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Knowledge, the Master Program - Albert Palazzo

Volumes are devoted to armament; pages to inspiration.

George S Patton[1]

 

The Australian Army’s replacement or enhancement of its equipment and the introduction into service of new technologies is a continuous process that consumes the labour of hundreds of staff across several organisations. The starting point for this modernisation effort is the Army’s Land Capability Division whose personnel guide nine Army programs through various gates on behalf of the Chief of Army, the end-point being the government’s agreement and funding. To manage this process Army works to a framework: the Capability Life Cycle or CLC.

Across these programs, Army expends an enormous effort to acquire and sustain its fleets of current and future equipment and systems. It is a necessary and justifiable undertaking, if a ponderous one. However, the scale of the effort, and the money involved, results in a definition of modernisation that is described largely in terms of the acquisition of stuff, not ideas. For FY 18/19 the Army’s top programs received a budget estimated at $1.35 billion.[2] By contrast, the acquisition of the knowledge the force needs to modernise is less well funded. Where are the hundreds of staff needed to consider the future way of war or to unpack the challenges of operations in a climate-changed world, for example? Alternatively, to put it in program terms, couldn’t knowledge, its acquisition, dissemination and inculcation be a program in its own right? Couldn’t knowledge be the master program that drives Army’s modernisation?

In part, the absence of a commitment to an acquisition process for knowledge lies in the Western military mind’s infatuation with technology as the solution to nearly all war fighting challenges. The West has become seduced by the idea that technology can eliminate the chaos of war,[3] and its military (and political) leaders have chased a fantasy that war can be made ‘fast, easy and decisive’.[4] In the face of the failure to achieve victory in Afghanistan and elsewhere, despite possessing vast technological advantages over a rudimentarily armed enemy, Western militaries have drawn the conclusion that possession of even more advanced technology will answer the requirements of the future.

Purchasing equipment is difficult, time-consuming and probably exhausting for those so charged. I do not envy them. Yet conceiving new knowledge from the unknown and its justification to those who prefer to hold true to the status quo is even more challenging. It is doubly so in Australia, a country with a long tradition of anti-intellectualism or, as one commentator calls it, a preference for being ‘dumb and dumber’.[5]

In his just-released Strategic Guidance for 2019, the Chief of Army has stated that the force’s goal is to be ready now while also becoming future-ready. He has called for a contest of ideas. It is hard to fault the Chief, and not just because he is the Chief. Army must change, and do so quickly and effectively. The clouds of war are thickening as we enter a more disruptive and uncertain period as the global commons unravels, bringing to an end the era of relative peace that has allowed humanity to prosper since the end of the Second World War. Climate change adds another level of uncertainty to the future. Nations, many of them already fragile, must find the means for survival on a less beneficent planet. For the Army, the future will not be met just by new kit; it will require personnel who can maximise the potential of the equipment with which they must fight, no matter the technological balance relative to an adversary.

All military organisations have periods of modernisation, or at least those that succeed do. What the Chief of Army has called for is not something exceptional; it is the rule. However, his call risks falling on barren ground if the force’s default resistance to thinking is not addressed at the cultural level.  Army, and the wider Department of Defence, has a reputation for being risk-averse, which has lead to the creation of numerous obstacles to free and unfettered thinking and debate. A social media policy, for example, that requires pre-approval before even a tweet, does not encourage spontaneity between forums of thinkers.

Army needs something more than directed guidance if it is to liberate the force’s thinkers to meet the challenges of a far more dangerous future. As a means to guide the modernisation of the Army’s equipment Defence created the CLC. Admittedly, this is a heavily regulated framework—a necessity to meet the requirements of Government procurement. However, the CLC can serve as a precedent. Army should consider something similar—but less constrained—a Knowledge Life Cycle (KLC) for example. Another possibility would be to assign responsibility for the fostering of knowledge to a senior officer, not as an additional task, but as the sole duty with appropriate metrics for success. I hesitate to suggest the raising of a two-star Head Army Knowledge, but perhaps the Chief’s vision, and our and our nation’s future, demands no less.

To return to Patton’s words, where does the inspiration come that will enable commanders to outfight and outthink their future opponents? It does not come from having the best or even ‘good enough’ equipment.  It comes from inspiring soldiers to think and by giving them the opportunity to flourish in their thoughts, unfettered by constraint and fear. We do not know where the best thinking will come from, but it won’t be the result of direction. It will come from Army’s fostering of an institutional culture that supports and rewards those whose ideas will provide the means to succeed both today and tomorrow. It requires intellectualism to sit above all other acquisitions. It requires a master program—knowledge.

About the Author: Dr Albert Palazzo is the Director of War Studies in the Australian Army Research Centre.

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.


[1] Gary Bloomfield, George S Patton: On Guts, Glory, and Winning, Rowan & Littlefield, New York, 2017, p. 19.

[2] Department of Defence, Budget 1028-19, p. 124 at http://www.defence.gov.au/Budget/18-19/2018-19_Defence_PBS_00_Complete.pdf (accessed 26 March 2019).

[3] David Betz, Carnage & Connectivity: Landmarks in the Decline of Conventional Military Power, London, Hurst & Company, 2015, p. 5.

[4] Ibid., p. 58.

[5] ‘We love being dumb and dumber,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, at https://www.smh.com.au/business/small-business/we-love-being-dumb-and-dumber-20150108-3nraf.html (accessed 3 March 2019).

Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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