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The Division

Rethinking Army’s Organisation

Australian Army soldier Private Jyren Doria from the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, patrols during Exercise Kapyong Warrior at Townsville Field Training Area, Queensland.

The Defence Strategic Update (DSU) of 2020 highlighted that “[m]ajor power competition, coercion and military modernisation are increasing the potential for and consequences of miscalculation”[i]. Competition between great powers has always risked state on state conflict and the DSU reminds us of this. Since Federation, Australia’s defence thinking has been heavily influenced by competition and conflict between states. Australia’s commitment to both World Wars shaped Army’s organisational principles and its subsequent force structure. One structural level, the division, was seen as appropriate in times of interstate war. Following the Second World War and the establishment of the small Regular Army (initially brigade size), divisional structures were maintained because they were still seen as appropriate to meet the demands of future war when the Army’s size would increase through mobilisation. However, after the Vietnam War, this thinking changed, and Army adapted to the broader security environment by balancing its force structure against the realities of its likely operational challenges within fiscal constraints. With increased emphasis on state versus state competition and potential conflict, now is the time to rethink Army’s structure; to best prepare it for the future.

As a part of this rethink, this post proposes Army needs to revisit its high-level structure and to emphasize the 1st Division as a division with Forces Command (FORCOMD) aligned to training and preparedness. Some readers may identify this idea as a return to Army’s thinking fifty years ago. However, technology, new capabilities, competition between states and potential for state versus state conflict has changed the context for which the Australian Army must be prepared.

Some History

The Australian Army first raised divisional sized formations during the First World War. At the commencement of the war, the division was seen as the smallest organisational level that could be self-sufficient in combat and administration, and was considered an ‘all arms’ formation. At lower levels (brigade and battalion), independent actions could occur, however, they were reliant on organisational augmentation from other supporting arms, or services from other divisional units.[ii] Combat experience would lead to many modifications to the divisional structure so that by 1918 almost every organisational element within the divisions of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) had changed to some extent.[iii] These changes occurred due to operational experience (or lessons, and not just Australian lessons), new technologies and manning challenges (such as casualties and reduced reinforcement numbers).  Indeed, the catalyst for change was often a combination of all three.

All AIF divisions carried out numerous independent actions during the war and a Divisional Headquarters had important responsibilities for planning operations and coordinating the efforts of each arm of the division. The Divisional Headquarters planned and coordinated not only the manoeuvre of brigades, but also how they were supported by artillery, pioneers, and engineers. The division was also responsible for brigades’ logistical sustainment. This coordination involved not only supporting arms from within the division, but also of external capabilities at the corps and army levels (such as corps artillery to support an offensive). To ensure the required degree of coordination between arms, primary staff officers such as Commander Royal Artillery (CRA) and Commander Royal Engineers (CRE) played key roles in the planning and coordination within the Divisional Headquarters.

Experience from the broader British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front had highlighted the tension that existed between the centralisation of planning functions, and the devolution of responsibilities (and some effects) down to the tactical level for execution. This was particularly true for fire support, with the AIF adopting mortar batteries and machine gun companies at brigade level[iv] in order to give brigades the ability to prioritise support to achieve missions. By 1918, machine gun companies were further centralised into machine gun battalions (one per division) because combat experience had clearly demonstrated the advantage of coordinating their effects at the divisional level. This balance between centralisation of coordinated effects, versus the devolution of those effects to subordinate organisations, remains a constant tension within military organisations. The divisional level endured as a critical command and control level for the planning and coordination of all arms for both offensive and defensive operations. The Divisional Headquarters was structured to be able to do this, while lower organisational levels were not. Thus the experiences of the AIF on the Western Front became the basis for organisational learning that would lead to what Stephen Biddle has described as the modern system of force employment.[v]

So what to change and why?

The current construct of FORCOMD and HQ 1 Division requires Army to change in order to meet the challenges and realities posed by great power competition and potential for interstate war. The current model was adopted within a context of an Army challenged by many small operations occurring across the globe at the same time, some of considerable duration. Many of these operations did not require combat between states but rather security and stabilisation operations. There was also a simultaneous requirement to maintain warfighting skills within and between units preparing to deploy on operations. FORCOMD was established to prepare forces for operations across a breadth of operational types from Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands, to Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the context at the time, its structure was appropriate. However, the DSU highlights that the situation has changed.

A 1st Division, with the 1st, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 16th and 17th Brigades as its subordinate formations creates an organisational structure that is capable, deployable, cohesive and at high readiness. A 2nd Division, similarly structured, provides Army with another formation with the capability to conduct defined missions now, and (with additional resources and time) the capacity to increase capability if required. To optimise this capability, Army’s total workforce assets need to be allocated based on contemporary preparedness requirements vice the traditional considerations of ‘Regular versus Reserve’. If HQ 3rd Division were to be re-raised, it could provide a HQ structure for Army to mobilise new units to support significant national emergencies. These three divisions, supported by a FORCOMD to aggregate all of Army’s training institutions, would create advantage for the ADF in command and control (C2) efficiencies and would provide Army with the ability to scale-up in response to competition and conflict between states. Even without the creation of a third divisional headquarters, better integration between 1 Div, 2 Div and FORCOMD would nevertheless enhance Army capability.

The advantages and disadvantages of such a restructure are many, and Army would be well served to debate and wargame them. Specifically, this proposal gives a divisional commander agency: it allows the commander to build relationships with subordinates, to assess their suitability and readiness for specific missions, to pursue collective training outcomes, to coordinate and synchronise activities across the division, to task-organise for missions, and to rapidly adapt. After all, a commander is responsible for the training and preparedness of subordinates, and it is in the commander’s direct interest to do so. This observation applies equally to the various divisional staff functions, such as the G3 who has a habitual relationship with all the brigade S3s or brigade majors (BMs). In the same vein, BMs have strong relationships with unit S3s or OPSOs.

The divisional level will soon be critical for the effective coordination and synchronisation of various land and joint force effects. Similar to the requirement for the division to centralise some effects during the First World War, Army will soon have a range of capabilities that will lend themselves to centralised control. One such system is long range fires (others could include electronic warfare and cyber) with its capability to strike, not only land targets, but maritime targets as well. This capability to deliver lethal effects at long range, across domains, will require close coordination and synchronisation with manoeuvre, and not just land manoeuvre. In future operations, coordination will likely involve armored vehicles, rotary wing and other joint assets such as transport aircraft, landing craft and LHDs. Similar to fire and movement, if a strike capability is used, the force will need the capacity to effectively coordinate effort across all domains in order to manoeuvre for advantage. In this operational environment, the divisional headquarters will be the appropriate level to coordinate and synchronise long range fires with manoeuvre. While the logic of this statement may be self-evident, execution will be more difficult to achieve.  Many nations already face difficulties in executing combined arms, let alone joint force manoeuvre. However, a divisional structure that supports a unified C2 and the commander’s agency, with established relationships between brigade and division, will be critical for the conduct of joint force and land manoeuvre.

This post has proposed high-level organisational changes within Army to help address structural flaws and to strengthen Army’s capacity to train for competition and conflict. For Army to capitalise on the introduction into service of advanced capabilities, individual and collective training is a must. A delineation between FORCOMD conducting individual training and the 1st and 2nd Divisions focusing on collective training would enhance Army’s preparedness for future operational challenges. Whether or not the suggestions made here represent the best way forward for Army, debate on the topic is well overdue.  The DSU has highlighted concern over the likelihood of state versus state conflict and the current tempo of competition between states. The proposed structure of a 1st Division containing all of Army’s higher readiness brigades provides significant advantages in the coordination and synchronisation of a range of effects that new Army capabilities will be delivering. And perhaps, most importantly, it provides agency to a commander to deliver effect in an increasingly complex contemporary battlespace.


[i] Defence Strategic Update 2020, page 14. Accessed 17 August 2021.
https://www.defence.gov.au/about/publications/2020-defence-strategic-update

[ii] Jean Bou and Peter Dennis, The Australian Imperial Force, The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, Volume 5, p. 17.

[iii] Robert Stevenson, To win the Battle: The First Australian Division in the Great War, 1914-1918, p.  34.

[iv] Robert Stevenson, To win the Battle: The First Australian Division in the Great War, 1914-1918, p. 49.

[v] Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, pp. 28-51.

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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