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Head Modernisation Strategic Planning address to ASPI conference 25 June 2015

Major General Fergus (Gus) McLachlan, AM, address to Australian Strategic Policy Institute Army’s future force structure options conference, Canberra, Thursday 25 June 2015.

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I speak with you today representing an Army impatient for further advancement on the modernisation journey. This is not to imply I arrive at this point in an Army that is stationary, this is not the case. We are well advanced on a path of modernisation that began in the early 2000s and was overseen by more than one retired senior officer in this room today.

To use the Air Force vernacular, we commenced this journey as a 3rd Generation analogue force. While we are not likely to overtake the Air Force on their journey toward being a 5th Generation force, and nor do we want to, we are significantly better informed about what this journey entails than ever before.

To stop or slow down is not an option. Army modernisation is not simply about the purchase and application of digital technology and new armoured vehicles, rather it is a process of modernising Army to be a contemporary fighting force, capable of operating in an increasingly complex world. In my remarks to you today, I intend to give you an insight into the conditions we predict need to drive our modernisation process. I will also explain how these conditions are shaping the force for the future.

I do not intend to pre-empt the release of the Defence White Paper – an unwise tactic for an Army officer speaking immediately before the Prime Minister – rather I will describe the reality that underpins all modernisation decisions.

The facts are these. The world in which our Army may be required to operate will have increasingly dense urban environments. These communities will comprise complex human groupings with conflicting loyalties. These loyalties will be based on deeply entrenched nationalism, ethnicity, tribe, religion and criminal affiliation.

In Australia’s area of direct interest it will also comprise a complex maritime region with thousands of islands, dense population, difficult terrain and the seismic rumblings of the manoeuvring of nation states.

Despite Francis Fukuyama’s assertion that collapse of authoritarian regimes of right and left will in most cases lead to their replacement by liberal governments, suggesting an inevitable progression toward enlightenment, human populations seem determined to continue to fight each other. These populations fight for the same reasons described by the 5th century Greek philosopher and general Thucydides: fear, honour, and self-interest, which somewhat pessimistically predict ongoing human conflict in one form or another.

Some groups, such as ISIL, seem more than willing to reject notions of civilisation and advancement to establish and maintain control over people and territory. While this type of human behaviour is not new, what has changed is that ISIL, and groups like them, now have access to increasingly lethal weapon systems. They also have information technology that was the preserve of only the most advanced nations less than a decade ago, allowing them to communicate globally, and exercise sophisticated command and control locally.

So, despite the protestations of some commentators anchored in an idealised past, the notion of a benign, light-scale Army designed for local peacekeeping actions in the Pacific has little relevance to contemporary Army modernisation.

As the General Officer with primary staff responsibly for modernising the Army, my challenge is to help the Chief of the Army generate a force capable of giving the Government realistic options about how to create a secure Australia and contribute to our global responsibilities in the face of in increasingly challenging security environment.

We can choose to characterise groups like ISIL as an insurgency, able to be contained with the same tools applied in Borneo and Malaya 50 years ago. Or we can recognise that they are representative of an adversary already capable of generating combined arms teams at around sub-unit level. They can coordinate fires in support of ground manoeuvre, combine swarming tactics with sophisticated information operations, and operate across a range of dimensions including the cyber dimension. They have adopted and further modernised the improvised explosive devices we faced in Afghanistan, and they employ the full range of captured Iraqi security force weapons and vehicles. They, and similar groups that will inevitably follow, will close the gap rapidly to an Army that stands still or fails to develop at a reasonable pace.

My remarks today are intended to give you an honest appraisal of where I think we stand on the modernisation journey, and for many of you representing Defence industry I will be seeking your help to maintain our modernisation momentum.

Since taking over as Head of Modernisation and Strategic Planning for the Army, I have been seeking to ensure we have a specific focus on how we create and maintain advantage as an Army. I describe four broad approaches to achieving military advantage: size, platform superiority, human performance and decision superiority. Let me discuss how these relate to our Army modernisation process:

  • Size. In the military context, size or mass has a quality all its own. Even the most advanced and capable forces can eventually be overwhelmed by mass. Our small Army will not be able to rely on size to achieve advantage. Generals Brooks and Burr have spoken about how like minded Armies can achieve strategic mass through cooperative activities so I will not explore this characteristic any further today.
  • Platform or technical superiority. In a region of rapidly growing affluence it will be difficult to keep all three services of the ADF at the leading edge of technology. We will need to be judicious in where we seek to outspend other nations. This will rarely be the sole method our Army relies upon to achieve advantage, but we will fight to keep an edge in certain areas. For example, we will attempt to never fall short of providing our soldiers the levels of protection they need to survive on a contemporary battlespace.
  • Human Performance. This is one of our strengths. We have demonstrated the ability to generate high-quality individuals and teams for many years. We have a military culture that allows decentralised decision-making, encourages innovation and demands cooperation. These are strengths that our modernisation process must maintain and better facilitate.

Finally, an Army can seek advantage through decision superiority. There will be many who want to debate the definition of decision superiority, but I define it simply to mean to empower commanders at all levels to have their forces in the right place and time to achieve local overmatch of mass or technology. This enables us to achieve surprise and if necessary apply violence to force an adversary to change their actions.

So, keep these factors in mind as I discuss our modernisation context.

Let me move to some specific issues.

The Chief of Army has spoken about the challenging roles faced by a modern Army. They range from operations far from home in the face of an aggressive and adaptive enemy like the Daesh or ISIL, to a role as part of an Australian Joint force contribution to our regionally focused maritime strategy.

While these sound like markedly divergent tasks, the democratisation of lethality – the universal access to highly capable weapon systems – has brought the reality of these tasks closer together in recent years. A land force now needs a high level of protection and lethality wherever it deploys. The proliferation of highly capable weapons systems to state and non-state actors will narrow the gap between what have in the past been divergent points on a linear spectrum of conflict — with security operations at one end and so called conventional operations at the other.

As weapons systems with increased lethality, precision, accuracy and range become more widely available, prediction of the 'intensity' of any potential conflict will be difficult. Instead of a linear conflict spectrum we are planning on the basis of an 'ink blotter' spectrum in which there are hot spots of highly lethal close combat across the battlespace, interspersed with benign locations where our forces can move with reduced threat.

At the central point of one of these ink blots the intensity of the experience for the soldiers involved will not differ from those faced by their predecessors in the most intense close combat as part of state-on-state conflict.

In this hybrid environment, Australia's forces must be capable of conducting a range of security tasks with and among the human population, while deploying with sufficient combat weight to prevail in close combat, where and when that eventuates.

This audience is astute enough to suggest that if we have appropriate levels of decision superiority we should be able to avoid such lethal hot spots, or at least stand off and engage an enemy using joint fires. And when this is possible, this is exactly how we will fight. Army expects to be part of joint and coalition operation system in which asymmetric advantage is achieved through the use of the joint effects. Where possible we will conduct land manoeuvre in order to flush out an enemy force. Causing the enemy to move brings them above the detection threshold and they can be destroyed using joint stand off capabilities.

Sadly as we have found in northern Iraq a cunning enemy is not always this cooperative. An adversary will adapt quickly and the land force component must be capable of surviving unexpected contact with an enemy who has been sufficiently well trained to stay below the detection threshold – stay inside buildings, operate out of military uniform and hide among the population.

Despite our best efforts, often a concealed enemy gets to choose where and when the fight starts. Our forces must be able to survive this initial engagement. They can then bring to bear their better training, their access to precision weapons and lethal direct firepower. Our experience is that when our soldiers survive the initial engagement, we win.

It is for this reason we do not apologise for seeking a combat reconnaissance vehicle to replace the ASLAV that has significantly enhanced levels of protection when compared with its predecessor. Will the multi-purpose vehicle we choose fit in a C130? No. Will its weight cause some difficulty crossing small bridges in the littoral environment? Probably. Will it be versatile enough to survive and win in lethal hot spots on a modern battlefield, but also move easily through lower threat areas without disruption to the population? Yes it will. Can it be rapidly deployed on a C17 or landed by a Canberra class LHD? Yes, absolutely. Will it have the sensors and communication systems to enable it to be a node for information to enhance mission command? Yes.

So – we are building your Army to be able to survive and win in a more lethal, complex environment.

We think complex operations will continue to require a mix of general purpose and special operations forces and we think we have this balance right. Special Forces units form an important part of our human performance advantage and in most cases are our test bed for advanced systems. I work closely with Special Operations Command to ensure we can use their agility and innovation to rapidly identify capabilities that will provide us advantage before transitioning these into the remainder of the Army. We have done this very effectively recently with our soldier combat ensemble and micro unmanned air systems and we see the next advantage coming from their highly developed capacity for improving human performance in such areas as joint integration, cultural awareness, physical training and injury recovery.

We also know the contemporary operating environment is a connected one. As well as having increased lethality, our potential adversary now has access to methods of digital command and control that were only recently the preserve of the most advanced nations – hand held digital processors and communications devices can pass imagery and position location, employ encryption and conduct real-time chat in secure forums. Almost any potential adversary is in the contest for decision superiority.

For the past decade, we have been able to assume a level of superiority in this contest. We have access to FVEY strategic surveillance and intelligence capabilities the envy of most nations. We can access the advanced ISR capabilities of our own joint systems such as JORN, space situational awareness, the Wedgetail AEW&C platform and our own UAS.

However, this reliance on decision superiority comes with risk.

An adaptive adversary will study how we seek to achieve advantage, and we know many states already have the ability to disrupt the range of systems upon which we rely: jamming of the GPS signal disrupts precision navigation and timing, penetration of our networks introduces risk of data theft and the insertion of disruptive code, and at the highest end of capability the contested space domain risks denial of our satellite links. Our modernised mission command capability must be resilient and able to operate in a contested space and cyber domain. This will range from the ability to detect malware on our military platforms through to having systems able to operate for extended periods without access to space.

I said I would not predict the outcomes of the White Paper, but I am going to chance my arm here. I anticipate that we are going to commence the transition to what I call the next generation of cyber defence for the ADF. Our national response to the first generation cyber challenge – the threat posed to our internet facing systems – has been world-class. The Australian Signals Directorate is an active part of our national defence on a daily basis. Generation two development will acknowledge that our military systems are no longer stand alone or isolated.

This moves the challenge for cyber defence beyond ASD and into the Army, Navy and Air Force. The emergence of the cyber domain as the fifth domain for military planning (land, sea, air, space and now cyber) is a challenging addition for the Services. What are the new training requirements? What are the new skills that we require? How will we recruit and retain cyber soldiers? Does every soldier now need to be an expert in close combat or will we need increased specialisation? This is new but exciting ground for the Army, and it is one our leadership team embraces and will pursue aggressively.

Let me finish on this theme of digital systems. In May of this year the Chief of the Army signed off on the final operating capability of the first stage of our journey to modernise our command and control systems in the Army. I was a part of this journey as a Brigade Commander and lived the excitement and frustration of the process.

The process, which we have called Digitising the Army under the banner of project L200, has had its critics both within and without Army. And to be honest, in reviewing the process to date, I am reminded of the Irish joke in which a lost tourist stops to ask an Irish farmer for directions to Dublin. The farmer replies: well there’s your problem – I wouldn’t start here. If we were to start the process to modernise our ability to command and control the Army again we would not start from where we are, but we are here all the same and we have learned a tremendous amount in the process.

We have learned that the advantage we seek is not in the digitisation process itself. We will describe the next phase of the journey as Modernising Mission Command, not digitisation. Modernising mission command directs us to where the big advantages are to be found – in the achievement of decision superiority through shared situational awareness, collaborative planning to increase tempo, and the ability to change our tactics so we can move dispersed and rapidly concentrate when necessary.

The big gains are not to be found from the bottom up, but rather through the generation of effects at the command level – from formation, through battle group and into the combat teams where the tempo of our operations is controlled. How do we get these teams to the right place and time on the battlespace to achieve advantage? How do we give them intelligence and imagery to prevent unexpected contact with the enemy?

How do we give them access to the joint fires that will, where possible, allow them to kill their enemy without the need for dangerous close combat? And how do we rapidly regenerate this capability to get these forces onto their next objective before the adversary can react?

Because of what we have learned we have turned the original bottom-up proliferation of systems on its side. We now seek to accelerate the proliferation of digital systems at the right levels to allow the rapid spread of the exciting changes being generated in our Brigades as a result of the modernised mission command systems.

Part of the imperative to change is being driven by the information demands of the modern soldier. They no longer accept top down information push. They know more about what their information needs are than their higher headquarters. They are demanding we move to a post-and-pull system in which we attempt to provide subordinates access to as much of the data as possible so they can search for what they need across data bases and security levels. In a post Snowdon world we have much to do to make this possible.

While we have been down a few cul-de-sacs on the digitisation journey we have also made some very good decisions. We have chosen a robust terrestrial mesh network as the basis of our mission command system. This will give us significant resilience in an environment where access to space is contested. Our system is simple to operate and our workforce – the iPad generation – very quickly master its basics, and often find ways to exceed our expectations in its application.

We are criticised for having more than one battle management system. It is the case that we have two BMS – a BMS fires and a BMS manoeuvre.

Again this is not perfect, and as we plan the next generation of our process to modernise mission command, we will insist on an open architecture approach from our suppliers that moves us beyond proprietary barriers and prevents the need for duplication. That said, for an Army that will need resilience at the same time as it is generating digital mastery, having a redundancy in our systems is proving to be an advantage.

I can tell this audience that we are accelerating into this process every day. We have leaders at all levels in the Army fighting to get involved – pulling our mission command capability, rather than waiting for top-down push. We have a series of risk-reduction activities underway to understand the next set of challenges before we launch into phase two of the process. In the next phase we add our armoured vehicles, the Tiger helicopter, and we deliver a specific set of Brigade command-and-control tools, as well as further proliferating the system into our training institutions.

In this phase, we seek to transition from a bolt-on mission command system to one that is fully integrated into our fighting systems – the Army version of the glass cockpit in Air Force aircraft. We will build in development capacity in the processing power of our platforms so we can eventually link to joint systems through the next generation of tactical data links, and so our vehicles have the capacity to adopt close active protection systems and smart vehicle health monitoring systems.

If there are any in the audience waiting for this process to fail in the hope we might start the journey on their proprietary system, my advice is that holding your breath on this one will simply cause you to turn purple. We have delivered an outstanding Battle Group command-and-control system, and we are now a digitally savvy Army that knows what it wants from this process. Our final validation activity will confirm our ability to operate with our US allies at a network integration activity at the White Sands Range in the United States next year.

If you are from industry and want to sell Army your system then combine these magic words – open architecture – with a description of how your product will allow us to build an integrated system based on agreed protocols and standards.

To stretch the Air Force language, we have moved from a third generation Army and have reached generation four – a level of digital connectivity that is empowering a fundamental change in the way we conduct mission command. Generation five – JSF-level processing power and system connectivity allied to stealth – may remain out of reach for now, but the likelihood we will fail in this process and revert back to analogue processes is well behind us.

Let me conclude with an image that summarises what I have described today.

Imagine please an adaptive and aggressive adversary like the Aidid militia in Somalia in 1993. An adversary embedded in a heavily populated area, almost impossible to differentiate from the population that conceals them. In 2016 or 17 or 18 they might bring down an Australian MRH90 operating from HMAS Canberra with a rocket propelled grenade or a hand held anti aircraft missile. In the 'MRH90 Down' scenario, we would be facing an adversary who has had the chance to start the fight from below our detection threshold. They surround themselves with the local people, often against their will, preventing our use of stand-off joint fires. However, this time, instead of the 1993 techniques using piles of burning tyres to coordinate the actions of their militia force, our adversary would be using smart devices, digital imagery, encrypted chat functions and could probably jam local GPS receivers.

The ground force we would need to send in to recover the crew and passengers of MRH90 down is an example of what drives the characteristics of the force we must build. It will comprise micro combined arms team designed to deal with the most lethal levels of close combat, it will have the protection needed to survive unexpected contact with a dangerous and capable enemy before bringing to bear its advantage in training and leadership. It will have a modern mission command system that gives it the opportunity to adapt to the changing situation faster than the adversary, and it will have the combat weight needed to fight through resistance to achieve its objectives.

In 1993, after losing 18 killed and 73 wounded in what became know as Blackhawk Down, the retiring US Secretary for Defense, Les Aspin, was asked if he had any regrets. He answered simply that he wished he had sent Abrams tanks to Somalia. We are building an Army capable of preventing a similar disaster in the future.

There are a range of modernisation challenges that face our Army that time prevents me from discussing today, but I welcome engagement with you for the remainder of the event. I have not discussed our need to better identify an end-to-end view of simulation. Nor have I discussed how we will continue the process of soldier modernisation through Digger-works, when project L125 concludes in a few years. With additional time, I could describe the challenges faced by our excellent special forces in signature management, biometric data capture and storage and further integration with the other services but my predecessor Jeff Sengelman and I will be with you all today and tomorrow and we welcome such discussions.

After the release of the White Paper we will further analyse our role within a maritime strategy, including further development of our capacity to build partner capacity through international engagement, and to develop land-based anti-access and area denial capabilities. These are exciting times to be in the modernisation game, and I look forward to working with industry and other partners to refine our approach.