Australia’s Army: A Future Ready Land Force
Acting Head of Land Capability, BRIG Ian Langford, presents his views on combat operations in the contemporary high threat environment to this year's ADM Congress, Canberra 22 June 2022.
It is my aim today to talk to you about our Army, but more specifically, land power as it relates to conduct of combat operations in a modern, high threat environment. This is to be expected, and as the Ukraine conflict is revealing, remains a relevant modality of warfare today.
In addition to preparing for these types of operational contingencies, it is also worth recognising the important recent contribution Army has made to our nation over the past two years where we have been extremely busy responding to domestic crises to include pandemics, bushfires and flooding. Some of these highlight our Army responding to the impacts of climate change – a demand we can expect to increase over time, especially within our region. While not core business, or our sole responsibility, we bring great capability and needed capacity to urgent domestic crises, and our people derive great satisfaction being in the community, working with and helping others — serving the nation and helping to protect our national interests.
Those who attended the ASPI cost of defence dinner last week would have been updated with the fact that this financial year has seen the Defence Department’s funding now represent around 2.11% of GDP, or around $48.6 billion dollars. For the Army, around $9.9 billion is allocated to deliver the land component of the joint force.
This investment generates the essential capabilities of the Army as part of the joint Australian Defence Force, to include its Combat Aviation Force Elements, Land Combat and Protected Manoeuvre Battle Groups, Amphibious and Littoral Forces, Ground Based Air Defence, Offensive Strike, Engineer, Logistics, Health, Special Operations and Domestic Security Response Forces. These force structures represent the agility of our land force which cannot be singularly described; Army’s capabilities are more like a game of ‘paper, rock, scissors’; you need all three offensive and defensive capabilities in order to be able to meet all threats, each bringing their own strength while depending on the other to cover whatever the adversary chooses to attack you with. If you don’t believe me, try playing it with only two elements against someone who retains all three; I am sure that against an opponent who knows what you are missing, that your odds of success will be greatly minimised.
These investments reflect government direction and its three Strategic Defence Objectives - Shape Australia’s strategic environment, Deter actions against Australia’s interests, and Respond with credible military force.[i]
All of this is in the context of a changing international operating environment presenting an array of new and old challenges with the war in Ukraine being the current and urgent crisis which is right now providing several unique insights, as they relate to the nature and character of war.
Alex Vershinin of the Royal United Services Institute argues that war in Ukraine proves that the age of industrial level warfare is still here. He states that the West’s recent legacy of low-intensity conflict as well as the rise of what I like to call “short war theory” has distorted notions that wars can either be decided by preference (i.e. short or long) or won through a single technology or domain. Our friends at ASPI also reflected this recently by highlighting the human costs of this conflict; one-third, or 14 million Ukrainians from a population of 44 million have now been internally or externally displaced, that the war has resulted in thousands upon thousands of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians, and that this year alone, Ukraine’s GDP will collapse by 45%. These numbers should belong to history, regrettably, they do not.
Just this week, British PM Boris Johnston predicted that this conflict will likely lengthen in duration and increase in intensity over the coming months. Russia’s forced adjustments to its war aims, originally designed around a short, rapid seizure of the Ukrainian capital followed by the rapid defeat of its military now instead plan on a long, bloody conflict. The ensuing rate of high civilian casualties and significant destruction to Ukraine’s infrastructure are ultimately intended to exhaust Ukraine into a negotiated settlement which might include Russia’s reclamation of Ukrainian territory, allowing the pyrrhic victory that it now seeks in order to justify its ‘special military operation’.
Our Army, like others are studying this conflict very closely. Of particular note, Army’s future investments in capabilities to include operational level, long range offensive fires, a resilient digital battle management system, a world class aviation system and a credible close combat system are being informed by these real world events. Of particular note, the Federal Government will this year decide on a project at the core of the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) ability to deploy and sustain a land force as part of a joint, integrated, team. With respect to Army’s future Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), known as Project Land 400 Phase 3 (L400 Ph 3), the decision regarding the future of the ADF’s ability to generate a credible land combat system is I think comparable as an essential component to the Joint Force as the Royal Australian Air Force’s Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), and the Royal Australian Navy’s future frigate. It will determine to a certain degree how government chooses to project military power, operate in high threat environments, prepare for all ranges of contingencies, achieve deterrence, balance its force structures and prepares for the type of future conflicts envisioned like those currently being witnessed in Ukraine.
This project aims to acquire up to 450 IFV, replacing the sixty-year old Armoured Personnel Carrier capability (APC) based on the current in-service model, the M113, which was introduced into the Army at a time when the Air Force was flying the Meteor fighter (first flown in 1943) and the Navy operated HMAS Vampire (commissioned into service in 1959). The future IFV appeals to the promise of unprecedented firepower, protection and mobility for the Army and can be employed in a variety of ways alongside a combination of tanks, infantry, and a range of other joint capabilities and emerging technologies that are concurrently being introduced in to service in the ADF. It is part of a system of joint force capabilities which essentially determines Australia’s future land force capability ‘upper limit’, or more simply expressed as at what point the ADF, in terms of ground combat capabilities, will culminate. Consequently, given the importance of this capability to Army and the ADF, its acquisition is proceeding via a demanding, thorough and evidence-based capability acquisition process, subject to internal reviews and external oversight.
While the future IFV does not represent the totality of Army’s land capabilities (as previously mentioned, this includes Combat Aviation, Land Combat, Protected Manoeuvre, Amphibious and Littoral Forces, Engineer, Ground Based Air Defence, Offensive Strike, Logistics, Health, Special Forces and Domestic Security Task Forces), this capability nonetheless is the core of the close combat team as it relates to the task of closing with and killing/capturing enemy forces and its existence in part acknowledges the myriad of threats that now exist on the battlefield, including the presence of Improvised Explosive Devices like those experienced in Afghanistan through to the prevalence of loitering munitions which, according to some, may pose an entirely new lethal threat to soldiers who lack the levels of protection, manoeuvre and firepower necessary to survive in modern warfare. Many either see this role as confronting, distasteful or no longer relevant to war with the advent of modern technology. And yet, what we see in theatres such as Ukraine suggest otherwise. Army must be able to fulfil this role given that there is no viable alternative in the short to medium term.
So, is L400 Ph 3 going to result in billions of dollars being spent on a capability that is at risk of defeat to a lightly armed adversary force armed with UAV’s and modern guided weapons? Should we abandon L400 and procure UAV’s and missiles instead? The short answer is no. You could be forgiven for thinking that a UAV and missile mix pre-ordains the land force for success in combat. In the Ukraine we are observing yet another conflict in which military vehicles like these are being destroyed in numbers by what seem to be cheap and readily available anti-armour missiles (although such missiles akin to Javelin are nearly the price of a small suburban house, and are produced in small numbers) as well as armed drones. While it is thankfully true that the Ukrainians have destroyed Russian armour with drones and anti-armour weapons designed for this purpose, this does not in itself negate the utility of this capability.
It is important we see the conflict for what it really is. Observers should not be shocked at these losses when the scale and types of forces concerned are considered. Drones and anti-armour systems are contributing to this war, but so are the infantry, armour and artillery as well as the naval, air, space and informational power of both sides. Equally, it is hardly surprising that late model drones and the best anti-armour weapons that the Western World manufactures, designed with sophisticated target acquisition sensors, guidance systems and advanced warheads are defeating tanks and IFV developed four decades ago, if not earlier. The vast majority lack the survivability of modern armour, such as soft and hard kill Active Protection Systems (APS) and the benefits of integrated command, control and communications systems, which are vital for mobile forces to operate under an effective air defence umbrella. Indeed, it is certainly the case that APS, especially from the anti-armour vector known as ‘top-attack’, represents the latest upgrade of armoured protection against anti-armour systems. This continual tension that has existed as armour and anti-armour capabilities compete for battlefield superiority is a phenomena that has been around since the invention of the tank in the First World War. With regards to the current conflict, to date, there has not been a single APS-active armoured vehicle destroyed in Ukraine. Moreover, vehicle tactics typically employed by Russian forces are conceived around ‘mass’ as a capability in itself where ‘quantity has a quality of its own’, with less regard to APS and the survival of a single or low number of IFV. Additionally, Russian vehicles are so obviously poorly sustained, maintained and operated it is little wonder that they are presenting so many targets to Ukrainian forces who are being well equipped by the collective capacity of NATO and others to destroy these antiquated Soviet-era capabilities.
It seems that the drone argument relevant to this conflict has been somewhat poorly framed in terms of ‘either/or’ when it ought to approach the matter as ‘both/and’. More simply put the argument should not be drones or armour at the exclusion of the other, but drones and armour complementing each other, as Army is doing with its recent acquisition of the Insitu ‘Integrator’ UAV. While there are legitimate issues to analyse and debate over the future of armoured warfare, especially as it applies to the threat of drones, as eminent Professor Colin Gray contends that this debate should be conducted in full awareness of the complementarities of each respective capability, their roles, limitations and performance, rather than just a series of grainy YouTube clips.[ii] Just to reiterate – this complementarity is at the heart of how the Australian land force operates in the context of its own requirements, but also as part of the broader joint force.
The bending of history to suit particular narratives can also be seen with respect to the discourse regarding the 2020 crisis between Azerbaijan and Armenia. During this conflict and its immediate aftermath, opinions were ventured that the drone heralded the demise of armour. However, recent scrutiny of the available battle casualty data of the conflict, suggests otherwise. Doctor Eado Hect of the Israeli Defence Force Tactical Command College, cautions observers not to draw false or incorrect conclusions on the use of drones in this conflict
‘…it is clear that the hype was exaggerated. The Azeri drones were essential for their victory, but did not win the war alone, severe ground fighting was necessary…
…This was not a ground force that fought a battle made easy by the effects of massive drone strikes. This ground force had to fight casualty-intensive battles to defeat a determined enemy, no less well equipped and no less proficient than itself – a peer enemy. The drones definitely tipped the balance in favour of the Azeris, but by themselves, they did not win the war – not even close.’[iii]
A key idea concerning the conceptualisation of land forces has been the idea of ‘combined-arms’, an idea that emphasises different combat capabilities operating in a complementary way. This is often reduced to an infantry-artillery-armour equation, but the reality is a modern combined arms capability is far more complex. Recently there has been some critique of the combined-arms approach as a concept which has outlived its usefulness. The success of a range of militaries using large volumes of cheap, consumable armed drones and missiles, does not discount the importance of developing flexible forces with multiple options to produced combined-arms outcomes.
Furthermore, it is absolutely the case that militaries who have been recently venerated for their use of drones and other technologies in oft-mentioned examples – like the Azerbaijani and Israeli militaries for example – are not necessarily the ‘wonder weapon’ cases they appear to be at first glance. Forbes, for example, makes no suggestion that Israel have radically altered their approach to combined arms warfare by adopting radically new fighting concepts and tactics or have abandoned their combined-arms approaches. Likewise, the Center for Strategic & International Studies in looking at the 2020 Armenian conflict does not argue that combined-arms approach is invalid. It in fact argues the opposite! It identified that armour and other heavy ground units would remain vulnerable until mobile short range air defence systems improve and proliferate. In fact, it warns that while drones played a large role in the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict, drone capabilities ought to not be exaggerated and that these platforms are highly vulnerable to the ever-proliferating air defences designed to counter them.[iv] Thus, as has been illustrated above, while drones contributed to the Azerbaijani success, they did not obviate the need for combined-arms ground manoeuvre. In fact, a key lesson to be drawn from this analysis is that combined-arms teams must incorporate mobile short range air defence systems (like that being introduced into the Australian Army), in order to avoid exposing their weaknesses and enabling them to apply their strengths – the very essence of combined-arms. Rather than proving that these forces abandoned combined-arms for drones, these sources show that drones are best placed as part of the combined-arms team.
Indeed it is now the case that we know that the very assertion by some that the Russian combined-arms approach has been defeated by Ukrainian drones and anti-armour weapons only is a gross simplification of the root causes. These comments are simplistic as they ignore a large number of causal reasons affecting Russian performance, specifically a lack of effective doctrine, training, logistics and equipment. Analysis by Dr Jack Watling of the Royal United Service Institute highlights the doctrinal and procedural issues hampering Russian combat performance.
‘Russian military performance has been spectacularly poor in Ukraine. At the tactical level, Russian units have showed an inability to follow basic military procedures. They have failed to prove routes, have advanced in densely packed groups of vehicles, have tended to lose momentum when engaged, and been road bound, neither screening their flanks with patrols nor setting up their air defences. The force has shown a very limited capacity to operate in combined arms groupings.’[v]
The Russian inability to organise as effective combined-arms teams and synchronize combined-arms effects is therefore more likely caused by inadequate training, preparation and coordination, rather than simply drone attacks. This is why the Russians have suffered the kind of defeats in Ukraine that we did not expect. Drones are exploiting weaknesses in the Russian application of combined-arms, not negating the concept of it. While drones and anti-armour weapons are exacting a toll on disorganised and disparate Russian forces – the antithesis of combined arms – they are not the root cause of this poor performance.
In contrast to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Army’s combined-arms Manoeuvre Warfare approach differs greatly from that of the Russian Ground Forces, in application and in qualitative and quantitative terms. Australia’s approach seeks to avoid attrition, instead using tempo and surprise to attack and paralyse command and control apparatus. It aims to defeat the enemy’s cohesion and will to fight by ‘destroying’ the enemy’s plan rather than seeking to annihilate its physical forces. The Australian Army sees the employment of its close combat forces as an elemental feature of how it seizes and controls land objectives in close combat, as well as how operates as part of a joint system across Australia’s near region; contrary to the argument that Australians don’t deploy or fight with tanks, historically Australian soldiers have fought with tanks and armoured vehicles in every major conflict land forces have been committed to including; France, North Africa, the Levant, the South West Pacific, Korea, South Vietnam, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.[vi] The ADF’s land force is not the Russian Army and operates in a different way which leverages strengths, and offsets weaknesses.
Army needs Land 400 to plug the M113 capability gap with a credible, effective and deployable solution, particularly in terms of the protection of soldiers who fight in close combat. It will equip a significant component of Army’s combat forces, including infantry, combat engineers, artillery fire teams, medics, mechanics, trades-people, logisticians and headquarters elements. A calculation based on 450 IFVs, each with a capacity to transport three crew and six passengers, means that 3050 soldiers are afforded the advantages of moving and fighting under armour, greatly improving their chances of success in combat, as evinced by previous analysis concerning the M1 Abrams Tank acquisition. As a first world nation, the acquisition of both tank and IFV reflect on a nation that understands that it must conduct these inherently dangerous roles but that it also places high value on protecting the lives of the soldiers that it asks so much from in high threat environments.
In conclusion, I want to again thank the event organisers for a chance to brief you here today. Rest assured, Army is paying attention to the need to be an agile and effective member of the joint force. Responding to the challenges of future warfare must recognise war’s unchanging nature, in addition to reflecting its changing character. With respect to the war in Ukraine, we are watching this very closely. For Army, an initial response to these challenges will be four-fold. First, the ways in which we conceptualise how to employ land warfare especially across the Indo-Pacific region warrants continual review to ensure that operating approaches are effective against contemporary and forecasted threats. Secondly, Army must continue to focus on how it operationally generates its forces, to include how it trains, educates, and prepares its people and equipment. Thirdly, Army must continue to prioritise its development and application of emerging technologies, to include robotics, tactical drones and automation, for this is how small armies generate the types of “small, cheap and many” tactical asymmetries needed to win in war, and lastly, Army must continue to balance its capabilities to ensure its maximum utility to the joint force - this includes its planned acquisition of long range offensive fires, its ability to set and command operational theatres through its battle management systems and its own contribution to joint force projection through its planned acquisition and upgrade of its aviation and littoral projection capabilities.
[i] 2020 Defence Strategic Update, pp 25-30.
[ii] Colin S. Gray, ‘Understanding Airpower: Bonfire of the Fallacies’, Strategic Studies Quarterly, Winter 2008, p 73.
[iii] Eado Hecht, ‘Drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh War: Analyzing the Data’, Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 4, Winter 2022, pages 31-37.
[iv] Shaan Shaikj and Wes Rumbaugh, ‘The Air and Missile War in Nagorno-Karabakh: Lessons for the Future of Strike and Defense’, Centre for Strategic & International Studies, 8 December 2020, accessed 24 March 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/air-and-missile-war-nagorno-karabakh-lessons-future-strike-and-defense
[v] Watling, J., ‘Just How Tall Are Russian Soldiers?’, Royal United Services Institute, 11 March 2022, accessed 23 March 2022, https://www.rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/rusi-defence-systems/just-how-tall-are-russian-soldiers
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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