The Australian Army’s Coming Strategic Role
The Implications of the Precision Strike Revolution
For several decades, the art of war has been in the midst of a revolution. The combination of pervasive sensors with long-range precision strike capabilities, that was first evident in the 1991 Gulf War, has spread globally. Once the Australian Army acquires HIMARS, it too will gain the ability to strike with precision and at distances which are currently beyond reach. Moreover, as the technology improves, the distance at which these weapons can hit targets will only increase. Perhaps the 2,000 kilometre killing zone that I have previously written about will soon be a reality.
The Army has acquired powerful new weapons before, but none has ever reshaped the land force’s capabilities to the extent that will accompany the arrival of long-range precision strike. Previous weapons all improved Army’s capabilities at the tactical level of war. HIMARS, and its upgrades, will establish Army’s place at the strategic level of war, and at a level in the nation’s defence hierarchy equal to that presently enjoyed by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). However, to achieve the full potential of the long-range precision strike revolution, Army will need to transform its philosophy, organisation, and cultural hierarchy.
A Different Philosophy
To maximise future combat capability, the Army must repurpose its fighting philosophy. It should be fairly obvious that, with distant strike missiles, the Army will take a greater role in securing Australia’s maritime approaches, a role presently undertaken almost exclusively by the other services. This means that, like the RAN and the RAAF, the Army will acquire a deterrence function at the strategic level of war. In fact, such is the promise of land-based long-range precision strike, that the Army could become the ADF’s primary strategic-level strike force, a role it will play as effectively as the other services, if not more so, and certainly cheaper too.
In addition, whether mounted on a truck or in a small boat, and if deployable by air, the Army will be able to easily move its shooters forward, increasing the protective depth of a future battlespace, thereby increasing the nation’s security from aggression. Being land-based, these weapons will also be more persistent than other options, and because they are much cheaper than comparable ones launched from a ship or aircraft, they can be acquired in truly large numbers, with more in reserve. Lastly, they are expendable because, unlike a large ship or an expensive fast jet, if one is lost it can be more easily replaced.
To integrate into a future ADF operational system, in an age of precision and theatre-sized battlespace watched over by pervasive sensors, the Army, as well as the RAN and the RAAF, will need to adapt to a new model of fighting. Across Australia’s littoral battlespace the services will need to fight dispersed, so as to remain invisible to hostile sensors, and concentrate by fire not by platforms. Assets will be too vulnerable, visible or expensive to concentrate, and the loss of Army’s missile platforms can be more easily borne than the vastly more expensive and scarcer RAN and RAAF ones. The size of Army’s small, yet lethal teams, enhanced by their placement in complex terrain, actually makes them harder for the enemy to locate, which in turn increases their survivability.
The key to the future way of war will be Australia’s sensor network and its fire control integration centre. By locating the enemy first, the ADF will be able to coordinate fires upon distant targets, a task which Army will be in the best position to undertake, due its persistence and ability to conduct operations from remote and forward locations.
A More Relevant Organisation
The Australian Army of today is organised much like it was when first raised more than 100 years ago. While the brigade is now the principal combat formation, rather than the division of the First and Second World Wars, the Army remains largely unchanged. This is because the land force has only had a tangential responsibility in the strategic-level fight. It was optimised for the tactical and operational levels of war. As its role at the strategic level grows, the land force will need to create units and formations that are best suited for waging war at that level. This means the future Army will need two kinds of formations, a tactical formation that will engage and close with the enemy, and a strategic formation that will deter and deny the enemy access at great distances. There may be some degree of overlap between these two formations — personnel, for example, would be able to move between the different types — however they will have largely different functions.
The tactical level will continue to require a combined arms team that will see a mix of infantry, armour, artillery and other supporting arms operate in close contact with a hostile force. By contrast, the strategic level formation’s focus will be on contesting the enemy’s ability to manoeuvre within - and through - a theatre-size battlespace, most likely the vast littoral region to Australia’s north, along with the RAN and RAAF. The latter capability will require a formation optimised to concentrate fires from multiple dispersed locations over great distances against strategic level targets, such as an adversary’s fleet or forward bases. One of the Army’s most important strategic-level tasks will be to contest the control of the sea and air approaches, a function that, in the past, required fleets of ships and aircraft. Now, land based missiles, at much lower cost and with greater persistence, will be able to undertake this mission, freeing the RAN and RAAF for other tasks.
Army’s role as a strategic actor will require the Army to create a new type of formation, preferably multiple ones, with new doctrine and training that is focused around the missile launcher rather than a tactical-focused combined arms team. What the Australian Army needs to envisage is gaining the ability to dominate a vast battle space. In fact, the new USMC Littoral Regiment might be a model for what the Australian future strategic formation will need to look like.
A Broader Hierarchy
Since the force’s founding in 1901, the image of the Australian Army has focused on the digger, a light infantry soldier that - from the First World War to the present - excelled in combined arms operations, with other arms in supporting roles. In the public’s imagination, it is the light infantry soldier that has come to epitomise the spirit of Australian military excellence.
For an organisation whose priority was tactics, it was natural for its image to be that of the individual soldier. Yet, as the missile age beckons, and as the land force becomes a strategic operator, the Army’s image will need an update. The Infantry must yield part of its position of predominance as the gunner moves to the fore and becomes the enabler of the Army’s emerging strategic role. This shift is important because, how a force defines itself has status and budgetary implications. What will happen as part of the transition to a missile-led way of war, is that the infantry will lose its primacy and the gunners will gain equal, if not greater, status. This may come as a shock to the force, but it is necessary one if the Army is to achieve it future place in the nation’s security.
In 1494, Charles VIII of France invaded the Italian Peninsula bringing with him the world’s first siege train of guns and, in doing so, revolutionising the tactics of war. Artillery is again driving a change in the art of war, but this time the long-range precision strike revolution is taking place across the levels of war. Revolutions in the art of war are more than a generational enhancement of existing weapons and systems. They require military organisations to redesign how they organise, think and fight. Neither the Australian Army nor the ADF is exempt from this requirement. A successful refocus on long-range precision strike will create a force with the enhanced capabilities that are needed to provide for Australia’s future security.
Australia’s geography is as an island continent, and its closest neighbours are archipelagic states. Consequently, the region is a maritime/littoral one. Armed with long-range strike missiles, the land force will have the ability to achieve sea control and denial in ways that previously required a fleet of ships or an armada of planes, while also being able to interdict and destroy an enemy’s air force at its bases. Australia’s future security, therefore, will see the gunner — connected to an ADF sensor network — become the key operator in safeguarding the nation. That is, of course, if the Army can imagine and implement a different way of war fighting.
This article is an entry in the 2022 AARC Short Writing Competition, 'Transforming Land Power'.
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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