Chief of Army address to the 14th Annual Security Summit
Good morning ladies and gentlemen.
I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we are meeting today, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.
This conference is about many different but inter-connected themes; ranging from defence and strategic policy, international engagement, border protection to climate change.
Such diversity reflects the complex reality of our modern circumstance. But each theme can be quickly lost without the clarity and collaboration required to engage the public and decision makers. Sometimes I fear we become captured by internal conversations.
More time thinking, speaking and collaborating, with clarity, on the issues that matter is the wellspring of good policy development and advice to Government. Hence the inherent value of this Summit and events like it.
Nations suffer when their security communities operate in isolation and without the contestability necessary for good policy. Ideas tend toward theology and doctrine to dogma. An example of a hundred years ago is summarised by historian, Steven Van Evera, in an article titled, ‘The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War’.
He noted that a phenomenon - the ‘cult of the offensive’ - swept through Europe in the years leading up to the First World War. Militaries glorified the offensive and adopted offensive military doctrines. Civilian elites and the public uncritically accepted that the offense had the advantage in warfare. All of this, despite a body of evidence to the contrary, which demonstrated a growing advantage for defenders - as a result of the invention of machine guns, barbed wire and railroads.
The ‘cult of the offensive’ informed both the development of the German offensive plan for 1914 (the Schlieffen Plan) and French defence policy.
The result was the tumult of July 1914 and the descent into four years of bloody trench warfare, now commemorated with great sadness hundred years on.
Getting the work of this community right matters.
Having offered an example of poor defence policy development, let me be very clear, the Defence White Paper has, appropriately, been well received by commentators as an example of very good policy.
Three weeks ago I addressed the United Services Institute of the ACT. I spoke about the recent Australian Army review of our training, doctrine and education, known as The Ryan Review. Copies of both my address and The Ryan Revieware available on the Australian Army website.
During that speech I remarked upon the fact that I am occasionally distraught by the jargon with which we confuse ourselves. I supported my assertion with examples of ‘hybrid warfare’ and ‘complex attacks’.
In the case of the latter, I simply stated that I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘complex attack’. There are just attacks, some of which are well orchestrated and designed, and others not. I will discuss my concerns with hybrid warfare in more detail in a little while.
Unfortunately, there are too many circumstances where writing is clouded with lack of clarity of thinking, understanding and expression. The problem appears universal but I think the military has mastered the art. I have a friend who is studying philosophy and I recently had an opportunity to review some of his work. It led me to say to him: ‘clever young men use very large words. Slightly wiser old men choose to use small words that others might actually understand.’
I commend to you a good example of clarity of thought and written expression.
The first of the new Australian Land Warfare Concept Series, written by Colonel Chris Smith and Doctor Al Palazzo, titled: Coming to terms with the modern way of war: precision missiles and the land component of Australia’s joint force.
The authors told me it was the hardest thing they had to write because they knew if it wasn’t clear, insightful and expressive I wasn’t going to publish it.
There appears to be ample evidence that many beyond the Army, engaged in the defence and security discourse, broadly defined, are seduced by the careless comfort of a jargon-laden ‘insider’ lexicon. It is also obvious to me that the Army and others in the community; are hopelessly attracted to the siren call of the next ‘big shiny idea’.
Please don’t misunderstand me: in the Army’s line of work, innovation is essential.
I am not advocating either luddism or reactionary behaviour. My concern is the sheer number of new concepts that are quickly and enthusiastically embraced, and then equally quickly fall away. To me, this is indicative of the quality of thought, or lack there of, that went into the idea or its adoption.
When a commercial business embraces a dud concept it fails to make money.
The shareholders punish the Board. The company may even go out of business.
For the military it is a little different. In war, you can quickly and catastrophically find out how wrong you have been. Errors in war are usually the product of long gestation in peace. But if we’re lucky, we’ll realise the fault and quietly let an idea die, or supplant it with the next one.
Sometimes we even let an idea of great genius fall from our grasp, at the allure of that next big idea, which, as we all know, is far more interesting than the hard work of delivery.
A look at two recent and ‘much loved’ concepts – the so-called ‘revolution in military affairs’ (or RMA) and ‘hybrid wars’ – illustrate my point. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his article ‘The end of History?’ in the journal, The National Interest. He asserted:
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization (sic) of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Having won the Cold War figuratively without having fired a shot, the United States found itself at the helm of arguably the first unipolar moment in world history. By 1990 it was militarily ready to apply, if ever necessary, a new form of war it had been planning in response to the sheer scale of the Soviet conventional threat.
The RMA was an initiative that had its genesis in the 70s, and emerged throughout the 80s. It sought to harness technological advances in digitisation, precision and lethality, and apply them to a new operational concept for warfighting. And as a concept to harness and utilise advanced technology on the battlefield, it was brilliant. But somewhere along the way it lost sight of the fact that war remains a human endeavour.
We saw the precepts of the RMA writ large in the removal of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And we have seen the limitations of the RMA in the streets of Mogadishu, in the Korengal and Helmand River Valleys; Sadr City, Abu Ghraib and Fallujah.
We now know a lot more about the limitations of the RMA as a concept, from observation and participation in the Middle East area of operations over the last 15 years.
When presented with the RMA our enemies quickly learnt that if they played the way we wanted them to, they would lose. They did what any sensible combatant would do, and chose not to play by the rules of our game.
They assessed our vulnerabilities and largely operated outside and below our detection threshold. The original, innovative and valuable concept, the application of advanced technology, became a dogmatic end in itself, rather than the servant of strategy. The true test of any concept is in how closely it resembles and provides insights into the irreducible complexity of the real world.
With all the high tech gear, the fight continues, because our adversaries choose not to submit.
The main problem with the RMA, in seeking to reduce complexity through the application of precision and pervasive technologies, was that it forgot the human in the system is the cause of all the chaos. It is from humanity that the Clauswitzian ‘fog of war’ arises. The scientists and technologists didn’t collaborate and seek input from the ‘human warfare’ side of the community.
If we are to avoid similar mistakes, we all need to climb up out of our internal conversations, no matter what security theme we pursue, to engage and collaborate widely with others to improve the quality and robustness of our thinking. It would be wrong to conclude that the application of RMA technology itself is or was problematic.
Wider discussion within the broader community may have retained the essential link between man and machine, machine and man. This is why we should always be thinking deeply about how we get our people together with, and enabled by, the right technology, used in the right ways. Indeed, versions of an RMA will change warfare during the working life of the Generation Z soldiers presently entering our Army.
From software defined radios, which are here now, to unmanned and autonomous systems, directed energy weapons and nano-technology, we are likely on the cusp of profound technological change. What we must learn from thinking about the last RMA is to consider the interaction and employment of these emergent technologies with the chaotic system of humans at war.
The second concept I want to examine is what some have called ‘the son of RMA’; the concept of hybrid warfare.
The realisation of the ability; of by West, and the United States in particular, to impose massive cost on actors who challenge them conventionally, hasn’t proven synonymous with the abandonment of either interest or ambition by those actors. It has simply and logically led to adaptive behaviour by assertive states and non-state actors.
Antulio J. Echevarria II, from the Strategic Studies Institute at the United States Army War College, outlines how the claims for hybrid warfare arise, and offers a perspective on its novelty:
“Recent events in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and the South China Sea continue to take interesting, if not surprising, turns. As a result, many security experts are calling for revolutionary measures to address what they wrongly perceive to be a new form of warfare, called ‘hybrid’ or ‘gray zone’ wars, but which is, in fact, an application of classic coercive strategies.”
In short, assertive actors have defined the game they choose to play in order to achieve their perceived interests, and then calculate the amount of aggression they think they can get away with, without provoking a self-defeating response. Sensibly, these actions are spread across multiple lines of operation and endeavours, in the eternal quest for asymmetry in warfare.
I have previously stated that I don’t think there is hybrid warfare. I think there is warfare and there are interesting tactics being applied by various countries and non-state or quasi-state actors at the moment.
Any claim for novelty in such an approach is clearly at odds with the historical record.
Echevarria, again, makes this point:
“Historically, hybrid war has been the norm, whereas conventional war—which basically emerged after the Second World War—has been something of a fiction. Many experts seem not to be aware of this fact, which explains in part why ‘hybrid’ or ‘gray zone’ wars appear to be new.”
The claim that hybrid war isn’t new is amply supported by the most cursory review of the history of war. In the Americas, the conduct of revolutionary war by Washington’s Continental Army in conjunction with the Militias provides an example.
In Europe, the campaign in the Spanish Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars introduced the appellation, ‘guerrilla warfare’, which we still use to describe such wars today. And the actions of both the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company in Africa, Asia and the sub-continent typify the use of what are now being called ‘hybrid war’ approaches.
More recently, the apartheid era South African regime pursued hybrid warfare in the post-revolutionary ‘frontline states’ during the 1960s and 1970s, most notably in Angola, Zambia and Mozambique.
So, it remains uncertain to me how embracing the title ‘hybrid war’ as a concept adds to the sum of our knowledge or thinking on war. I am willing to accept for some it might be a useful tool for visualising a gap in existing ‘models’ of conflict.
I am aware that among my staff in parts of Army headquarters, the idea has varying degrees of ‘buy-in’, and is subject to vigorous debate. That is fine. There is no formal ‘Army’ position on the idea. And contestability of thought is important and to be encouraged. Indeed, contestability can be more important than the idea itself.
All too often there is a temptation to create an iconic label. In time, this label conceals rather than illuminates the problem. I think this is ultimately the problem with ‘hybrid war’.
It is an insider’s account of a problem, with ‘coded’ language, that works for insiders, but is not readily understood by the wider community. And if it isn’t understood it cannot be engaged with and doesn’t illuminate policy options. So, while concepts can be useful; they can never be a substitute for clear, critical thought which considers a problem in its wider context. This is the path to better policy and better outcomes for Australia.
It would be reasonable for you to ask me what I am doing to address and improve the quality of thinking and expression in the Australian Army. Broadly speaking, the response can be summed up under the banner professional development.
The Army has, as I noted earlier, recently looked to its training, education and doctrine in order to harness three things.
First, the opportunity of new technology to support new ways of learning and skills development.
Next, the opportunity presented by our people. Young Australians generally expect to know more, have access to more, understand more and contribute more. It is imperative that we enable this. And finally, changes in the character of war.
Borrowing from a recent study, war has long since moved on from the point where General John Monash could describe a ‘perfectly perfected battle plan as like nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition.’ Instead, continuing the musical analogy, this study suggests that contemporary military teams need to be like, “jazz musicians who interact, adapt and innovate with each other on the basis of each person’s role in the group.” This requires a different approach to how to think about performance and how we prepare our people.
We are trying to build rigour of thinking and a culture of learning into our system.
Implementing all of the initiatives within our training, education and doctrine system involves a considerable body of work. It will be a matter of years rather than months.
I also plan to re-invigorate our research capability via the reinstatement of an Army Research Centre; networked and connected with other thought centres. My hope for this research centre is that it will become a centre that stimulates thinking, ideas and policy development. In many ways, I hope the Army Research Centre will develop many of the attributes of an ‘Army think tank’.
Allan Gyngell, reflecting on the first five years of the Lowy Institute in May 2008, described four ways in which he believed think tanks make our government better and our societies more vibrant. He noted:
- They help structure the public debate,
- They improve the quality of that public debate by anchoring it in evidence,
- They produce specific new ideas, and
- They can do useful things that are impossible for governments. They can float ideas that are too risky for governments.
While I retain some reservations about the applicability of the idea implicit in the final point for an Army Research Centre, I see great utility in striving for the first three. As the Nation’s subject matter expert on joint land warfare, it is appropriate the Australian Army contributes to the development of clear and relevant thinking about war. I welcome the introduction of ‘contestability’ as part of the ongoing implementation of the Defence First Principles Review.
Policy development is improved by exposure to robust, thoughtful and relevant criticism. It sharpens our thinking to explain and respond to the serious ‘real world’ problems that confront us.
I hope the Army will be a consistent contributor, and occasional thought-leader, on Defence capability and national security challenges. Indeed, I welcome ongoing cooperation and partnership with all the elements of our national security community; other government agencies, industry, academia and the broader community of interest.
Just as winning a war is a whole of society effort, so to should be thinking about the problems it raises.
I began these remarks inviting clarity of thought and understanding within Army, and others, on issues confronting the defence and national security community. The simple fact is that we have a lot of challenges and we don’t have the luxury of being ‘too wrong’ about how to deal them.
While we might pine for the days when Ulysses S. Grant could state, “the art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”
It seems unlikely that such advice will suffice in an era of empowered individuals, assertive states and an unstable planet.
The policy answers to these issues will not lie in any single service, organisation or even nation. They will require engagement, collaboration and sharing of rigorous and confronting ideas with the widest possible policy community.
The audience gathered here today is just such a community.