It is time to expunge the word synchronise from our military vocabulary

Simplicity is a principle of war. The ongoing pursuit of ‘synchronised effects’ is causing staffs, staff processes and staff systems to grow ever more complicated contrary to the simplicity principle. The resulting demand on commanders and principal staff officers is overwhelming and operations tempo is notably sluggish.

The common observation that staffs do not ‘integrate effects’ well is a symptom of this problem; but it is a symptom of the pursuit of the wrong idea rather than staff inadequacy. The mental model for synchronising effects is inconsistent with warfare’s nature. By definition it is exact, precise, mechanical. Synchronicity demands precise timing and precise action. So it encourages a reactive and methodical approach to warfare akin to France’s disastrous ‘methodical battle’ doctrine of the 1930s - a watch-and-wait attitude that is easily undermined by a bold and aggressive enemy.

The targeting and strike methodologies for special forces and air forces are therefore the exception not the rule in warfare. They play out in a mechanical and staccato rhythm rather than the fluid, uncertain and continuous flow that is warfare in general. Special forces and air forces tend to intervene at moments rather than interact with the enemy and environment continuously like general-purpose ground forces. Their operations are resource and information-intensive. Consequently, their characteristics suit a methodical approach like the set plays in a game of gridiron.

Whereas gridiron is a suitable metaphor for the mechanical and precise methods of special forces and air forces, Australian Rules football is a suitable metaphor for the function of general-purpose ground forces. Rather than the prepared and mechanical precision of the gridiron play, which has a defined start, defined end, and a regular opportunity for respite in-between, Australian Rules football has no real ‘reset’ opportunity. The players are constantly in action to some degree and have greater room for manoeuvre and scope to make their own judgements to position themselves in accordance with their intuitive assessments of a myriad of fluid factors that can change at every moment unlike gridiron players.

The fall of the ball is unpredictable. Depending on how it falls, a player may pick it up and run. Another may bump an opposition player out of the way in support. Another shepherds. Another runs to position to receive the ball. Another is caught out of position and can offer no meaningful contribution at all. None of these mutually supporting actions could usefully be planned or ‘synchronised’ in advance because a slight deviation in the fall of the ball would alter the dynamics markedly, such is the nature of complex systems and such is the nature of warfare. The relationship between forces in battle such as armour, infantry, artillery, engineers, electronic attack plays out the same in battle.

The responses of the players in Australian Rules football are necessarily fluid and infinite in their possibilities. Yet as long as the players have a rough idea of where to be and how their teammates will respond in a given moment, and a rough idea about the nature of the game and its tendencies, they can cooperate. The ‘rough idea’ derives from simple rules that enable infinitely complex yet appropriate responses. Anything other than simple rules and the team grinds down in the rigidity of the players’ methods and the need for too much information when speed is so critical. Their cooperation is therefore always imperfect; but it does not matter because speed of response is critical, opportunities to stop, think and reset are rare, and near enough is good enough just as in war.

It is folly therefore for general-purpose ground forces (artillery and aviation included) to emulate the targeting and strike methods of special and air forces. The Australian Army may benefit from abandoning the pursuit of ‘synchronisation’ and accept, explicitly, a way of warfare that is unrefined, imperfect, simple, cooperative, quick and intuitive. The dynamic and less mechanical and less structured concepts of cooperation and coordination ought to become the new hallmarks of the Australian Army’s way of warfare in lieu of synchronisation because forces need only be employed or positioned roughly and imperfectly to allow for greatest cooperation and the best chance to seize an unanticipated opportunity.

Under this alternate paradigm, control measures and coordinating instructions are still very important, but in a different way. They facilitate cooperation and prevent avoidable friction rather than rigidly synchronising everyone’s actions and the effect of those actions.

Making cooperation the hallmark of the Army’s way of warfare (vice synchronisation) might include breaking down the arbitrary wall between ‘manoeuvre’ planning and so-called ‘joint fires and effects’ planning. Accepting the obvious fact that manoeuvre forces also cause effects, the manoeuvre/effect bifurcation is unnecessary, adding to friction and complexity. The different paradigms for each and the different planning methodologies create an unnecessary seam in the function of staffs manifest in the separation of ‘effects working groups’ and operations planning general. Staffs ought to deal with them together. 

The gridiron-like ‘synchronised effects’ model, which may well be suited to the staccato and mechanical targeting operations of special forces and air forces, is unsuited for warfare generally. It is time for general-purpose ground forces to abandon the failed pursuit of effects synchronisation and replace it with the idea of Australian rules-like cooperation, which also happens to be another principle of war. The reduction in self-induced friction is likely to be profound, like breathing a mass sigh of relief.