LANPAC 2024 Speech from Chief of Army

15 May 2024

A Multi-Domain Approach to the Defense: An Australian Perspective 

It is a great honour to address this Conference.

To the military professional, history is not merely about commemoration. History - especially military history - provides valuable insights into statecraft and warfare.

The past is, indeed, prologue for military professionals.

So today, I am acutely aware of the weight of history as we gather near Pearl Harbor. The attack of 7 December 1941, on that fleet base, brought the United States into the Second World War, connecting three theatres into a truly global conflict.

In the perilous days after that tragic event, the Australian continent was directly attacked for the first and only time so far in our history.

Our alliance with the United States was forged during the Pacific War.

And paradoxically it inextricably linked our history and our future to that of Japan, a nation that is now a highly trusted security partner and vital trading partner to Australia.

It was a great honour to sit alongside my colleague General Morishita this morning, as we discussed our shared challenges.

Many of those states that emerged from colonialism in the aftermath of the Second World War, who are represented here today, were impacted deeply by the fighting across South-East Asia and the South-West Pacific.

Geography made us neighbours.

History made us allies.

A shared commitment to regional security and stability has now made us friends and partners.

In our National Defence Strategy, published last month, the Australian Government assessed our strategic environment as “the most complex and challenging since the end of the Second World War.”

While concluding that war in the Indo-Pacific is not inevitable, it asserts that strategic competition between the United States and China is “entrenched” and will increase, thereby constituting the “primary feature of Australia’s security environment.”

This document represents the most profound shift in Australia’s defence strategy since the 1980s.  This, in my view, is a wholly necessary shift if Australia is to meet the challenges of the future.  

It will fundamentally shape our military posture and approach to the region in the decades to come.

The National Defence Strategy directs that the Australian Defence Force must adapt to meet contemporary threats: to shift from a ‘balanced force’ to a ‘focussed force’, to be more capable, more lethal, and more integrated.

Integration is vital. It means that the ADF must be able to apply military force across all five environments - the traditional physical domains of land, sea, and air, and the newer domains of cyber and space.

By integrating force across these ‘domains’, and then by working with all branches of Government, the ADF will make the whole far more than the sum of its parts.  

The Australian Government has therefore concluded that it is no longer sufficient to have a ‘joint’ force that converges in effect.  We instead require an integrated force, developed and applied by design from first principles.  In many ways, we are seeking to go beyond the doctrines of ‘jointery’: an ambitious adaptation, but a necessary one for a modest force.

This Integrated Force will be capable of imposing such a cost as to deter an aggressor by changing their calculus.  The aim is that an aggressor concludes that the risks of aggression are too great.  

The Integrated Force will build relevant, ready and credible asymmetric military forces to deter conflict, and to deny any adversary’s attempts to project power against Australia.  

This is Australia’s National Defence Strategy: a Strategy of Denial.

The Strategy envisages an Australian Defence Force that can achieve five tasks:

•    Defend Australia and its immediate region
•    Deter through denial any potential adversary’s attempt to project power against Australia through our Northern approaches
•    Protect Australia’s economic connection to our region and the world
•    Contribute with our partners to the collective security of the Indo-Pacific and;
•    Contribute with our partners to the maintenance of the global rules based order

The Australian Army’s mission and role in this inherently defensive – if proactive – strategy is clear.  We are to ‘prepare land power to enable the Integrated Force in competition and conflict’.  

We are the Integrated Force’s experts in land combat, a role that history tells us is vitally and inextricably linked to deterring aggression, and to compelling the cessation of conflict should it come.

The Australian Army is adapting to achieve this mission and role against today’s challenges.  Note that I deliberately use the term ‘adaptation’, rather than ‘change’.  There is a difference.

‘Change’ implies a transition from one state to another: a process with a defined end.  ‘Adaptation’, on the other hand, implies an adjustment to a new set of conditions: a process by which (like in nature) we become better fitted to our environment.  

Adaptation is no longer a phase for the Australian Army, it is a constant.

Australia’s primary area of military interest is a region of islands and archipelagos that form a ‘land bridge’: one that connects Australia to the Pacific and South East Asia.  So we are becoming a force optimised to fight in the ‘littoral’: the areas of the sea that influence the land, and the areas of the land that influence the sea.

The ‘littoral’ is a broad term that goes well-beyond the physical environment.  It includes the land, rivers, jungles, coastal waters, people, cultures, the urban areas, and the airspace above.

And more so than ever today it includes both the electromagnetic spectrum that characterises the littoral zone, and the space effects that can be delivered into it from above.

In the littoral – and across the battlespace – we are seeing technological change of a pace and scope perhaps unseen in the history of warfare.

We are witnessing the exponential proliferation of sensors. This is making some domains almost transparent whereas others – such as those on the land, under the sea and in cyber-space – are filled with ‘clutter’: something that offers opportunities and threats.

Technology is evolving what armies can achieve: most obviously seen in the effect of missiles launched from the land against ships, the strategic value of which both the Houthis and the Ukrainians have clearly demonstrated in recent months.  Sea denial and sea control from the land is now within reach of even modest armies.

The Australian Army is adapting to be able to deploy deep into the littoral battlefield, by air, sea, and land, and to fight across all the domains from this decisive terrain.  

We are building capabilities that are both relevant and credible in this evolving battlespace.

Weapon ranges sit as a dominant example of this evolution.  We live in an era where all weapon ranges – from the humble battle-shot to the ballistic missile – are expanding exponentially.  As our National Defence Strategy points out, this is eroding one of Australia’s greatest strengths: our geography.  No longer can our remoteness and inaccessibility protect us against attack.

The Australian Army is adapting as a result to both take advantage of these expanded weapon ranges, and to build the defences to defeat long-range attacks.  

These evolutions require new ideas as much as they require new equipment.  We must re-think our concepts of the ‘close’ and the ‘deep’ battle … building an Army that conceives, executes and enables operations over hundreds and even thousands of kilometres, across all domains … rather than the old ways of tens of kilometres just on the land.

We must be ready for the inevitable action / reaction / counter action cycle that the injection of high technology into warfare inevitably drives.  We must remember that history tells us that technology alone is rarely decisive.  

It is instead how technology is absorbed into our doctrines, and leveraged by our cultures, that is most often battle-winning.

I would suggest that the US Army Pacific Multi-Domain Task Force is a strong example of such absorption and adaptation.

Above all, the Australian Army is integrating with the rest of the ADF, and with our allies and partners in the region.  We must support the Integrated Force from the littoral, and must be able to be supported from the other domains in turn.  

However, let’s not mystify multi-domain operations more than necessary.

Rather than treating multi-domain operations as something specific, it is fair to ask, “is there now any other kind of military operation?”

As the US Secretary for the Army Christine Wormuth has said:

““The wars of the future are not going to be fought in one or two domains and are not going to be fought by one or two services,” she said. “They are going to be fought across multiple domains. They will require a joint force to prevail on the battlefield, and it will require a combined joint force.”

However, the decisive domain is still likely to remain on land.

That is because people live on the land.  It is from the land that Governments apply statecraft, linking politics and conflict through Clausewitz’s timeless discourse.  And it is on – and indeed over the control of – land that wars most often start and end.

Across the spectrum of conflict from competition through humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping to large-scale combat operations, land forces provide persistent presence, reassurance, and security to populations.

As the Chief of our Army I welcome opportunities such as this conference to lay out the value proposition of land forces, which are too often underestimated in open-source commentary about contemporary conflict.

Discussions of strategy too often descend rapidly from framing and defining the ‘ends’ to single-minded discourse on ‘means’. Indeed, the focus is often almost exclusively on ‘means’ … with ‘means’ being synonymous with vehicles and equipment.

Some argue, for example, that the proliferation and impact of remotely piloted aerial systems in Ukraine and the Middle East represent a revolution in warfare.

Like Stacie Pettyjohn of CNAS, I view this instead as evolutionary: neither starkly novel nor markedly decisive in terms of outcomes.  The provision of this technology has benefited both sides equally, caught in the timeless cycle of action, reaction and counteraction that is common in the history of warfare.

If such technology is not decisive, it cannot represent a revolution.  It is decisiveness that is the true marker of strategic effect.

NATO forces in Afghanistan were able to rely on real time signals intelligence to cue drones against targets with unprecedented precision.

To paraphrase Hilaire Belloc, “We had the drones, and the Taliban did not.”

Yet technology did not prove decisive in that war, just as the more sophisticated forces in Ukraine and Gaza have not achieved swift or decisive success.

Motivated ground forces - on the defensive - can impose delay and great costs on more sophisticated forces, including those at sea.

That lesson is as old as Thermopylae.

Ignoring such evidence, many commentators discern the imminent extinction of combined arms capable land forces … the end of land combat itself.

Some contend that technology will soon replace soldiers.

That the Golden Age of Artificial Intelligence will deliver conflict free of bloodshed, and devoid of risk

I refer to such thinking - the predictable illusion of every interwar period - as “New Bomber Theories”.

As military professionals we can recognise the wars in Ukraine and Gaza as a microcosm of modern multi-domain operations: the balance of war’s enduring nature against its changing character.

Land forces are being enhanced and enabled by technology … but equally they are being forced to adapt in a never-ending effort to gain an advantage.

Yes, fusion of intelligence, targeting data and information warfare is being enabled by space assets in real time … to a scale that is new in warfare.

However, the point of decision remains on the ground amongst the people.

The close combat in complex urban terrain in Ukraine and Gaza – an exemplar of the ‘clutter’ of the land domain – demonstrates the limitations of technology. No one has yet solved the problem of the last 100 metres … the last bound to the trench line.

As Thomas Fehrenbach told us after the Korean War, and even in the context of the atomic age, the final arbiter of a conflict is likely to be ‘the soldier on the ground with a gun’.

No amount of wishful thinking nor technology has eliminated close quarter fighting in the need to take, hold, or defend terrain … nor in achieving our central duty of protecting populations and people.

The enduringly human nature of war means that leadership, individual and collective will, and the moral component of fighting power remain crucial to any hope or prospect of victory.

This is the case in multi-domain operations today and will be in the future.

As the respected American analyst of warfare Stephen Biddle has observed the fighting in Ukraine resembles as much the Great War as it does ‘Star Wars’.

We need to keep all these factors in mind – technology, lethality, multi-domain operations, integration – when we think about the Army’s contribution to the defence of Australia.

Old thinking perceives the maritime approaches to Australia simply as a sea-air gap, capable of being exclusively defended by sea and air platforms.

Australia’s National Defence Strategy conceives of it instead as complex sea, air, land - and in particular littoral – terrain: densely populated, in which integrated forces, in conjunction with allies and partners, must work together to develop and exploit windows of opportunity that converge military effects across multiple domains.  

Even more so, we must do this as part of a whole of Nation … and potentially even a whole of region … effort that supports our collective security.

Land forces are – in my view – an enduring, indispensable element of the combined joint and interagency team.

And the demographic trend towards urbanisation and congestion in proximity to the littoral zones of our region is intensifying.

The reconfiguration of the Australian Army to operate and thrive in the littoral regions is a response to this trend.

Our forces will be equipped and trained to support friends, allies and partners where common interests prevail, and where shared effort strengthens deterrence.

And we will be ready to control access to Australia’s population and resources by exploiting the complex land, sea and air approaches to our continent, operating into and from within the littoral.

Although not large in numerical terms, the Australian Army will exploit the idea of integration – a whole-of-ADF / whole-of-government / indeed whole-of-nation – ethos to make the whole far more than the sum of our individual parts.

By being present and persistent in key terrain, we can place the burden of aggression on our adversaries.

In particular, the enhancement of anti-access area denial capabilities, especially land-based maritime strike, provides conventional land forces and Special Forces with lethal asymmetric capabilities.

A small team of soldiers carefully positioned and well concealed in strategic terrain, can now inflict serious damage on an expensive and sophisticated ship.  

As Lord Nelson once said, ‘a ship’s a fool to fight a fort’.  Never before has this been a truer statement than in a region increasingly dominated by long-range, land-based fires and indeed uncrewed maritime systems.

Let me hasten to add that this is not a single-Service pitch, but a contribution.

I believe it is incumbent on Army leaders to provide an evidence-based, strategically-aligned and contemporary vision of the value proposition of land power, in the Indo-Pacific, in the 21st Century.

The logic of this value proposition is sufficiently clear to Australia that we are about to invest in the transformation of the Australian Army, ensuring the generation of land power that is both credible and relevant to the future.

We are significantly enhancing the Army by building capabilities in force projection, long range strike and close combat: an effort that is squarely focussed on ensuring that our land force is relevant and credible in all domains.  

An enhanced contribution of land power to the Integrated Force is the ultimate outcome.

This adaptation is not a one off event or project - it is to be achieved by continual adaptation better responding to the dynamic nature of the operating environment.

It is both a rewarding and challenging time to be an Australian soldier.

Nor is such adaptation new in our history.  Littoral and amphibious operations are in our DNA.  Between 1942 and 1945 our Army fought a long and hard campaign in the South- West Pacific and South- East Asia, defending Australia from the most direct threat in our history.  

At one stage Australian soldiers – alongside our sailors, aviators, allies, and partners – fought on a littoral frontage from Bougainville to Borneo: a battle line, as our historians tell us, longer than the distance from Sydney to Perth … and equal to the distance from the Normandy beaches to the Persian Gulf.  

Last year our Army marked the 80th anniversary of the Lae-Wewak campaigns, the most complex joint forcible entry amphibious operations ever conducted by Australian forces.

And November marked the 80th anniversary of battle for Tarawa where the United States Marines Corps overcame very staunch resistance in an amphibious operation of exceptional courage and skill.

The United States Marine Corps was perhaps more rigorous than we were in the considered study of the Gallipoli campaign.

In Australia that amphibious campaign gave birth to a powerful narrative about Australian patriotism and identity.

It shapes our Army’s place as a national institution.

But it took longer for its relevance to our Army as a fighting force to be fully understood.

The United States Marine Corps refined doctrine and tactics that were vital to the success of the littoral operations of the Pacific War.

The past is indeed prologue.

Those brutal battles across the Timor Sea, New Guinea and the South West Pacific were fought because deterrence had failed.

Our main aim now is to ensure that the spectre of failed deterrence does not darken the region again.  This is the explicit aim of Australia’s new defence strategy: to deter any conflict before it begins

We seek to do this alongside our longest-standing allies and partners in the region.  We are committed to a Pacific-first approach to security, through the strong and deep relationships we have built over decades in the region.  

We desire regional security and stability, and a favourable regional strategic balance.  We want to successfully manage the escalating strategic competition in our region.

We seek to ensure that no country attempts to achieve its regional objectives through military action.

But it would be professionally irresponsible for us not to be ready should deterrence once again fail in the region.  

The past reminds us that far too often conflicts have begun due to misunderstanding, miscalculation, or misadventure.  We cannot rule this out.  History has rhymed too often.

So, the Australian Army stands ready to respond with credible military force should we be required to do so.  We will deny any potential adversary from taking actions that would be inimical to Australia’s interests.  We will prevent any adversary from succeeding in coercing Australia through force.

The most powerful tool we have in succeeding in this era of strategic competition is not the weapons we have, nor is it technology.

It is the people here today, who represent the network of land forces that exists throughout our region.

As our host General Flynn recently reminded us in the US Naval Institute ‘Proceedings’ magazine, ours is a region of armies.  Land forces represent the bulk of Indo-Pacific regional allies and partner military capabilities.

The mass of these land forces varies from hundreds to many hundreds of thousands … but our role as the experts for our nations in land combat ties us together.  Mass often matters, but culture matters even more.

This network is not new.  It reflects our shared history and geography.  Today, it is more relevant than ever.

In my two years in office so far I have seen an exponential growth in multilateral communication, coordination and cooperation.

The indispensable human elements of shared training, of personnel exchanges, and persistent presence in each other’s countries.

Exchanges of personnel to build confidence and trust among partners and even competitors.

And where national interests align, we help each other in disaster and humanitarian crisis: a vital contribution in our shared grappling with the challenges of climate change.

All of which contributes to a practical demonstration of collective capacity and the demonstration of collective will.

So, from my perspective, the most important contribution we have to multi-domain operations in the defence is each other.  We are stronger together.

In conclusion, I wish to thank the Association of the United States Army for hosting this event.

Apart from the outstanding opportunity to broaden professional learning this conference brings together military professionals from across our region.

These are challenging-indeed perilous times.

And time is not on our side.

The assessment of my government is that the risks of conflict are greater than they have been since the end of the Pacific War that began with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Our coming together at events such as this, and the thickening of our practical cooperation, demonstrate our resolve.

They build on vital human connections.

They assist in dialogue.

And it is only through such dialogue – and the professional collaboration that follows – that we can ensure that our region remains peaceful for generations to come.