with one another in the struggle to defeat the Axis powers. Similar Military Missions continued in Berlin, as part of the occupation regime, until Germany was re-united in 1990.
The Military Liaison Missions in Germany
However, while their colleagues in the Belgian, Greek and other Military Missions in Berlin carried on their residual military liaison duties, the Cold War also saw the rise of a very different species of mission: the ‘Military Liaison Missions’ (MLMs) in Germany.
The agreements that set up the MLMs were carefully drafted and agreed by the four Occupying Powers and are noteworthy for their lack of precision about the tasks of the MLMs. As a result, given the prevailing post-war atmosphere of distrust between the Western Allies and their Soviet counterparts, from the very beginning the MLMs began to give a new meaning to ‘liaison’: that of ‘maintaining a channel of communication, while also conducting active information-gathering operations against their hosts’.
The official and authoritative histories of the Allied and Soviet MLMs have yet to be written, but the available books and articles make it clear that the reputation of ‘liaison’ as a legitimate military function was put at risk by the special intelligence tasks given to the MLMs. This was because throughout the Cold War the Allied MLMs were very active on the ground collecting whatever they could in those areas of the former Soviet Zone that were open to them. Simultaneously their Soviet MLM colleagues were doing likewise on the territory of the former British, French and US zones.
Whether this was what General Malinin and his Allied counterparts had in mind when they signed their agreements is unknown, but rapidly these ‘unacknowledged tasks’ became the main focus of all the MLMs’ activities during the decades of Cold War tension on both sides of the so-called Inner German Border.
The Allied and Soviet MLMs were de-activated on 2nd October 1990, on the eve of the Day of German Reunification. As far as the Allied missions were concerned, both at the time and in retrospect, they were acknowledged as having been very capable and successful instruments of their national intelligence communities. They provided invaluable technical information and commentaries on Soviet and East German military assets and capabilities, while also maintaining high level military channels of communication between the Four Powers’ commanders-in-chief.
Military Liaison in the 1990s
The demise of the atypical activities of the MLMs in Germany did not bring the need for traditional high level military liaison to an end. Indeed, nowhere was this more evident than in the former Yugoslavia. During the period leading up to the Dayton Agreement in late 1995, the Commander United Nations Peace Forces (UNPF) had at his disposal two assets that could conduct liaison on his behalf.
The first was the Commander UNPF’s Chief Liaison Officer (CLO), who had the thankless, and often unsuccessful, task of shuttling between the warring parties in order to try to resolve UN military concerns, such as access across front lines and the resupply of UN elements cut off in enclaves.
The second asset available to the Commander was the extensive network of unarmed UN Military Observers (UNMOs), who were deployed throughout the former Yugoslavia (except Slovenia). They provided unrivalled and remarkably objective coverage of military and politico-military affairs to Headquarters (HQ) UNPF in Zagreb.
However, the UNMOs had to be constantly aware of the need to concentrate on their mandated tasks, as laid down in specific UN Security Council Resolutions, and not to slip into becoming collectors of information about non-mandated military activities.
In the final analysis, the safety of the UNMOs rested on the trust that they could build and maintain with the local warring parties; without this fragile trust there could be no effective liaison between HQ UNPF and the indigenous military hierarchies.
The second half of the 1990s saw the takeover by NATO of the UN’s military roles in the Western Balkans. Unlike their UN predecessors, the commanders and staffs of the NATO-led forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo were tasked with enforcing the peace and so enjoyed a very different relationship with the local military and political authorities.
For example, in Bosnia-Herzegovina the structure for enforcing the will of the NATO commanders was the Joint Military Commission, whose sessions the indigenous military commanders were obliged to attend. This process was managed for the Commander by the Chief Faction Liaison Officer (CFLO), who enjoyed almost unlimited access to the general staffs and Ministries of Defence of the two Entities. The result was an unusually robust and successful example of ‘liaison’ in action.
Military Liaison enters the 21st Century
The final example of the changing face of military liaison that I would like to raise is within the context of the rapidly developing NATO-Russia military-military relationship. This is epitomised by the NATO Military Liaison Mission (NATO MLM) in Moscow.
The NATO MLM was agreed upon in principle in 1997 in the NATO-Russia Founding Act, but its inauguration was brought to a halt by the Kosovo crisis, when the existing preparations for an MLM in Moscow were cancelled by the Russian authorities.
After the Kosovo war the process was restarted and culminated in the signing of an exchange of letters between the NATO Secretary General and the Russian Defence Minister on 18th December 2001. These arrangements placed the NATO MLM under the aegis of the Belgian Embassy. The inauguration ceremony duly took place on 27th May 2002, when the ribbon was cut by the appropriate NATO, Russian and Belgian representatives.
Whereas the corps of defence attachés accredited to the Russian authorities works with the Russian military authorities through the Directorate for External Relations, the NATO MLM has been given a different point of contact within the Ministry of Defence: the Directorate for International Treaties (DIT).
This unique access is further strengthened by the attachment of a DIT staff officer to the NATO MLM, where he (in fact, currently she) is fully integrated into the processes of the Mission. So far this arrangement has proved to be very successful and provides the necessary flexibility to allow for the facilitation of complex NRC and, where appropriate, Partnership for Peace military-military programmes.
It can be seen, therefore, that ‘military liaison’ has undergone some remarkable changes during the last one hundred years or so. In addition to continuing to be a tactical level activity, it has been adopted by and adapted to the requirements of the politico-military level.
At what was perhaps its nadir, military liaison served during the Cold War as a ‘fig leaf’ for some very non-traditional liaison activities. It then evolved in the 1990s to meet the varying demands within the operational theatres in the Western Balkans. No doubt, similar challenges are also now being faced in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theatres where crisis response operations are being conducted.
Finally, as the new century began military liaison underwent its latest metamorphosis, emerging in the form of the NATO MLM here in Moscow. This is a body that is designed to be transparent and that exists only to facilitate the delivery of the ‘new quality’ of military-military cooperation that was proclaimed by the Rome Declaration in May 2002. This is a challenge that all the 20 (and soon to be 27) members of the NRC must now concentrate on meeting successfully and to date there are solid grounds for cautious optimism.
Published in British Army Review, Autumn 2003.
 ‘NATO-Russia Glossary of Contemporary Political and Military Terms’, Moscow ‘Izdatel’stvo’ 2001, p 359. ‘[Liaison is] that contact or communication maintained between elements of military forces to ensure mutual understanding and unity of purpose and action. The liaison function is particularly important in combined operations involving non-NATO forces in order to maintain proper communication and understanding between the NATO commander and the national military contingents’.
 The most accessible record is his biography ‘Under Two Flags’ by Max Egremont (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1997).
 The British Military Mission to the USSR, for example, worked in what is now the current residence of the British Defence Attaché in Moscow (Bol’shoy Nikolopeskovsky per. 9).
 During the period of the Cold War some of these Military Missions had metamorphosed into consular offices, but they retained their military status because of the attractive conditions that were provided for bodies that were relics of the former occupation regime.
 Colonel General Malinin, the Chief of Staff of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, signed agreements with his three Allied colleagues. The Robertson-Malinin Agreement of 16th September 1946 set up the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany (known as BRIXMIS). On 3rd April 1947, the Noiret-Malinin Agreement established the French Military Liaison Mission (FMLM; MMFL in French) and two days later the Huebner-Malinin Agreement launched the US Military Liaison Mission (USMLM). Reciprocal Soviet Military Liaison Missions (SMLMs) were agreed for the Allied zones of Germany; the group in the British zone was always known as SOXMIS.
 For example, the 13 paragraphs of the Robertson-Malinin Agreement on BRIXMIS cover a mass of administrative points, but do not identify the main tasks of the Mission.
 Two books have emerged in English: ‘Beyond the Frontline: The Untold Exploits of Britain’s Most Daring Cold War Spy Mission’ by Tony Geraghty (HarperCollins 1996); and ‘The Last Mission: Behind the Iron Curtain’ by Steve Gibson (Sutton 1998). The topic is also covered in an unpublished monograph ‘BRIXMIS in the 1980s: The Cold War’s ‘Great Game’: Memories of Liaising with the Soviet Army in East Germany’ by the author, who served for more than four years in BRIXMIS.
 In fact, these ‘non-liaison’ activities often constituted ad hoc confidence building measures. For example, at the time of the Polish constitutional crisis in 1980-81, the Allied MLMs discovered that the Soviet authorities were content for MLM patrols to travel along the autobahns that led through Permanently Restricted Areas (PRAs) to the GDR-Polish border. By doing so the Soviets were able to demonstrate that they were not preparing another 1968-style invasion from the territory of the GDR.
 The Chief of BRIXMIS, for instance, always stressed that his liaison officers were authorised to use their initiative, but that whatever they chose to do must not imperil the long term survival of the Mission, which was of paramount importance to the UK authorities.
 Unfortunately, there is no published evidence to suggest that the CLO was markedly effective in resolving these challenges. This lack of success may well have been because he was an officer from a small country and was representing the UN, which was itself a largely toothless organisation that was faced by local authorities whose primary focus was on winning the war, preferably without having to make concessions to the UN or other outsiders. The situation during the era of the NATO-led IFOR (and later SFOR) could not have been more different.
 During the second half of 1995 over 600 unarmed UNMOs were deployed, often in areas where no other UNPF armed elements were based.
 CFLO was later re-designated Assistant Chief of Staff Joint Military Affairs. The author served as CFLO in the second half of 1998. His article ‘From Coercion to Consent – SFOR’s Endgame’ covered this issue and appeared in BAR 122.
 This was the ‘Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Russian Federation’, signed at the NATO-Russia Summit in Paris on 27th May 1997. It stated that ‘NATO and Russia will establish MLMs at various levels on the basis of reciprocity and further mutual arrangements’.
 Admiral Guido Venturoni, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee; Colonel General Yuri Baluyevsky, 1st Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation; and Minister-Counsellor Fillip Cumps, Embassy of the Kingdom of Belgium.
 Both the Directorate for External Relations and the Directorate for International Treaties are part of the Russian MOD’s Main Directorate for International Military Cooperation.
 The Exchange of Letters makes it clear that more than one Russian officer could be integrated into the NATO MLM. The current NATO members of the Mission are the Head (British Army 2-star general); the Deputy Head (Polish Army colonel); the Senior Staff Officer (German Army colonel); two Staff Officers (US Air Force colonel and Hungarian Navy major) and one Warrant Officer (Polish Air Force) and a Senior Chief Petty Officer (German Navy). Three Russian civilians complete the staff of the NATO MLM.