The uncertain road to becoming 'expeditionary': Reasserting Army’s expeditionary credentials

As described in my earlier blog article, force design is a difficult process despite its fundamental importance to future performance in war. It briefly examined the US Army’s recent desires for change cognisant of recent French expeditionary operations in Mali on Operation Serval; an operation that demonstrated the value of the expeditionary characteristics of French forces. This impetus for change has also been driven by an evolutionary response to strategic conditions that see American forces returned to the homeland from operations in the Middle-east, and with a need to prepare for the next conflicts. But it has been very challenging for the US Army to change its orientation over the last twenty-five years. Arguably the Australian Army is encountering this challenge whilst engaged in its own ‘reset’ of strategic viewpoint, defining its future force development within a maritime strategy as described in policy or conceptually linking its ideas to warfighting domains such as the ‘urban-littoral’.

Army’s focus is returning to the immediate region, and the way it can contribute to security within Australia’s environments. But just as there have been philosophical challenges regarding expeditionary warfare within the US Army, so too exists challenges implicit in the debates within the Australian Army, in its capability conclusions and mixed within his concepts. These contradictions have to be understood for Army’s modernisation process to be considered rational and to avoid building intellectual ‘castles’ upon ‘foundations of sand’. Without doing so, many vital questions will be left unanswered, but in doing so significant operational risks with be tacitly accepted, regarding an approach to warfare that has long been explicitly connected to the Australian Army.

Army’s approach to force design has always suffered under significant institutional pressures, as well as competing philosophies with regards to the future of war. The long standing strategic-level debate as to the nature of the ADF’s offshore commitments, by virtue of a maritime strategy or through operations of an amphibious nature, is perhaps the most significant of these conceptual challenges when it comes to defining an ‘expeditionary orientation’. This challenge seems to have replaced another long standing strategic argument preferring an Army designed for operations in continental defence, or being prepared for operations forward of Australian shores, as part of a new operational-level divide.

The first seeks to optimise forces in readiness cycles and through training for forward positioning, often in advance of conflict, alongside partners and with full use of host-nation, coalition and contractor support for the sustainment of forces and in contrast to the launching of operations from Australia itself, echoes the US Army’s contemporary approach. Australian global operations in the Middle-east have long satisfied this criterion as exemplars of advance-base type operation. The alternative, a typically amphibious-centric and regional-focussed approach emphasises deployments from the national support base, and with it, demands a high-readiness culture and approach, and robust Army force-projection and logistic capabilities.

This conceptual challenge may, however, be moot for the Australian Army; the outcome victim to capability decisions made beyond the ability of contemporary leaders to truly influence.  Operation-level arguments and ultimately options are defined by virtue of capability decisions made well before a decision on the strategic use of force made. For example, to engage in manoeuvre against a peer adversary, the Army is in the process of replacing antiquated armoured capabilities; a rightful decision given threats likely to emerge in combat against a peer, perhaps even less capable, adversary.

As raised in Michael Skurkin’s study regarding French experiences in Operation Serval, protection and firepower, often manifested in the physical weight of vehicles and their supply demands relating to fuel and ammunition, comes at the cost of actual deployability. With Land 400 and 121equipment is heavier, is likely to be more difficult to maintain in austere decisions, dependant on global supply for spares, and with larger sustainment requirements. Technology brings complexity, and complexity often brings underperformance. In addressing a deficiency known well in the organisation over the last fifteen years, the ADF has substantially improved its lift capabilities with the procurement of the C-17 Globemaster and new amphibious ships. Unfortunately, Army’s movement requirements have similarly expanded, and new sustainment challenges introduced. Worryingly, a detailed analysis of the operational mobility problem is conspicuously absent, and deployability the subject of anecdote without study. Indeed, the last time ADF comprehensively studied its lift capabilities so to better inform capability decision-making was in a DSTO (now DSTG) study of 2004.

The logistic factors described above have been judiciously chosen, and are only mere aspects of Army’s broader conceptual challenges regarding its deployability. Yet they do fundamentally influence the way in which the Australian Army will deploy, fight and return from the next war. It is tempting for us to read Shurkin’s JFQ article, or comprehensive RAND Corporation piece, and proclaim that Army must rapidly address a variety of concerns to meet the strategic challenges of a modern age of war. Continuing with the perspective of a logistician, there are a myriad of competing ideas and concerns that will have to be addressed by Army when it studies expeditionary warfare, future operations in the ‘urban-littoral’ or coalition warfare in a global setting.

Whether we centralise or decentralise command and control, whether we apply lines or levels of logistics support to distinguishing supporting elements, whether we focus on operating as a disaggregated force or a concentrated one, do we modularise equipment or not, how far does the joint domain influence logistics in the area of operations; all topics of perennial arguments that have long confused decision making. Influenced by a proliferation of ideas now freely exchanged via social media, reports and with operational experiences at hand, there are numerous competing ideas and questions without answers that make any rational approach to the modernisation process more difficult, and concepts developed more questionable.

The Australian Army faces the same, difficult, challenges as the US Army as it seeks to make sense of what the future holds, and posture itself for the contingencies of tomorrow. Few would oppose the view that the modern Australian is a technologically and professionally enhanced expeditionary force with roots evinced in Timor Leste a decade and a half ago; a force more aligned to conflict prevention than war amongst peers as commonly argued – at least in the short term. Because of this basis, and perhaps unwittingly, it has been left in a better position than the US Army when it comes to adapting to the challenges described in Shurkin’s paper if French operations in Mali reflect a new generation of war. Yet Army must continue to develop its expeditionary credentials by concerted, and credible, efforts. It is already learning valuable new lessons that will transpire into a variety of areas as capabilities come into being, such as the ambitious amphibious capability at the core of Australian maritime strategy.

Army’s future preparedness will suffer if it approaches expeditionary warfare with experience, habit and myopic biases as a substitute for further intellectual investment into force design. The responsibility for this outcome is not just for strategic planners with Army’s headquarters, but to all who seek to have a positive influence on the future of Army. It is therefore essential that those engaged in debate at all levels in Army do so with a strong institutional line of logic in mind, a solid factual argument behind their conclusions, and a respect for history and quality research. Identifying and commenting on problems for Army without actively seeking solutions is an intellectual laziness that will impose costs on future operational performance. Indeed, doctrine, training, and actual preparedness outcomes will suffer, and as stated earlier, castles will be built on the sand. If Operation Serval is a harbinger of things to come, it is quite clear that it is not only the US Army that has some challenging questions and uncomfortable contradictions to address.

Lieutenant Colonel David Beaumont is currently SO1 Operations and Plans, Headquarters 1st Joint Movement Group. He has contributed to Army concept writing, and has recently written on the ADF’s approach to expeditionary warfare in Army Research Paper 6 – Expeditionary warfare and military operations under a maritime strategy. Lieutenant Colonel Beaumont is undertaking doctoral research at ANU regarding the organisation of logistics, and its impact on strategy and operations.

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.