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Army in the 21st Century: Continuity and Change

The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.
Lady Galadriel, The Lord of the Rings

Our test must not be, “Have we changed?” It must be, “Have we changed enough?”
GEN George W. Casey Jr, US Army Chief of Staff

The fundamental challenge to national security is the management of change in order to reduce risk using a strategy that helps to deal with uncertainty. The role of the military is essential for securing national defence particularly when it involves physical threat(s) to national security arising primarily from outside national borders as perceived by society and defined by its political elites. As we move to a security environment that is marked by greater uncertainty, risk, and proliferation in the number of competitive State and non-State actors, the challenge for decision-makers in government is how to deal with it. 

The above provides the context against which one needs to approach the role of the Australian Army as an integral part of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in the 21st century. The question for Army is whether the challenge ahead is existential or organisational/functional. In short, should Army’s leaders focus on redefining how to sustain the force’s monopoly over the exercise of land power? This short piece argues that whereas land power remains an integral dimension of national power, there is a strong and timely need for Army to transform. 

It is widely accepted both within Army and outside that “the fundamental nature of conflict is timeless” and war is an inescapable condition of humanity. However, as the character of conflict “reflects the particular conditions of each epoch”, the nature of war especially from a legal point of view has changed and will continue to do so in future. War in the present century is no longer dominated exclusively by States: sub-national organised groups (for example, terrorist organisations like ISIS or Daesh and the Taleban) have emerged as non-traditional actors with political ambition. This has prompted a need to re-think the traditional understanding of war (see, for example, Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, 3rd edn. 2012).

In the face of rising tides of economic globalisation coupled with trans-national mobility, national boundaries remain resolute albeit somewhat porous to facilitate inward and outward movement of goods, peoples, and services. Through its mastery and command of land power, Army remains a valuable instrument of national power. The territorial foundation of the nation-state system that supports authoritative political power and governance structure has neither vanished nor shrunk in terms of relevance. Army on its own and through joint force remains the fundamental force that can protect and preserve national sovereignty. So a relevant question to ask here is whether the Australian Army deems the protection and defence of Australia as part of its ongoing mandated responsibility? 

There is a view that physical threat to Australia’s territorial sovereignty in the form of occupation is highly unlikely but as Prof. Paul Cornish (Chatham House) notes: “When considering the development of land forces ‘fit for the 21st century’, it is important to remember that there is a rather large amount of the century left”. In his analysis entitled ‘Land Forces for the 21st Century’, the author reminds political and military planners of the old adages: “no plan survives contact with the enemy; and that the plan is nothing, but the act of planning is everything”. Furthermore, history shows us that though countries like the UK and USA have never been physically occupied during a war, this dash of luck has never prevented them from investing in land power and advocating the role of their respective Armies. As Australia’s security environment becomes complex and incorporates the rise of hybrid threats perpetrated by non-State and State actors, continued reliance on Army to protect and defend Australia is not an option but a reality. 

Thus, the Australian Army’s role in the 21st century should not involve experiencing an existential threat but rather making the preparations to fight and win 21st century conflicts. A 20th century military organisation is likely to experience deficiency in its capabilities and organisational/functional attributes to respond adequately to the challenges of the current century.  In short, Army needs to transform from within and implement measures that build on its capability, organisation, strategy, people, and culture. This will involve sustained efforts at modernising the way Army conducts its business.

An essential pre-requisite for Army’s transformation should involve a critical analysis of the evolving nature and unfolding trends of changes in Australia’s security environment (old and emerging ones driven by developments in cyber technology, energy security and climate change) mapped against strategic interests and objectives. Change is seldom limited to one area. A comprehensive and holistic situational awareness of all relevant domains is essential in the planning of capability, force structure and force posture of defence. The 2016 Defence White Paper and 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper can provide direction to identify opportunities and avenues for the pursuit of national interest. Once the nature and direction of change is analysed and understood, a decision on how to respond to it and whether to be led by it or try and shape it, needs to follow. 

What should a future Australian Army look like? Former US General, George W. Casey, Jr, while emphasising the need for a balanced Army “adapted to the requirements of 21st century conflict” has highlighted the following areas: doctrine, organisation, training, staffing, equipping, stationing and support. The essential attributes of future Army, according to Casey, should be as follows: “a balanced Army must be organised to be versatile; deployable enough to be expeditionary, responsive enough to be agile; precise enough to be lethal; robust and protected enough to be sustainable; and flexible enough to be interoperable with a wide range of partners”. Mastering each attribute involves both challenges and opportunities. It is at this crossroads of future direction that Army needs to make a timely decision and choose a path that may not uncover all the dimensions of future destination now but will be in the right direction. 

Written By: Dr Joyo Sanyal

About the author: Dr Joyo Sanyal joined the Australian Army Research Centre following a period of association with the Australian Bureau of Statistics. For his doctoral thesis, Dr Sanyal analysed the Common Foreign and Security Policy regime of the European Union with a particular emphasis on the practice of EU-Russia and EU-China relations. The areas of his research interest include foreign, security, and defence policy issues. Dr Sanyal was a Marie Curie Visiting Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge, UK (under the Cambridge Programme for International Research on Europe) and is a former recipient of British Chevening Scholarship (awarded by UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office).

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.

Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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