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Transcript of a speech delivered by Major General Chris Smith to the U.S. Army Maneuver War Fighter Conference on 17 February 2022

Fort Benning Maneuver Center of Excellence

Watch MAJGEN Chris Smith delivering the speech on YouTube

A U.S. Marine with 3d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Ground Combat Element, Marine Rotational Force-Darwin 22, manoeuvres through RAAF Base Curtin during an airfield seizure event as part of Exercise Koolendong 2022.

Now, I have to admit to being a little bit anxious.

Pat has unfairly stuck me between General Flynn and General Abrams – two hard acts to follow and, I get the sense from this week, which is supposed to be about the Indo-Pacific, that the Russian and European flavour of the week suggests a bias against the theatre which I am about to talk about. 

To that end, I think that some of the things I will say might invite some criticism.

What I will say will stand at odds to some of the previous speakers on several points, and if that’s not enough reason to be anxious, Russia is set to invade the Ukraine potentially proving most of what I say wrong.

So the perfect ingredients for an interesting talk, I think. 

As one of the final speakers of this forum, I want to try and bring everything we’ve covered this week together.

I think I can do so by discussing some of the features of the debate in Australia about a future war in the Indo–Pacific and its implications for land forces.

While I’ll do my best to talk about it from the perspective of an ally, which is my brief, I can’t avoid linking my observations to the debate about future war generally, nor can I avoid the discussions about the relative utility of land forces in the Indo-Pacific that is taking place here in the United States too.

That said, allow me to quickly summarise the features of the debate in Australia to set up the case.

At the risk of oversimplifying, many of the pundits in Australia imagine future warfare as battles of long-range strike coupled with ubiquitous sensors and supported by operations in the electro-magnetic spectrum, in space and in cyberspace.

  • Think ‘kill chains’ and ‘kill webs’ to borrow John Antals language.
  • Think warfare by planes, ships, satellites, radars, ‘cyber warriors’ and MDTFs.

At its most sophisticated, the pundits imagine these systems operating together within an advanced digital network and they imagine the network will have an artificial brain with the power to link the optimal sensor to the optimal available effector, so as to attack the optimal target for the optimal effect.

John called it the ‘battlefield internet of things’, I think, a future war of targeting and long-range strike, neat, technical, distant and inhuman.

Given this vision of future warfare, recent decisions by the Australian Federal Government have come in for a great deal of criticism.

The decisions include:

  • acquiring 75 M1A2 SEP version 3 main battle tanks, 
  • six more M88A2 Hercules recovery vehicles to add to our existing fleet, 
  • 29 M1150 assault breacher vehicles, 
  • 17 M1074 joint assault bridge systems, 
  • 30 K9 self-propelled howitzers, 
  • and a pending decision to acquire something in the order of 450 infantry fighting vehicles – either the Rheinmetall Puma or the Korean K10.

It represents a complete renewal of Australia’s modest conventional warfare capability, and it means the Australian Army is getting heavier in response to the contemporary challenges in the Indo-Pacific, not lighter.

I’ll talk more about that feature later.

Those against modernising the Army in this way believe the money would be better spent on more missiles, on B-21 bombers, drones, and the like, or potentially more land-based long-range strike missiles, including anti-ship missiles, which Australia will also acquire in the coming decade. 

In the critics’ minds, there is no role in a future war for forces designed for ground combat.

They believe the Army is really only useful for regional stabilisation missions like those led by Australia in the Solomon Islands and Timor about twenty years ago.

But why is this so? 

Why do so many pundits take the view that future warfare in the region is largely about long-range strike, and why do they take the view that land forces are largely irrelevant to future warfare in the Indo-Pacific? 

I think it is in part because of five bad assumptions or premises about warfare, which the critics seem to share.

First is a tendency to conflate battle and war – which is something, by-the-way, that we’ve heard a little bit of this week.

Second is that the discussion about future wars is largely a context-free-zone.

Third, which is related to the first two, is that we all tend to over-estimate the capacity of our imaginations, and we are all probably rather ignorant of the serious limits of our ability to comprehend how a future war might unfold. 

Fourth, which is a corollary of the previous three, is a tendency to take quite a superficial view of the effect of new and emerging technologies on warfare, 

And fifth, the critics seem to buy into a dogma that, even to the extent land forces might be useful in a future Indo-Pacific war, the geography of the Indo-Pacific demands light forces rather than heavy ones.

So I’ll look to expand on these five features of the debate about a future Pacific war in the hope that it yields some important thoughts and some useful discussion;

I particularly hope to encourage some discussion about manoeuvre in contemporary warfare in light of advanced kill chains and kill webs, and more particularly, I hope to encourage some reflection about the utility of land forces in the Indo-Pacific more generally.

Let’s begin with the first flaw in thinking about future warfare.

It is to mistake the first engagement or battle of the next war for the war itself. 

Now we’ve seen a little of this tendency from some of the speakers this week.

  • General Funk spoke strongly about the importance of winning the first battle in the next war.
  • John Antal spoke about the criticality of the first-strike-advantage to winning the first battle, and he spoke about the tempo of war, which I think he mistook for the tempo of battle – quite a different thing.
  • Matt Cansdale spoke of the importance of the first battle yesterday.

Just recently, a senior officer declared to an audience of aviators in Hawaii that the next war would be decided in the first battle.

And late last year, I was part of a bilateral Army-to-Army forum with the United States HQDA at which a senior American officer suggested that it was essential that the United States and Australia win the first battle of the next war.

Now that’s just Army officers.

While I don’t doubt that winning the first battle would be better than losing it, this conflation of war and battle underpins many of the contributions to the debate, which I think is folly.

It’s folly because I think it causes the debate to tend to focus on the limited challenge of winning the first engagement of some future war rather than the far more complex and difficult challenge of winning the war and achieving the policy intended by the war.

It focuses on tactics rather campaigns.

And to the extent that the Australian pundits imagine what the first battle will be like, they tend to imagine a great exchange of missiles - principally involving ships and planes.

Those that believe that the first battle will decide the next war tend to emphasise the lack of endurance and resilience of one side, while over-emphasising the endurance of the other. 

This belief in the importance of quick victory has been a common belief among many war planners in the last two-hundred years.

The belief of a quick war was common amongst the intelligentsia in the years prior to First World War.

And it was a factor in the United States decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

Japan’s hope that it could force the United States out of the Pacific War in 1941 by a single surprise attack on Pearl Harbour was largely born of the same thinking. 

While Admiral Yamamoto was strongly of the view that Japan, “should do [its] best to decide the fate of the war on the very first day,” he privately held reservations about the Pearl Harbour attack.

He believed the idea was “conceived in desperation.

It was premised on the wishful thinking that the United States, with a reputation for waging war until unconditional surrender, would simply accept the annihilation of a considerable part of its air and naval forces in a single surprise attack, and accept the loss of all of its power in Asia.

Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa on the back of similar wishful thinking.

The first battles on the Korean Peninsula didn’t decide that war in the summer of 1950.

And Argentina’s fait-accompli invasion of the Falkland Islands wasn’t the end of events there either thanks largely to Margaret Thatcher.

With all that in mind, it’s hard to imagine a context in which the first battle would resolve much at all.

-    Particularly a battle fought only at sea?

What happens after the first missile salvos are done, and after tonnes of shipping and the wreckage of planes lie on the bottom of the ocean?

Regardless of who wins or loses this imagined battle at sea, what will have been resolved? 

What aim of policy will either side have achieved?

Destruction of things is only a means to an end, not an end in itself.

And therein lies the folly of believing the first battle will decide the next war. 

It provides an excuse for us to avoid thinking about what happens after the initial engagement ends.

It allows us to avoid the difficult business of considering the enormous and costly logistical challenge of sustaining a campaign of many battles over months and potentially years.

We can avoid the uncomfortable thinking about what the second, third and fourth battles might be like.

Will there be a counter attack? How costly will that attack be in lives, materiel and economic opportunity?

And what of the consequences for the security of the homeland? 

What of the consequences for commercial shipping and trade under threat from submarines?

It has deeper implications too, I suspect.

If one imagines that the next war will be decided in the first battle, thinking about conventional deterrence becomes a shallow assessment of the potential to defeat an adversary in that first battle too.

It necessarily gives little weight to the potential for the enemy to make assessments about our capacity to not only win the first battle, but endure many battles to win the war. 

What if the adversary is prepared to lose the first battle, absorb the cost, and fight again as the United States did in 1941?

And perhaps most importantly, it allows thinkers to discount warfare on the land because arguably it is much easier to imagine the first engagement of an Indo-Pacific war occurring at sea.

So, moving to the second folly, when someone is describing their vision of the first engagement in the next war, it is often difficult to know what circumstances the person making the observation has in mind.

Are they talking about a particular potential contingency such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or some missile exchange in the South China Sea?

Are they talking about some unanticipated future war fought over something unforeseen or unimagined (which if history is anything to go by, is a more likely occurrence) - for example what of a proxy civil war in Asia in which Chinese and American interests clash?

Or are they talking about the relative merits and utility of certain forces for peacetime competition with another country, or for deterrence.

In other words, without an agreed context, any argument about something in the future is valid, and people can pursue their biases somewhat unchallenged. 

But more importantly perhaps, without a clear sense of the policy aim or the matter to be resolved (which is often only possible to know in the immediacy of the emerging crisis), the only thing concrete left to wrestle with is how battles might unfold free of context.

Thinking about war without context tends to boil down to quantifiable things such as comparisons or assessments of the relative effects of weapon systems.

And so you end up with pundits making rather strong assertions about warfare in the next war that are quite reasonable on face value, but fail to grasp that these assertions don’t hold true for all circumstances because the circumstances of the imagined future war matter decisively. 

The public contributions of Australian defence analysts Marcus Hellyer and Hugh White tend to follow this line.

They ask, why engage in close combat when you can simply destroy your enemy from a stand-off distance.

Admittedly, Hugh’s assessment is not entirely without context.

It comes from a view that Australia should only seek to use force in defence of its own shores.

… if only foreign policy choices were so simple.

But I think this type of thinking forgets that technological advances in the 20th Century that were expected to diminish the importance or necessity of close combat did not.

For example, the rapid modernisation of artillery and machine guns prior to the First World War did not negate the need for infantry to close with the enemy and engage in primitive close-quarter fighting.

Neither did the long-range bomber before the Second World War, much to the disappointment of the air-power theorists of the interwar period.

I’ll touch more on this line of thinking when we get to the fourth assumption.

But before then we need to quickly consider the third folly.

It is closely related to the last one, and it leads neatly into the next.

It is that many of us lack humility about the inadequacies of our imaginations and the inadequacies of our abilities to comprehend how a future war might unfold. 

Despite the sorry record of predictions of future war and warfare throughout history, many pundits in the debate, at least many in Australia, speak with unwarranted certainty and authority about the features of a future war. 

This is despite the future’s irreducible unknowability, and despite the historical record’s litany of parlous predictions about future wars and future warfare.

Another fascinating example comes from General Jim Eisenhower’s hometown newspaper written on 27 February 1941. 

Addressing the likelihood of the local 34th Division participating in the Second World War, the paper said:

“World War II is a battle of airplanes and naval units.  No one expects the United States infantry to leave the borders of the nation, even if this country should get into the war.”

The 34th Division would go on to see 517 days on in combat in the war, a number surpassed only by 32nd Division. 

Jim, of course, is the commander of the 1st MDTF.

The problem with this tendency to be so sure about the features of a future war and future warfare, is perhaps an unwillingness by some to entertain alternative views of the potentialities of the future.

Given the limits of our imaginations, and given our poor record of predicting future warfare, I think it makes sense to be circumspect. 

Now that brings us to a discussion of the fourth folly.

I am at risk of hypocrisy here, because it will appear that I am making predictions about future warfare despite having just criticised it.

Where I do, I offer merely a thesis. 

My aim is modest, to simply illustrate that an advanced and long-range strike complex might have far reaching and counter-intuitive consequences on warfare.

Now the fourth folly is that the limits of our imaginations perhaps causes us to think rather superficially about the effects of new and emerging technologies on warfare. 

The pundits don’t seem to consider how armed forces might adapt in response to the new technologies. 

Think for example how the mix of technologies unleashed in the First World War resulted in the stabilised front.

The stabilised front was unexpected, and it was contrary to the aims of all involved, who all hoped for a rapid conclusion to the war on their terms.

Of course it took three years of fighting, countless experiments, and millions of dead to restore manoeuvre and decision to the battlefield. 

To that end, those that hope technology will preclude a long and bloody war in the near future puts them in the company of Julio Douhet, and any number of airpower theorists of the 20th Century. 

Speedy and relatively bloodless victory in war through sophisticated targeting and long-range strikes is likely to prove just as elusive as all previous attempts at the same.

In fact new and emerging technologies might, like the technologies of the First World War, just as easily contribute to a new form of long and bloody wars of attrition. 

As we’ve already discussed, missiles, sensors, and the other things we now call multi-domain capabilities - things like space, cyber and electronic warfare – dominate contemporary thinking about warfare, which is right, to a point.

But it is not the whole picture.

I think that not just in Australia, but internationally, the focus has been too much on the systems themselves and their immediate and superficial consequences rather than how the combination of new technologies will affect warfare.

Now, these tendencies and preferences are understandable. 

Long-range precision missiles, combined with advanced sensors, give the defender the potential to create killing zones with enormous depth encompassing the air, sea and land.

We have seen in the Eastern Ukraine and in Nagorno-Karabakh, how the density of modern sensors and strike systems might mean that in the future they could become resilient against long-range precision counter-strikes and other methods of neutralisation.

Tactics that once allowed an attacker to manoeuvre in the face of fire and close with an enemy might become too expensive and uncertain to attempt. 

A lodgement on a shore protected by an enemy armed with a sophisticated ‘kill web’ might be all but impossible without incurring decisive losses of people and machines. 

And we cannot assume that we can simply take down the system as a pre-condition for the next operational phase.

Now that would be a good thing in Australia’s case, but only if Australia’s defence policy were solely focussed on national territorial defence, which it is not.

Australia’s Government, like the United States and many other like-minded countries, recognises that our collective security and prosperity are directly affected by events well beyond our collective shores, and well beyond our maritime and land approaches.

So if these new-age strike complexes do favour the defender so decisively, perhaps the most difficult and important challenge for us is working out how to manoeuvre in the face of an adversary’s anti-access envelope. 

How do you restore the balance in warfare between the defender and the attacker back to a more neutral setting? 

One way, of course, is to seize the initiative and hold the key terrain from the outset. 

While this is largely a question of national agreements for access and basing, it is an important consideration nonetheless. 

But possessing the key terrain pre-emptively might not be possible, so developing ways to penetrate and manoeuvre within an enemy’s area denial envelope might be necessary.

The experience of the First World War suggests that those same ideas that overcame the defensive anti-access envelope then (the no-man’s land of the Western Front) can be reconceptualised in ways that will restore the equilibrium between the defence and the offense now.

For example, as John Antal suggested on Tuesday, novel ways of employing decoys, electronic warfare and cyber might assist in crossing the enemy’s anti-access envelope and to immobilise parts of it.

Large numbers of inexpensive but protected small craft (vehicles and watercraft) mixed with autonomous decoys with common signatures, might be necessary to cover vast no-mans-lands encompassing land and water and still get enough troops across to carry the day at close quarters. 

The aim being quite simply, to absorb enough of the enemy’s fire but still get enough troops into the close spaces to carry the day.

I agree, therefore, with those who have said this week that the next war will likely be an age-old question of mass.

Perhaps as the Chinese copy the United States with large and exquisite platforms ripe for missile attack, now is the time to change to the small, many, autonomous and cheap.

I think Matt Cansdale made a good point yesterday.

I think he observed something along the lines of, that the lessons of the Second World War were present in the 1930s, if only people looked.

The effect of advanced kill webs and kill chains on tactics is already being felt. 

From the former Yugoslavia to Gaza, Grozny, and Mosul, weaker and less-advanced adversaries sought the cover of difficult terrain.

Forces subject to advanced strike complexes tend to hide in features such as cities, mountains, caves, tunnels and jungles to avoid the firepower of their more powerful opponents. 

They also often hide amongst targets that cannot be attacked such as civilians and critical infrastructure increasing the potential political cost on an adversary. 

When a force fails to take such precautions the results can be devastating. 

In the Donbass and Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, we have seen that troops caught in the open have suffered greatly. 

Advanced strike complexes of modern armed forces seem to have simply forced warfare into more tight and complex spaces.

It suggests that large battles in open spaces, including the sea and air, might become or might have already become decisively one-sided, and they might therefore become increasingly rare. 

On the contrary, battles in close and complex terrain might become the norm (if not so already).

Some land forces, such as ISIS, have recognised the danger of the open and adjusted their tactics to minimise the risk to their operations. 

ISIS’s forces, for example, tended to move across open ground in small groups that were barely detectable and represented a small reward for the expenditure of expensive advanced munitions. 

This method contrasted with the large convoys of Toyota Hiluxes in which its troops boldly and openly raced across Iraq and Syria in the early stages of their advance. 

ISIS’s troops formed into larger groups when in the relative safety of close urban terrain, where they were more able to avoid detection and were more willing to accept combat. 

The close terrain afforded a more neutral setting as Laura Jaeger pointed out on Monday.

If the examples from the small wars of the last thirty years are anything to go by, land warfare (if not warfare broadly) might now resemble the island-hopping campaign in the Western Pacific of the Second World War.

Close terrain is perhaps akin to the islands from which the Japanese established their fortresses. 

Open terrain is like the oceans between, except that now the ‘oceans’ or open-spaces are far more dangerous places to be, and where troops are most vulnerable. 

It is no surprise, therefore, that the fighting to recapture territory from ISIS in Iraq was characterised by a series of battles for cities and towns.

To that end, I wonder whether specialisation - with some exceptions - might be the wrong path.

I wonder whether the same force needs to be able to cross large expanses of open spaces quickly and under armour, but also fight a combined arms battle to break into the next fortified complex off the line of march,

And having broken in, fight effectively in the tight spaces of the fortifications and urban streets and buildings. 

And, to sustain the fight, the force will need to get a steady stream of supplies from the last city or fortification to the next, across an open space covered by an advanced strike complex and roving swarms of UAVs.

I suspect that this is the future challenge.

And I wonder whether we ought to be working out how to solve these particular problems.

But I also think this First-World-War metaphor is more broadly useful when thinking about employing precision weapons. 

It is not just a land warfare metaphor.

Just as the US Army, the US Marine Corps and the Australian Army seized islands and coastal airstrips to advance their air forces in the Pacific in World War II, so too land forces might be necessary to project and defend long-range strike capabilities in the future. 

In other words, as John Richardson observed yesterday, land forces in some circumstances serve to seize and hold locations from which long-range strike is made possible.

To use the World War One analogy again; just as riflemen served primarily to protect machine guns, which were the primary killing system that dominated no-mans-land, land forces might in future often serve to protect and enable precision strike, which might be the primary killing systems in new no-mans-lands of enormous scale.

So, to bring these ideas and threads together, it is likely that in a future war in the Indo-Pacific involving precision weapons, cities, towns and other complex terrain in the littoral might become the metaphorical machine gun nests for precision strike systems, which will be defended by ground troops.

Now these ideas, for the time being, are just a raw thesis.

The live experiment about to unfold in the Ukraine could well make a fool of me. 

But by exploring ideas like these and putting them out for debate and critique, I think we might be able to engage a broad community in exploring the utility of land forces in the Pacific beyond small wars.

Because it seems to me that the subject of area denial and the more difficult problem of penetrating an enemy’s area denial envelope should energise all three services, and the experts in the other two domains.

And so, it might just be the thing that gives our services a common joint focus.

Now that brings me to folly number five, which is a bit of an outlier.

I’ll discuss it only briefly in the interests of time.

But I just want to briefly ask this audience to reflect on the orthodoxy that says that land warfare in the Indo-Pacific demands light forces.

Given I’ve spoken for so long, I’ll simply make five quick observations only, then I’ll bring things to a quick close.

To be honest, this last point is probably deserving of an address of its own:

The first observation is simply to point out the heaviness of Asian armies.

Many regional armies possess large numbers of tanks.

I encourage you to take a look at the armies of South East Asia and see for yourself.

It’s worth also pointing out that tanks were used extensively in the Second World War in the Pacific by the United States Army, The Marine Corps and the Australian Army.

And, a report by the Australian Defence Science and Technology Group found that when tanks were in support of Australian infantry attacks on NVA and VC bunker systems in Vietnam, the result was always a victory for the attacker, the number of Australian casualties was markedly less, and the number of enemy casualties was markedly greater.

Tanks were more decisive than artillery and close air support.

-    I have the report if anyone is interested.

And it’s worth pointing out that Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 involved hundreds of tanks on both sides.

The second observation is to simply point out that tanks were invented in the First World War to overcome the mud and obstacles of the Western Front.

Notions that tanks are too heavy for Asian terrain forgets that tanks are actually designed particularly for challenging and difficult terrain.

The third observation is to point out the relative size of places in South East Asia.

The islands and land masses in Asia are not too small for large scale manoeuvre.

The area encompassing Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia is of a similar size to Europe, yet we don’t describe Europe as a maritime theatre.

Nagorno-Karabakh is roughly the same size as East Timor.

The Donbass is smaller than Taiwan by 4,000 square kilometres.

It took two armies and six corps to seize Manila in 1944/45. 

Okinawa, which is just 900 square kilometres, took half a million troops to seize, including 250,000 combat troops, against 76,000 fortified Japanese.

You get my drift.

The last observation I will make is to question the assumption that heavy forces are too difficult to deploy to the region.

This observation might be true, but perhaps rather than throwing up our arms, we ought to solve the problem.

After all, lacking the capability to recapture territory seized as a fait-accompli, such as a small island, is unlikely to discourage a nation from doing this sort of thing.

So there you go.

I am going to bring things to an abrupt end there. I hope I’ve thrown out enough chaff to encourage you to think, and perhaps to induce some good discussion.

But can I just end on one positive point, all of the above suggests that Pat is right.

The future for manoeuvre forces looks a lot like small infantry/ tank teams operating in intimate cooperation.

Thank you.

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.

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