Opening address – Chief of Army History Conference 2023

16 November 2023

Good morning and welcome to the Chief of Army History Conference.

We gather today on Ngunnawal country, and I acknowledge and pay my respects to their Elders, past present, and emerging.

I also pay my respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have contributed to the defence of Australia in peace and war.

Thank you to Tim Gellel and his team within the Australian Army History Unit for organizing this conference and assembling such an illustrious line-up of scholars and subject matter experts.

Historians. If I may begin with a salutary reminder as to the importance of understanding our history and indeed the history of others.

I was recently reacquainted with a quote from Karl Marx that I think resonates well in the world in which we live in 2023.

He said “People who can be separated from their history can easily be persuaded”. 

To all of today’s presenters, I express the gratitude of the Australian Army for assisting us to enhance our professional mastery in an aspect of intellectual enquiry which directly informs our most immediate and demanding task.

Our Army has been directed to “transform and be optimised for littoral manoeuvre operations by the sea, land air from Australia”.

We are moving rapidly to implement the Government’s guidance to Army in this regard. But as the sessions at this conference will demonstrate we have been here before.

We are in stride the adaptation of our Army:

An army that will significantly expand and enhance its capacity and capability to operate in the littorals of our region.

An army that will contribute land based strike at relevant ranges against maritime, land and air targets.

An army that will enable operational manoeuvre across the North of Australia to secure the projection of air power from our Continent.

An army that is capable of defending and attacking in the close fight, in complex terrain and prevailing among the most challenging of circumstances.

An army that is relevant and credible in the 21st Century.

And an army that is an indispensable part of the integrated force and sought after ally and partner.

Today, I am especially grateful to Professor Peter Dean for joining us today as our keynote speaker. Peter is the Director, Foreign Policy and Defence, United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Professor Dean was Co-Lead of the 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR) Secretariat where he served as senior advisor and principal author for the DSR.

He has an extensive background in military and defence studies and has authored numerous books and articles on the US-Australian alliance, Australian defence policy and military operations.

Peter has studied Australian operations in the littoral extensively and identified a range of lessons relevant to developing Army’s Littoral Manoeuvre Concept.

You can understand that we are most fortunate to host Peter as our keynote speaker today.

I also wish to individually acknowledge one other presenter today. That is Professor David Horner who is examining Australian amphibious operations in the South-West Pacific theatre between 1942 and 1945. Before his distinguished academic career, David served in the Vietnam War with the Australian Army.

This year we commemorated 50 years since the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

David and the late Professor Robert O’Neill-who held the esteemed Chichele Chair in Military History at Oxford - may justifiably be regarded as the most accomplished soldier scholars that Australia has produced. Both served in the Vietnam War.

Few of us can aspire to such distinction nor to leave such a legacy of published work.

However, every professional soldier worthy of the name must undertake a lifelong journey of learning about the nature and character of war and its place within the broader grand strategy of the nation they serve.

Such study of military is not an end. Rather it is a means of enhancing our professional mastery. We must be curious and discerning in seeking lessons from the past.

It is appropriate at a conference examining operations at the deployment of land forces from the sea, to invoke the pioneer of sea power scholarship, Albert Thayer Mahan, who stated “the study of military history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practices”.

Mahan’s essential theories of decisive fleet engagements were a response to a particular moment in the transformation of navies from sail to steam.

It was up to later theorists, especially Sir Julian Corbett, to provide the brown and green texture to Mahan’s blue water paradigm.

The inaugural President of the US Naval War College at Rhode Island - Commodore Stephen Luce was responsible for nurturing Mahan’s scholarly aspirations by appointing him to the chair of naval history.

His operational experience left him instinctively more joint than his protégé.

Following a discussion with the legendary Union General William Tecumseh Sherman about the sea blockade and land investment of the Confederate Port of Charleston, Luce reflected “Here is a soldier who knows his business!

It dawned upon me that there were certain fundamental principles underlying military operations which it were well to look into; principles of general application whether the operations were conducted on land or at sea.”

It is tempting and easy to dismiss Mahan with hindsight.

But let us recall that he was living through an era of extraordinary technological change and intense strategic naval competition.

Indeed, the very industrial forces driving the shift from sail to steam were also transforming the societies building those fleets and inexorably leading them into strategic competition over resources and trade routes.

British Maritime supremacy was being challenged across the globe. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said “History does not repeat, but it does often rhyme.”

So, if we can make sound strategic choices in an era that is characterized by many of the same dynamics that faced Luce and Mahan. Their analysis was not perfect.

Grand strategy and the design, training, and sustainment of military forces to execute Grand Strategy are innately human activities.

Human foibles and miscalculations walk in lockstep alongside inspired genius.

As Clausewitz reminds us friction is inherent in war as in all human endeavours. Such endeavours do not conform to precise formulae.

Seeking to glean the echoes and rhyming cadences of past strategic dilemmas is intrinsic to the military art.

Understanding the past facilitates our most appropriate response to the present.

We should never squander hard won experience. Especially when it has been won through the sacrifice of the lives of our soldiers.

Sadly, some of the most valuable lessons have been learned thought failure and miscalculation.

That is why events such as this conference are so important.

As I did at the Chief of Army Symposium in August, I extend an invitation to our friends and supporters in the academy and think tanks to join our Army in writing the next chapter of its history.

As the Army of modest scale, we simply do not have the capacity to stay abreast of the full gamut of writing and thinking about war and statecraft as well as the breathtaking pace of technological change that expanding and fusing the domains across which military power is applied.

But to reiterate, it is not conceited to claim that littoral operations are in our DNA. Our Army’s meta-narrative - that of the Anzac Landings at Gallipoli was born amid a contested amphibious assault.

Nor is the 50th anniversary of the end of our Vietnam commitment the only significant anniversary that Army has observed this year.

September marked 80 years since the Lae Landings in the New Guinea theatre. That successful contested lodgement of our forces required and exhibited superb orchestration of joint effects. It merits continuing close study.

And even during my own career Australia has been required to respond to crises in our immediate region at short notice.

The strategic shock of the East Timor crisis in 1999 led to a significant change in our force structure and doctrine.

Later when we assumed leadership of a coalition of regional nations to respond to a request for assistance from the government of Timor-Leste, we demonstrated that we had learned a great deal since 1999.

The rapid deployment of the 3rd Brigade from Townsville by sea and air as well as our capacity to provide these key enabling capabilities to our Pacific partners revealed our adaptability.

The sophistication of that 2006 operation, although permissive would not have been possible by our force in 1999.

In moving to implement the latest direction from the Government we will be building on very solid foundations.

But we cannot do it alone.

What is required is a whole of nation effort.

And I am sincere in seeking your continuing engagement with Army as we grapple with rapidly configuring the force for littoral operations at a time of intensifying strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific.

Our strategic studies and military history communities though vibrant are small and not as well funded as we would like.

Accordingly, we cannot waste the efforts and goodwill of anyone willing to support Army as seek to develop sound doctrine and robust forces.

I am extremely grateful for the goodwill and generosity that brought you here today whether to speak, to listen or to mingle.

This promises to be a salient as well as a very stimulating gathering of thought leaders.

Above all enjoy this splendid event. It will be a day to savour.

I am delighted to open the conference.