Land Forces 2018 Pt 1 - What Next?
Land Forces 2018 was a success... but what's next? Dr Albert Palazzo asks what the future of the exposition might look like.
I have attended many Land Forces expositions in my time with Army. The one that just finished was, in my opinion, the best I have witnessed. The Adelaide Convention Centre pulsed with energy as soldiers, defence civilians and trade-folk discussed the wares on display. The Chief of Army Land Forces Seminar – held in conjunction with the Land Forces 2018 exposition (or Land Forces for short) – brought together the heads (or their representatives) of approximately thirty armies, ranging from small island states to major powers. The Defence Science and Technology Group again convened scientists and engineers to discuss emerging technologies while the Australian Army History Unit offered a conference on partnering. These were the major events, there was also a host of smaller conferences and working groups that made it an intense week for all.
However, despite the intensity of the event, the energy on display, my repeated crashing of a drone, the conviviality of the dinners and luncheons, the pleasure of catching up with old mates and my conclusion that this was the best Land Forces yet, the week was strangely, dare I say, ho-hum. Perhaps I have attended too many of these events, but I do not believe that is where my sense of ennui came from. I think it is more a result of ‘Been there; done that! Now what?’
The problem is that there is a certain rhythmic cadence – a certain sameness perhaps –that underlies all the Land Forces I have attended. Upon reflection, I fear that the current design has reached the limit of its utility. Under no circumstances am I saying that Land Forces and its associated events should be done away with. However, it would be appropriate to think seriously on whether the time has come to take the event in a new direction; to a new audience; to a new level.
We already saw in Adelaide that it is possible to bring new attendees to the event. The audience for the Australian Army History Unit conference on partnering was composed largely of soldiers and junior leaders, individuals who were very scarce at previous iterations of Land Forces unless they were assigned to the event as a driver or MP. This was a small change that brought a big return and it should be repeated in two years’ time.
However, I believe Army can risk greater boldness. Instead of a Land Forces exposition, Army should strive to create a Land Forces ‘festival’. It should retain what it has built but it should also push the boundaries of an exposition by adding additional events that would welcome new groups. In doing so, the goal should be for Army to engage with wider Australia, rather than only those with a vested interest in the business of war.
I use the term ‘festival’ with some hesitation, and only do so because it carries the connotation of what I believe Army needs to create. It is the word most suited to the spurring of ideas at this exploratory stage. Festivals come in many forms: literary, comedy and film to name just a few. So why not a festival of Army and land forces capabilities ? Why not something that engages with the entire Australian community? Why not something that moves Army back into the fore of Australian societal consciousness?
At many successful festivals there is the core activity accompanied by a fringe of associated events. For Land Forces 2018, the Adelaide Convention Centre was at full capacity. The events that were held there should remain there for 2020 (or at an equivalent convention centre if the next host city is not Adelaide). These are the core events. However, as a ‘festival’ other programs would be held across the city at other facilities in order to attract a broader audience, to promote greater societal participation and to advance the dialogue on the future of war. These are the ‘festival’s’ fringe events. Let me highlight a few possibilities:
- Disruptive Ideas Showcase: A Disruptive Ideas conference will explore the as-of-yet unknown, focusing on the potentially possible and welcoming ideas on the organisation of human society that offer the potential for a significant shift in the future character of war.
- Wargame Showcase: Australia has a vibrant on-line and face-to-face wargame community, ranging from hugely popular electronic games including Call of Duty and Defense of the Ancients (DotA), the figurine community of Warhammer and military miniatures, to old fashioned board games such as Advanced Squad Leader.
- Film Showcase: Viewings of classic Australian military films followed by roundtable discussions provided by historians and film critics with audience participation.
- Re-enactment Showcase: A base camp of various re-enactment groups that is open to the public.
I mentioned above my hesitation to use the term ‘festival’. The word has risk because it suggests the glorification of war. This is not my intention. While I believe war is an enduring facet of human existence, it is also morally repugnant. In going forward, perhaps a different term other than ‘festival’ may be more appropriate. What I do seek in this proposal is to provide a means for Army to re-engage with Australian society. Army has become cut-off from the rest of Australian society; celebrated once-a-year and then forgotten by most. Military service has become a caste-like experience with its members kept largely in isolated bases in the under-populated parts of the country. The Army must reach out to the rest of Australian society if it is to sustain its position as one of the most revered organisations in the community, while also promoting engagement with future generations. A ‘festival’ cannot on its own remediate Army’s isolation from a disengaged population, but it would be a start. It would also make the next Land Forces a lot more entertaining.
About the Author: Dr Albert Palazzo is the Director of War Studies in the Australian Army Research Centre. The views expressed here are his own.
 For purposes of full disclosure I must state that I am a member of the organisation that helped to organise the week’s events in Adelaide.