Chief of Army address to the Lowy Institute
It is a pleasure to be here in Sydney this afternoon to address the Lowy Institute for International Policy on Australia’s Army for the next decades. This institute has provided independent research and analysis for over a decade now. It has, in my opinion, continually produced work that is ‘inspired by knowledge that Australia’s future depends on our capacity to understand, and respond to, a rapidly changing world.’
The Australian Army also appreciates the requirement to understand, and respond to, a rapidly changing world. It is with the knowledge of this shared appreciation that I am delighted to be able to contribute to the discussion by speaking about the Australian Army for the third decade of this so called Asia-Pacific Century.
I was fortunate to speak at another preeminent institution that focuses on contemporary matters, ASPI, last week. That speech centred on the development of a maritime strategy in this Country and unapologetically drew from a recent paper by the leading Australian academic, Professor Mike Evans entitled “The Third Way: Towards an Australian Maritime Strategy for the 21st Century”. I think it is prescribed reading for anyone interested in contemporary security and defence matters and I recommend it to you.
This speech is focused more on the strategic issues facing your Army but I need to apply the same qualification as I did at ASPI. With a Defence White Paper and Force Structure Review due to be delivered in the near future, I am going to be very careful not to get out in front of my Government.
Having said that I don’t think it contentious to observe that Australia is entering one of the most uncertain and challenging eras of its history. We are poised to be a beneficiary of what is being termed colloquially as the Asia-Pacific Century, though, I, like many, now prefer the more lengthy, but more accurate, term Indo-Asia-Pacific Century.
We are ideally located to capitalise on what has been termed the Asia-Pacific Century, though, like many I now prefer the more lengthy, but more accurate, term Indo-Asia-Pacific Century.
Such transitional eras present particular challenges to Land Forces. We are obliged to try to discern the meta-trends around the use of force, all while scanning the environment in search of any disruptive changes in international relations or technology.
Military planners tend to be realists with a dose of pessimism. Of course many argue that we are entering an era when military readiness can be reduced to reap a peace dividend. It has a familiar and hollow ring to me.
Indeed, I enlisted in the Army as we were scaling down from a protracted and ultimately unsuccessful foreign war. We had fought well and over time achieved a high level of professional mastery of limited war in close terrain. Our soldiers and basic units of action were in superb trim.
Yet over the ensuing three decades the Army atrophied and, to an extent, lost its way. We were drastically reduced in size and I think, with the wisdom of hindsight, we failed to make the case to government to maintain our war fighting proficiency at unit and formation level. While Defence in general suffered from neglect, it was too easy for Army to blame external factors for the decline in our capacity. Certainly we lacked resources. But we were also authors of our own misfortune.
We became too insular and drew too many dubious lessons from our post World War II operations, nearly all of which were irregular, limited war. The Army I joined believed war was synonymous with jungle fighting by light infantry sub units. This inhibited our thinking and analysis about the kinetic revolution on the battlefield that commenced with the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and achieved a stunning apotheosis during Operation DESERT STORM in 1991.
For nearly three decades we reduced our combat weight and made air portable light infantry forces our priority. There were sound reasons in both strategic guidance and readiness requirements to justify this. And scant resources also conspired to make necessity a virtue. However, it also distorted our thinking about war and it ultimately exercised a damaging effect on both our combat weight and the balance of force structure.
Consequently, by the time the East Timor crisis erupted with little warning in 1999 we were seriously deficient in a range of vital aspects of land operations and lacked a coherent force structure. Notably we had a great difficulty deploying, commanding and sustaining a fairly modest Australian Force much less the multi-national coalition we led.
Moreover, we lost capacity to engage in sustained close combat employing combined arms teams. This was potentially a catastrophic failure because delivery of that capability is the primary obligation of the land forces of a nation state.
Ever since the 2000 White Paper, Government has recognised that Australia must be able, either alone or in coalition, to deploy joint force elements in our archipelagic approaches. The Defence of Australia fantasy, which had become interpreted as Continental Defence was eclipsed by reality on the day that the INTERFET advance party deplaned in Dili.
Since then, the ability to mount and sustain a robust brigade deployment in our immediate neighbourhood has been the leit-motif of strategic guidance to the ADF, regardless of the political complexion of the Australian Government. That capability implies entry by air and sea. Hence, it is innately joint with profound implications for the force structures of the RAN and RAAF.
Since 2000, successive Governments of Australia, and each of my predecessors as the Chief of the Army, have worked relentlessly to remedy those deficiencies. The initial remediation of the glaring defects exposed by the Timor crisis was known as The Enhanced Land Force. This provided for the expansion of our infantry battalions and their support elements, particularly deployable logistics.
Yet even before these measures had been fully implemented, the Army was committed by our Government to the diverse range of operations, which were launched in response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Rather than witnessing the End of History, as some optimists predicted, the 21st Century has become what eminent British strategic thinker Colin Gray termed “Another Bloody Century.”
The effect of this has been to place sustained demands on the Australian Defence Force, especially the Army. Since East Timor in 1999 we have carried out a significant constabulary operation in The Solomon Islands, surged in response to a major crisis in Timor Leste and provided significant Land Force components to Joint Coalition operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention humanitarian relief efforts in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
This has imposed considerable strain on our force generation and sustainment elements and also been hard on our soldiers and their families. We have adapted and learnt as operations presented fresh challenges.
The Army has changed dramatically since 1999 both in response to our deliberate planning and modernisation initiatives but also as a consequence of improvisation and adaptation in response to lessons acquired from operations.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan delivered a wake-up call to Western Armies. There was nothing novel in facing irregular enemies, even those backed by state sponsors or who operated in concert with regular forces. This has been a feature of warfare throughout history. However, it soon became clear that the levels of lethality available to individuals and small teams was much greater than anything we had encountered previously. Moreover, the diffusion of Information Technology had democratises access to the means of violence empowering individuals and small cells.
Indeed, the exponential increase in the killing power of improvised explosive devices and the proliferation of man portable weapons of various types has compressed the spectrum of violence. I reject perennial claims that the nature of war has changed. As eminent military historian Hew Strachan has noted, war retains the essential nature that Clausewitz discerned; namely a violent duel over policy objectives.
Rather, the violent Trinitarian nature of war endures. Doctrinaire classifications of conflict according to the complexion or organisation of one protagonist have not proven to be much help to soldiers on the ground. Indeed, we in the West have arguably sought to achieve too much theoretical granularity, which has resulted in sacrificing an essential appreciation of the universal, enduring and elemental violence of war.
If a boy from a village in Helmand can trigger a device that can destroy your heavily protected, modern armoured vehicle, you are unlikely to find it useful to ask whether he is a state or non-state actor or whether he thinks he is in a war or an insurgency.
The shock of this level of violence and the agility of our enemy demanded a response from us. Firstly, we recognised that we were simply too light to survive on the modern battlefield. And secondly, we recognised that our enemies adapted and innovated more rapidly than we did. This forced us to implement two vital reforms.
Firstly, even as the Enhanced Land Force was being developed, we embarked on Hardening and Networking the Army. We urgently acquired a replacement Main Battle Tank to provide the foundation of a robust combined arms team. In 2003 no Australian combat team could have survived protracted operations in Fallujah. I venture to claim we could today.
We also began the transformation from a light infantry based army to one in which every soldier was able to manoeuvre in a light armoured vehicle. This was long overdue. We are still on this journey to develop a mechanised combined arms team as our basic unit of action. But I will leave the Army well in sight of that objective through our steady progress towards the LAND 400 suite of projects.
In addition to those urgent increases in combat weight, mobility, firepower, situational awareness, and connectivity, we also rationalised our system of functional commands. This too was overdue, and under the Adaptive Army, we brought our higher command and control structures into alignment with the joint headquarters, that commanded our deployed joint forces.
The way we raised and trained our forces was finally aligned with our joint operational posture. Moreover, we recognised that there was a chasm between our splendid individual training system and our collective training competence. There is no audit on an Army like ten years of war and we had lost foundation war fighting skills at anything above sub unit level.
I am proud to say that we streamlined our individual and collective training systems and created an effective learning loop between current operations and our domestic training system. I am also proud to say that for the last several years our soldiers have deployed with the best equipment training and preparation of any force we have ever sent overseas. That is a fact and we all should derive immense satisfaction from it. The raise, train and sustain functions of soldiering are the least glamorous but are actually those to which most us devote the majority of our service. The Australian Army is in the best shape ever in its integration and execution of these functions.
However, as professionals we must do our best to ensure that our forces are hedged against future shocks and are able to adapt in contact when the next conflict emerges. The concept of continuous modernisation is not mere jargon for an Army. It is the inevitable response to the confluence of demographic and societal change, advances in technology and shifts in the political balance both within our region and globally.
So what do we perceive as the most salient features of the future environment? I believe that the characteristics that will define the operating environment from now until at least 2035 are, that it will be crowded, connected, lethal, collective and constrained. What do I mean by those terms?
Crowded. The term Crowded encompasses the range of factors that create complex human, informational and urban physical terrain, including, rural to urban migration, population growth.
Connected refers to the propensity of global economic, social and communications systems to become increasingly interconnected within the future operating environment.
Lethal. High levels of weapons’ lethality are no longer restricted to nation states and regular armed forces.
Collective – well alliances count. Your Army needs to be able to lead, or be a creditable contributor to the coalition forces.
Constrained. The term Constrained is used to encapsulate limitations and restrictions that will define, influence and constrain how the land force conducts future land warfare – everything from available resources, time to respond or rules of engagement.
Those of you steeped in literature about the Changing Character of War may think you detect the influence on that language of David Kilcullen, the eminent thinker on contemporary war, who has discerned population growth, littoralisation and connectivity, as shaping the battle space. Well you do.
David of course is very much a product of our Army and its small wars tradition. His latest work – Out of the Mountains – is a terrific insight into the contemporary operating environment and the challenges and opportunities, which it provides to land forces.
David was just one of a number of leading thinkers whom we consulted in drafting our current foundation doctrine which will be released this year. We consult widely among think tanks, universities and allied Armies in environmental scans and I am confident that our encapsulation of the salient features of the future land domain reflects that considerable intellectual rigour.
How are we planning to posture for this environment? No Chief of Army starts with a blank canvas. The Army has been well served by a series of leaders who shared a common vision of what right looked like. Our current modernisation plans seek to build a robust and relevant Army that can generate the land force we will need in the third decade of this century.
When I assumed command of the Army I was determined to carry the HNA and Adaptive Army plans to fruition and to preserve the hard won gains of the past decade against the complacency that often accompanies the termination of a foreign war.
In particular, both logic and the changing character of war alike demanded that we make a more rational use of our vehicle fleets and standardise our brigades. The system of maintaining a spread of diverse capabilities was no longer viable. In an Army our size, the idea that an officer or soldier was a Townsville, Brisbane or Darwin specialist was simply unsustainable.
We needed a standard multi role brigade organisation with common doctrine, training and inventories. Without this we could not field combined arms teams capable of facing credible competitors, nor meet the legitimate demand of the Government of Australia that outlines we must be capable of sustained operations by a brigade in our Primary Operating Environment. There was an cogent and tested logic to this. We needed three like brigades to maintain that commitment over time. Plan Beersheba delivers that and more.
In addition to the three standard multi role combat brigades, we have rationalised our enabling brigades, centred on aviation, ISTAR and logistics. They support the three manoeuvre brigades that constitute the tip of the spear.
This is of profound importance. It husbands scarce resources and allocates some very rare skills to the point of operational decision. Until this innovation we had to penny packet some of our highly specialised trades and skills and this was both haphazard and very draining on the specialists involved.
In a climate of fiscal austerity Plan Beersheba is sound from a force generation perspective, but it is also very sound economics. That is why it enjoys bipartisan political endorsement.
Backing the enabling brigades is a leaner and more capable Reserve organisation comprising six Brigades at a much higher level of readiness than any reserve forces in our history. Our reserves are now more capable and more integrated into the regular component and at a degree of readiness that is essential to our capability. Again good force structure and good economics coalesce in this respect.
Under Plan Beersheba, Army is trialling a more robust amphibious capability nested within the 3rd Brigade in Townsville. The introduction to service of the Landing Helicopter Docks (or LHDs as they are known) is a milestone in the history of the Australian Defence Force.
So strongly do I feel about the importance of the ADF’s joint capability that I made the decision to forego self-propelled howitzers in order to assist in funding a balanced joint-force. Australia needs its ADF more than it needs its Army, Navy or Air Force.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Army’s integration into Australia’s Maritime Grand Strategy and the development of a mature force projection capability. Few nations on earth will be able to mount joint operations orchestrating air, sea, and land forces linked by space based assets. Australia has not fielded as credible an amphibious capability since the closing stages of the Pacific war. This is a considerable achievement for a medium power and ensures that the ADF has the means to match the Government’s intent that we be capable of decisive, full-spectrum operations in the archipelagic approaches to the continent.
Yet as Mike Evans has argued so eloquently, nurturing true sea mindedness – or oceanic consciousness – in a Nation whose popular culture is so deeply Continental, presents a major challenge to Australia. Changing doctrine, organisation and equipment will not suffice to remedy this deficiency in our maritime posture. This will require a national conversation over time.
As I prepare to leave the Army I draw sober satisfaction that we are in a very good shape. We are well into the most significant re-equipment program since the Second World War. We are digitising and maintaining forces afloat. All this has been achieved at a time of diverse complex operations overseas.
Yet my tenure will probably be most remembered for about three minutes of video, which gained considerable public notoriety through the pervasiveness of social media.
Issues pertaining to culture, especially the expansion of opportunities for women to serve along side men in all appointments without harassment have dominated the public perception of the Army over the past three years. I did not anticipate this, However, I believe that we are now a more inclusive force, more representative of the nation, which we serve. That is good news per se.
But my motives in leading the way of cultural change were not purely altruistic. Unless the Army and the ADF in its entirety stays abreast of the seismic shifts in Australia’s demography and the ensuring changes in the composition and age of the labour pool, we risk becoming an occupational ghetto – a smokestack industry the failed to adapt to changing social norms.
I believe that we have set down the conditions for success over the past three years and that our own cultural revolution has achieved unstoppable momentum.
On that optimistic note I am happy to answer any questions you may have.