Australia, expeditionary warfare and maritime strategy

Clausewitz believed that the ways and means of warfare were determined by a combination of four factors; the characteristics of the belligerents, the context of their situation, the 'spirit of the age' of war, and the nature of war itself.1His view may seem self-evident to any student of war, but as strategist Colin S. Gray writes, militaries and strategic policy makers often conceptualise without a deep understanding of the conditions intrinsic to a military's approach to war.2  Sir Julian Corbett’s 1914 theory of maritime strategy was born from such a concern. As a historian and academic, Corbett was dissatisfied with the theories of war espoused by continental theorists Clausewitz and Jomini and emulated within the British military. Thus, he sought to produce a theory of war that reflected the characteristic conception of the British tradition'.3 As the ADF implements strategic policy through a 'Maritime Strategy' one hundred years after Corbett's concept was penned, it is worthwhile considering how this British strategy relates to Australia's own approach to war. Perhaps the Australian Defence Force's strategic leanings reflect something else than such a 'Strategy' suggests.

The Australian military has always had an expeditionary orientation, but has a far more flirtatious relationship with Corbett's concept. Evoked in the late 1990s by Chief of Army Lieutenant General Frank Hickling, and vociferously promoted by prominent military academics like Michael Evans, Albert Palazzo and Russell Parkin since, maritime strategy has long been a prominent theme of Army force development. Yet Army, and the ADF more broadly, has had a mixed history of moving from tradition to produce concepts and modernisation outcomes that reflect the arguments of such authors. Considerable effort has certainly been directed at maritime strategy since the USMC coined the post Cold-War age as the 'new anarchy' and reinvigorated Corbett's ideas in their idea of the 'expeditionary operation'. Australia's operational experiences within the region in Timor–Leste, Solomon Islands and other locations attest to the virtue of such attention.

Nonetheless, as Army reflects upon the institutional lessons of near two decades of military operations, set amid the development of new strategic policy that should, in theory, guide the ADF's operations, it is worthwhile considering why the adoption of a maritime approach has been intrinsically challenging for the ADF. These considerations are all the more vital given Army now describes its modernisation in the context of 'archipelagic manoeuvre' in the 'urban-littoral'. If this self-assessment is not undertaken, it is quite possible that Army might stray from the lessons of Clausewitz, Corbett and Gray and thus prepare itself in a way that is deleterious to modernisation choices and even operational outcomes.

The impressive Canberra-class vessel docked in Sydney Harbour might cast a shadow over minds within and without the ADF, as does the considerable effort undertaken to develop amphibious capability by Headquarters 1st Division and the 2nd Battalion. But the Australian, expeditionary, approach to war is not so easily defined by maritime strategy and what it purports. Failing to understand all aspects of the Australian application of expeditionary warfare can therefore be a conceptual trap. Already the oversimplification of the topic has resulted in the reduction of ideas on expeditionary warfare to arbitrary debates between 'continentalist/navalists' and those with other beliefs; perpetuating ideas that can, in time, become unhelpful shibboleths.4 Such arguments overly limit the exploration of ideas by military planners and concept writers and as such unconsciously shape potential operational outcomes. Alternatively, as others have argued, we can conflate the topic and assert many different types of maritime strategy exist; an approach that risks confusion and even the obscuration of ideas.5  Peter Dean only recently commented that collectively we have a poor understanding of what 'expeditionary' actually means, or what to be 'expeditionary' actually entails.6  Therefore, it is clearly more relevant to us to understand what to be expeditionary might mean for the ADF, and in doing so better understand the difference between 'big-M' Maritime Strategy, a strategic policy approach, and 'little-m' maritime strategy reflected in Corbett's theory of warfare.7

Undoubtedly some would see this as an academic discussion with little practical relevance to the modern Army. Corbett himself questioned the value of theory, describing it as lacking any promise ‘of useful result’.8 However, theory and historical assessment allows us to navigate the fads, 'buzz-words', half-baked ideas and imitation to which military concepts writers and operational planners are often prone. Expeditionary warfare, and Australia's practice of it, offers a fertile field of diversions that are ultimately ill-disposed to a proper understanding of the Australian approach to warfare. But there are costs in forgoing an understanding of Australia's approach to expeditionary warfare, an idea far broader than Corbett's maritime strategy, for these vacuous temptations are real. Indeed a variety of strategic challenges are becoming increasingly evident, from the prevalence of 'anti-access, area-denial weaponry' in the region to other matters that influence Australian decisions to deploy forces on operations, that could render the assumptions implicit in Australia's 'Maritime Strategy' and subsequent concept and capability development redundant. Gray captures this idea in his warning on strategic policy, 'when we believe we have found the answer, someone changes the question'.9 Before Army, and the wider ADF, embarks upon a revision of strategy and operational concepts when new strategic policy is released in 2015, it is necessary that it examines expeditionary warfare, maritime strategy and its rich strategic and institutional history to make worthwhile conclusions on the Australian approach to war. If it does not, the ADF risks an inconsistent approach to strategy and modernisation that will only limit it in the future

Lieutenant Colonel D.J. Beaumont's research paper, 'Expeditionary Warfare and Military Operations under a Maritime Strategy', will be published on 20 August 2015.

1  C. von Clausewitz, On War, translated and edited by M. Howard and P. Paret, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984, p 594

2  C. Gray, Transformation and strategic surprise, Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, 2005, p. 15.

3  J. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1914), Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988, p. 14

4  A. Dupont, ‘Transformation or stagnation? Rethinking Australia’s defence’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 57:1, 2003, p. 72

5  P. Layton, ‘Australia’s many maritime strategies’, The Strategist, 28 Mar 2013

6 P. Dean, ‘The ADF and expeditionary warfare’, The Strategist, 5 October 2012.

7 A. Tewes, L. Rayner and K. Kavanaugh, ‘Australia’s Maritime Strategy in the 21st century’, Research Brief, Department of Parliamentary Services, Parliamentary Library, Australia, 2004, pp. 25–32

8 Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, p. 3.

9 C. Gray, ‘The 21st century security environment and the future of war’, Parameters, 38:4, Winter 2008/2009, p. 23

Lieutenant Colonel David Beaumont is Staff Officer Grade One – Logistics Plans at Headquarters Forces Command. He has been posted to Army Headquarters, 1st Brigade, 17th Combat Service Support Brigade, Headquarters Joint Operations Command and 1st Joint Movement Group. He served on operations in the Middle East and Timor–Leste. His academic awards include a Bachelor of Arts, Master of Business and Master of Arts (Military Studies). He is a doctoral candidate at the Australian National University, examining the operational and institutional factors influencing the evolution of logistics from the formation of the ADF.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.