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Australian Strategic Policy Institute 2014

Lieutenant General David Morrison, Chief of Army, address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 13 February 2014.
13 February 2014
Lieutenant General David Morrison, AO
Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Canberra.

Check against delivery.

Thank You.

This is the second time ASPI has extended me the opportunity to speak about your Army. The first time was in April 2012 and, in preparing for tonight, it was impossible not to reflect on what has happened since then. Budgets have been delivered with the inevitable re-ordering of national priorities, Governments have changed, military operations in Timor Leste and the Solomons have concluded, or been drawn down in Afghanistan, and systemic cultural issues confronting the ADF have been addressed in a very comprehensive manner.

In the case of the Army, we are now well down the path of structural reform as articulated by the Government endorsed Plan Beersheba. I gave an undertaking that these initiatives to form more like manoeuvre brigades, with much more effective utilisation of our Reserve forces, would be achieved within Army’s budget. That remains the case.

As the Service Chief who made the decision to forgo the introduction of self propelled artillery so as to ensure a better balanced ADF within available resources, I have a clear understanding of the onus on me to work collegiately with the senior leadership team to ensure a joint and cost effective ADF. I am self-conscious enough to hope that such a focus will be remembered as a defining characteristic of my time as Chief of Army.

There is one notable similarity to the last time I spoke – then I qualified my address by reminding my audience that with a Defence White Paper due to be delivered in the near future, I was going to be careful that I did not get out in front of the Government – the same applies this evening.

My topic this evening is “Challenges and Opportunities for the Army in the next decade”. In addressing this subject I want to take a top down, strategic approach rather than focusing on more instrumental matters of detail pertaining to force structure or specific capabilities.

We are about to embark on a Force Structure Review in support of the new White Paper. I am confident that it will fully analyse the requirements of a joint and cost effective ADF and, in conjunction with a review of the Defence Organisation, it will provided a sound basis for the White Paper. It is unlikely to conclude that we no longer require submarines, modern fighters or armoured vehicles. The balance of those assets, along with everything else that is judged to comprise the ADF required to meet the Nation’s future security needs is a matter for Government and requires no public statements from me.

Nor will I spend a great deal of my time speaking about how we are addressing cultural issues – I have spoken extensively about that subject throughout my time as Chief and I remain committed to ensuring that improvement in this regard is part of the legacy I hope to leave.

Rather, I want to talk about matters pertaining to national strategy; to the military’s role in the exercise of statecraft, to alliances, and to maritime matters especially in regard to democracies and trade. There may be some in the room tonight who could consider that somewhat presumptuous. I have been struck over the last two and a half years by comments made publically by some who consider that Service Chiefs have little right to provide a voice in debates on security issues in this Country.

The eminent British commentator Colin Gray observed that above all strategy is a practical business and as a consequence that if the troops cannot do it then strategy and policy are a mere vanity. I believe that those whose job it is to ensure that troops, sailors, airmen and women are made ready to “do it”, have every right to offer informed views about our collective security.

The world is a complex place and getting to grips with it is very properly the focus of institutions such as ASPI. To paraphrase Soren Kierkegaard, “we live life forward but only understand it looking backwards”. This makes any contributions of mine to that understanding hazardous at best, but to also quote the American writer Max Boot, “the past is an uncertain guide to the future but it is the only one we have.”

So emboldened by that, let me begin. I could spend precious minutes convincing you of what I mean by statecraft, supported as it would be by the judicious use of arguments from the various schools of international relations, but I haven’t the time, you haven’t the interest, and in any case its my speech so I will just go to Oxford English Dictionary and define it as “the skilful management of state affairs”. One of our best commentators and public intellectuals Paul Kelly has termed this “managing the Australian project in the world”.

Australia is a wealthy Nation. It is ranked in the top 15 in gross domestic product per capita. It is also one of the most isolated major countries on the planet; it occupies an entire united continent, is difficult to invade and it has only faced one existential threat to its continental security – 70 years ago against the Japanese.

So why have the people of such a relatively well-off and isolated country been involved in so many wars? And just to give that question additional emphasis, not just wars, but conflicts large and small, fought around the globe, since Federation, at the direction of Governments of all political persuasions?

To cite an interesting STRATFOR observation, Australia has been at war for more than one-third of the time since the Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901.

To understand why, let me go to the heart of the matter. Australia’s isolation alone has never made us secure, because it is our interests as a state, rather than our state borders, that successive governments have always been most concerned about.

And the principal reason for that? Trade. We are a trading state, deeply enmeshed in the global economy and we survive and thrive as a state because of it. Its simple demographics in one sense. Domestic consumption alone of our resources and manufactured products could never sustain the lifestyle most Australians not just enjoy, but demand of those who exercise Australia’s statecraft.

This leads to the heart of our strategic challenge and why our leaders have, for the main, followed the same tenets of Australian statecraft since Federation, and, as I am arguing here tonight will continue to do so. The Australian Defence Force, despite direction given in certain past White Papers, has really always existed to defend Australia’s sovereignty, not its geography as defined by a continental landmass.

Our trade flows freely, our petrol stations are replenished, our supermarket shelves are full to meet our whims and our commerce flourishes. Yet, Australians collectively do not reflect on the enormous national investment involved in sustaining the maritime conditions for that happy state of affairs, nor do they consider overly that much of it is also underwritten by the United States as the leading global power of our era.

Alfred Thayer Mahan’s assertion that the oceans of the world constitute ubiquitous highways is so profoundly obvious as to conceal its genius, in much the same way that Clausewitz’s observation that war is the violent prosecution of policy now sounds self-evidently banal, having become conventional wisdom. That Australia is an island, albeit one of immense mass, is equally as obvious. So our survival, even in peace time, depends on the sea.

Yet, despite universal lip service to the innately maritime character of our geography, the western civilization that has grown here since European settlement has not, in my view, developed a deep, intrinsic link to that character.

As another Maritime theorist, my friend Ray Griggs, told this gathering in 2012, a more appropriate wording in the first stanza of our national anthem may have been ‘girt by beach’ rather than ‘girt by sea.’ He was pointing to the underdeveloped consciousness which should properly underscore mature, true sea mindedness in Australia. His point was well made and it concerns me every bit as much as it bothers him.

Our strategic culture, and the strategic policy which incubates in it, are the poorer for that cognitive failure, which is derived from a deeply entrenched continental mindset.

Professor Michael Evans, the General Sir Francis Hassett Chair of Military Studies at the Australian Defence College, is known to many in this audience. He has recently published a paper delivered at the Army History Conference late last year. It is titled “The Third Way: Towards an Australian Maritime Strategy for the 21st Century” and it should be prescribed reading for anyone wanting to better understand our actual strategic paradigm.

He has described Australia as a maritime nation with a continental culture and has analysed the narrative of the Australian settlement, and the degree to which we define ourselves as a sun burnt country. Scrutiny of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are show a people pitted against a harsh, implacable and ultimately forbidding continental environment. Further, he notes that the history of maritime strategic thought in Australia is like the study of snakes in Ireland: there are no snakes in Ireland.

And so, while we revere the sacrifice of our diggers at Gallipoli, how many people really understand the naval and amphibious campaign which lodged us on the Turkish peninsula. Kokoda is now considered in a similar way to Gallipoli but little if any attention is paid to the amphibious campaigns waged in the South Pacific between 1943 and 1945.

The digger legend is powerful, but it skews the way Australians view security, especially the wider contribution of this Nation to the global order of the last Century and our obligations to maintaining that benign order in this one.

Yet this absence of pervasive oceanic consciousness disguises the fact that European settlement of this Great Southern land was achieved by the leading maritime power of that era. Likewise, it ignores the reality that our security was initially founded in no small part on Great Britain and, later, on its liberal democratic successor the United States.

In plain language, our prosperity and role in the world is reliant on freedom of navigation and the unimpeded use of Mahan’s great highways which is guaranteed by the dominant maritime power of the day, at a most significant discount to the expenditure of our own national treasure.

The defence and security professionals in this room grasp this reality, but too few of our fellow citizens do as well. More worryingly, I fear the same may be true of some who seek to advise our policy makers.

However, this is not the counsel of despair. Australians are nothing if not pragmatic. Regardless of this myopia, our strategic practice has been intuitively shrewd. We have collaborated with the dominant liberal, democratic maritime power du jour since Federation and have benefitted immensely from that choice.

It is worth recalling two former Prime Ministers’ observations about this. John Howard warned that Australia need not choose between its history and its geography. He was right and that statement can be read in conjunction with Paul Keating’s similarly profound insight that Australia must seek its security in Asia rather than from Asia.

From these statements we can discern the progress Australia has made from the aberrant years when we sought to secure Australia behind the moat of the so called sea – air gap.

There is a warning in this - that because of our lack of an oceanic mindset, we risk forfeiting all those other natural elements of maritime power with which we are lavishly endowed. However, as soldier and capability manager I am optimistic about our current strategic focus. Here is why.

We have come a very long way since the strategic shock of 1999 in East Timor roused us from the torpor of the Defence of Australia mindset, narrowly construed as continental defence. In that regard, I would demur from John Howard in a minor, though not purely semantic, manner. As he sagely argued, we need not make a false, binary choice between our European origins and Asian geography to achieve Paul Keating’s vision of security ‘in Asia.’ But we must choose our true history.

We need to recognise that despite the prodigious feats of arms of our soldiers, and the romance of the bush, our soldiers have never fought a battle on our continent. May that remain so. But as long as the gap between myth and reality in our national identity and ancillary strategic culture remains so great, we will struggle to achieve our potential as a second tier maritime power.

By that classification I mean that Australia can be placed among relatively sophisticated medium powers for whom local sea control, albeit for particular periods of time, is both possible and indeed a strongly desirable capability objective. However, area sea control is unachievable for us and it remains the monopoly of great naval powers.

Of necessity we can only collaborate with compatible major powers and contribute to good order at sea and achieve limited force projection in coalition with our allies.

And alliances count. It is puzzling to me that those who insist on the deterministic nature of our geography can miss the point that every time the Australian Defence Force has sent a contingent overseas it has been because an elected Australian Government has used this rational strategic calculus to calibrate the level of commitment and risk warranted. All our wars and all our peace-keeping operations have met this fundamental test of statecraft.

Indeed, for me as a Service Chief the real issue is not whether we need to be able to deploy military forces away from our shores. I take that as a given. The issue is whether they are prepared adequately to do their jobs with an acceptable level of risk.

Australia participates in its wars and security operations, in order to support a global equilibrium conducive to its economic interests which we could simply not afford through our own relatively modest defence expenditures. To use a market term, we remain a net importer of regional and global security.

Let me go further and address the reality of that practice. I recently read an very interesting piece by Robert Kaplan on Anarchy and Hegemony. I have no intention of becoming esoteric here so please bear with me.

His premise, supported by some telling quotes from the late Kenneth Waltz, arguably the United States preeminent realist, is pretty simple – it is that while equality is highly desirable within society, in geopolitics equality usually does not work very well.

He cites a number of examples from history where, within a group of countries, there has not been a dominant state who adopted what could be termed a hegemonic approach to its international relations. This he concludes leads to anarchy and upheaval. He quotes Waltz who observed that the opposite of "anarchy" is not stability, but "hierarchy."

Further, hierarchy implies that some are frankly "more equal" than others, and it is this formal inequality - where someone, or some state or group, has more authority and power than others - that prevents chaos. For it is inequality itself that often creates the conditions for peace. Of course these arguments are open to dispute. Nonetheless, they ring true for me. Government is the most common form of hierarchy. At least since the Treaty of Westphalia, it is the state that has monopolized the use of violence and coercion thereby preventing anarchy. A good part of “coercive power” rests with the force constituted to deliver, at Government direction, legitimate, sanctioned violence. For Australia that is the ADF.

For much of our recent history, being a coalition partner and the deliverer of violence (or the threat of it), within crowded operational environments dominated by the complex interaction of people in societies that Australian troops have been deployed to protect, is for me also a predictor of the future. Max Boot was right.

So I am not here tonight to argue for anything other than a balanced ADF that can when called upon to do so apply coercive power, within sanctioned constraints, to protect Australian sovereignty and to further our national strategic interests.

But lets face up to some facts: that ADF has to be joint in its focus and in its intrinsic capabilities; it has to be tailored for its role in a maritime strategy that looks out beyond our national borders; it must be a creditable contributor to coalition endeavours; it needs to be able to lead those coalition endeavours on occasion and it has to be able to commit to protracted operations.

The view that military operations of the future will break with our past and become neat, clean, bloodless in their execution, entirely discretionary in terms of how long we will commit forces, conducted on our behalf by technologically enabled remote weapon systems is to me naïve at best.

I would offer our recent operational experiences as an exemplar of how the promise of technological impact is almost always challenged and countered through human agency and adaptation.

Afghanistan has been perhaps the most intensely “surveilled” battle space in the history of warfare. The military operations that have been waged against an unconventional enemy who have employed little in the way of indirect fire, who have provided no contest against ISAF in the electromagnetic spectrum, who have operated no aircraft or armoured vehicles has been a bloody and protracted fight. I am no modern day Cassandra, foretelling woe, but surely there are strong lessons for our future operating environments in this that we ignore at our peril.

I am close to concluding my time as Chief. My objective assessment is that your current Army is in the best shape it has ever been. It is well equipped, with plans in place to modernise older equipment or to introduce new capabilities into the force that will ensure it is robust and relevant in the third decade of this century.

It will have, within the next three years, a force structure that will allow a Brigade group to deploy and be replaced by a like organisation should the protracted nature of operations require it. It has within its ranks our finest Australians who respect their Country, their Defence Force and their mates.

As importantly, it is an Army that is very proud of the part it has played in the operations of the last 15 years but it is one that does not get lost in believing its own press. It knows it has got to be better – harder, more resilient, more capable to face what lies ahead. We are not benchmarking ourselves against the Taliban.

Finally, we are absolutely committed to being a vital part of any joint force, operating on land, within littoral environments or indeed within a maritime environment.

A joint force is only as strong as its weakest Service. For me it is unarguable that for a significant part of my time as a soldier, the Army was consigned, by design, to be that weakest component of the ADF. That Australia now has a much better balanced Defence Force is a testament to the leadership of the ADF over the last decade and a half and to the measured decisions, made by successive Governments, to using that balanced Defence Force appropriately as a tool of statecraft to protect our sovereignty and to secure our future prosperity.

I believe that will continue to be the case for the future. Of course it will require fine judgement, weighing risk against national aspirations and within available resources. But we are on the right path – one that recognises that joint capabilities will be the essence of ensuring that, whatever the challenges we face, the troops will be able to “do it”. Our strategy will not be vanity but one that is founded in the correct appreciation that Australia needs its ADF more than it needs its Army, Navy or Air Force.

Last updated
24 January 2017
Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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