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Future Land Warfare Collection 2021: The Debris of an Organisation

An Australian Army soldier from the 1st Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, during the firepower demonstration held at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland, during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021.

Thinking about How the ADF Recovers from the First Losses of War

In war, mistakes are normal; errors are usual, information is seldom complete, often accurate, and frequently misleading. Success is won, not by personnel and materiel in prime condition, but by the debris of an organisation worn by the strain of campaign and shaken by the shock of battle. The objective is attained, in war, under conditions which often impose extreme disadvantages. It is in the light of these facts that the commander expects to shape his course during the supervision of the planned action.[1]

Sound Military Decision, United States Naval College, 1942

Wars are usually longer than expected and are rarely fought in accordance with the plans made by military planners at their outset. Australian experiences in the Middle East over nearly two decades remind us that war shapes itself around ever-changing contexts. The ‘new dawn’ of ‘grey-zone’ conflict, a reflection of the age-old reality that nations consistently seek to preserve strategic interests and prosperity with resources they have, reminds us that competition is not confined to a staccato series of disparate actions. Success in competition requires resilience, persistence, presence and sustainability. This truism applies to conflict. The fighting in war occurs in ebbs and flows as adversaries play advantages and disadvantages until victory is assured. However, in an affliction common to Western preparations for future war, there is a tendency for planners to limit their imagination to the first salvos.[2] This creates the situation where the really difficult part of war is not prepared for—how a military organisation (probably left in dysfunction and ruin at war’s outset) recovers, reconstitutes and responds. It is rare that these planners, when considering the capability needs that will make the Australian Defence Force (ADF) successful in its operations, think about exactly how the ‘debris of an organisation’ can succeed.

The central purpose of this essay is to challenge the reader to consider, as a heuristic, how the ADF should prepare for the consequences of the first phases of intense conflict.[3] It talks to the ideas of resilience, response and recovery—ideas that do not normally feature in preparedness plans and operational concepts. The first part applies examples to articulate concepts and ideas relevant to understanding the reality of war. From this point, the essay applies informed assumptions to paint a picture of how a contemporary nominally conventional conflict might unfold. It concludes with several basic principles that could be employed to guide future preparedness and contingency plans.

What a War Might Look Like—an Assumption-Based Depiction of a Future War

Competition, including conflict and warfare, is about the control of circumstances to give an advantage—potentially an irrevocable advantage—in the context of strategic requirements. Preparedness and operational plans, however, often start with an ending in mind, with subsequent orders assigning tasks and responsibilities to get to that eventual point. Though planning is useful, plans can be written in such a way that they become virtual ‘straw-man’ arguments where assumptions and facts result in an outcome only possible in imagination. Such plans fail to capture the dynamics of competition and conflict, and adjustments become necessary to exploit successes and recover from destruction or inevitable failures. War is not a finely tuned balance of cause and effect, but a consequence of actions in a system that is ever changing. It is necessary for us in the ADF to prepare for the confluence of events that inevitably occur over a longer term than we envisage. Historian Cathal Nolan’s The Allure of Battle is a testament to the truism that ‘[w]inning the day of battle is not enough. You have to win the campaign, then the year, then the decade’.[4]

The ADF, if called upon to respond to a significant attack on Australian interests, must be prepared for a situation in which its plans are found wanting, its capabilities caught in moments of relative ‘unpreparedness’, and its force posture offset by an enemy’s own strategic mobility and firepower. It is safe to say that Australia is not a revisionist power employing aggressive military activities to address its strategic requirements. This means that if it is involved in conflict, even war, it will probably not have the time to prepare itself as well as we often assume it might. One study of 20th century conflicts after 1939 found that the average time between the ‘first indication of war and the firing of the first shots has been 14.3 months’, with smaller-scale contingencies around 10.6 months, and ‘a 50% probability that conflict can occur in less than four months’.[5] These timings show how quickly conflict can occur, and the folly of the assumption often reflected in Defence planning that Australian will have 10 years of warning time before major conflict.[6]

There is every chance that a 21st century conflict will occur more quickly, with the first signs of conflict buried in geopolitical tensions already at play. The ADF, like Australia, is likely to be surprised by the attack, or surprised by the speed at which peace gives way to war. Furthermore, and because adversaries naturally target weaknesses, in the initial phases of any conflict the ADF is likely to be facing weapons and dangers that offset whatever strengths may be hastily generated by the joint force. The systems employed by the joint force will be targeted using weapons purpose built for the task, upsetting the processes of command and control that we think are our pathway to victory in a new age of war. Agility will be denied. Strengths will be bypassed, or even prove to be vulnerabilities to an adversary that has chosen the time of opportunity to strike.

History repeatedly reminds us that militaries usually go to war unprepared. It also reminds us that militaries often go to war disorganised, having to adapt rapidly to circumstances well beyond the expected. Martin van Creveld, writing about logistics, observed:

… most armies appear to have prepared their campaigns as best they can on an ad hoc basis, making great, if uncoordinated, efforts to gather the largest possible number of tactical vehicles, trucks of all descriptions, railway troops etc., while giving little, if any, thought to the ‘ideal’ combination that would have carried them the furthest.[7]

The ADF’s experiences in East Timor during Operation Stabilise in 1999 hold true to this view: in this operation—a peacekeeping operation—disorganisation resulted in tremendous inefficiencies and near exhaustion of the operational ADF.[8] So it is not only the effects of the enemy that the ADF needs to be prepared for, but also the failures baked into organisational structures which remain hidden until the moment of crisis.

We need only look at the events of late 2019 and 2020 and the confluence of bushfires, pandemics, and geostrategic tensions to show how organisations and other groups respond to the foreseen but unanticipated. The idea of ‘national resilience’—not a new idea by any means—was revisited as fires denied the population basic services and a pandemic denied the population toilet paper.[9] Complex supply interdependencies, combined with stock minimisation in the name of efficiency, amplified the impact of localised catastrophe. Trust in societal systems, trust in supply and trust in leadership declined during these events as individuals feared for their livelihoods, if not their lives. As Robin Dunbar wrote on The Mandarin recently, human behaviour during the COVID-19 crisis highlighted ‘a strong tendency to prioritise the short term at the expense of the future’.[10] The evident absence of coherent plans for action over the length of the crisis exacerbated uncertainty.

The events of 2020 are analogous to the impact of the initial phases of a future war, where surprise may conspire with inadequate planning to sow confusion, compromise plans, and result in the loss of resources and lives. The reliance of the ADF on familiar command process and organisational behaviours that provide comfortable peacetime routine will be shaken by the need for frenetic activity and ad hoc changes as forces mobilise. War will come across multiple domains simultaneously, with the ADF responding to direct attack while potentially involved in a range of non-military civil defence responses as national infrastructure becomes a site for conflict. Supply chains will be interdicted and used as a point of leverage, denying the capacity of the ADF to scale as effectively as it might. Exquisite capabilities could be revealed as inhibitors to capacity-building for a joint force that somehow must create additional combat force mass in the short term.

Eventually whole-of-nation activity will be brought to bear as all elements of national power work more effectively with one another. The nation will bind diplomatic, informational, military, economic and other activities to strategic effect. Similarly, the ADF will bind a joint effort, gaining momentum, into coherent operations across all domains of war. Coalition partners will be increasingly involved, share resources, and develop war plans to achieve the next strategic objectives. Combat intensity might drop as the contest stabilises, the effects of surprise dissipate, forces focus upon repair and reconstitution instead of the offence, equipment may be unavailable and lines of communication interdicted. Adversaries may attempt to de-escalate, especially if nuclear and strategic weapons could be used, but competition to control the strategic environment and retain strategic mobility in all domains is likely to continue.

An ADF that endures will be quite different to the one that started the war. The characteristics of any war, whether it be a small-scale localised operation or a fight for national survival, will shape the capabilities and capacities required by the joint force. ‘Seed’ capabilities—those which exist in relatively small numbers in a peacetime force to preserve skills and an emergency capability, such as the Army’s tanks or certain combat aircraft and ships—will form the basis upon which a larger ADF will expand. It is more likely than not that the ADF, reacting to a wartime adversary, will evolve to be fundamentally different to the force that is conceptualised in current capability development programs. Shaping factors will include wartime economic conditions and choices that the Australian Government has made in enacting domestic policies and working in partnership with other Commonwealth departments. A host of variously complicated and complex issues will impact how national power manifests into military outcomes. The ADF will have had to expand its training capacity and logistics, and invest in new capabilities to create strategic advantages. This will probably be achieved in partnership with allies, each of which may also be suffering the adverse consequences of the initial engagements of the war.

These scenario parameters offer a different focus for envisaging the next conflict that Australia faces. While they merely offer a heuristic employed to test and tease out ideas, they do help to remind us that there is much more to war than we tend to consider in concepts and preparedness planning. Furthermore, this scenario also illustrates that preparedness is about not just readiness but also resilience and the capacity of the ADF to recover after a conflict-induced catastrophe. If, as the 2020 Defence Strategic Update suggests, the likelihood of conflict is increasing in an ‘disorderly’ and ‘dangerous’ geostrategic climate, it is prudent to comprehensively reflect upon the purpose of preparedness and what it might truly deliver the ADF during a conflict.[11] The question remains, however: how might the ADF best prepare itself?

Preparing To Be Unprepared

Things will go wrong in competition, conflict and full-scale war, and the ADF must be prepared for this. Winning will be about resilience, recovery and response as much as it is about being prepared for any particular small set of carefully chosen, but ultimately speculative, approved ADF conflict scenarios. The ADF cannot rely upon the ‘adaptiveness’ of its people as a compensator for self-induced lazy policies and procedures designed to suit peacetime routine. Instead, preparedness leaders across the joint force should recognise that it is not just extant capability that matters. It is the latent capacity available at any one time which truly gives the force the ability to resist to shock, face losses, and use what remains in a response that counters the strategic advantage held by an aggressor. Moreover, winning requires fortitude, mental acuity, courage, and a leadership attitude based on problem solving, endurance, hopefulness, and opportunity seeking. These traits enable withstanding the first salvos of war, redirecting the means left in their wake to avoid shock loss, and eventually turning the tide of war to the positive. Recognising this, there are three areas in which the ADF can prepare for being unprepared, and be ready for the consequences of war so that the ‘debris of an organisation’ can respond.

First, the ADF must continue to work towards greater organisational flexibility so that it can adapt rapidly to strategic shocks. With ‘mobilisation reviews’ and Service reforms to preparedness systems underway, it is clear that planners across the ADF are attuned to the need.[12] However, before venerating ‘adaptability’ and placing too much dependence on flexible organisational designs and an already robust approach to command and control, the ADF should seek to accurately understand what it can and cannot do within various plausible time horizons. As renowned Australian strategist Desmond Ball wrote, ‘it is not the force-in-being or the current order-of-battle that is relevant, but the mobilised force with which the adversary would have to contend’.[13] Capability should not be equated to readiness.[14] Capability programs should be sequenced with force posture changes and aligned to preparedness systems. This means that when surprise comes, ADF planners understand which parts of the force can act and when. The idea of ‘scalability’ as recently seen in some Service strategic doctrine must enter the day-to-day conversation of the ADF’s preparedness and operational planners. Scalability needs to underpin the choices that the leaders of the joint force make as they contemplate how to lift the ADF out of the chaos of the first battles of a future war.

Second, the ADF should seek to create depth in its capabilities, and create capacity and sustainability rather than simply preferencing acquiring the best material it can possibly buy. This will both enable the ADF to better handle the inevitable losses of a conflict and deliver scale so that it is more able to respond across multiple areas of vulnerability. It is not realistic—at least not yet—for the Defence budget to grow to meet expanding needs. Instead, it is important that the ADF renew its concepts to leverage resources from elsewhere—potentially the national support base or alliance partners—in order to develop processes that will allow it to regain capacity after a significant strategic shock. This is not only about acquiring more materiel, ‘war-stocks’ and growing the size and scale of the ADF for that capacity; it is about efficiently managing resources in such a way that they are available at the time and place of need. Capability depth is likely to reflect the strength of civil-military relationships as much as it does materiel.

Third, all in the ADF must become aware that the force-in-being is not an end state in itself. The ADF of today is no longer structured to be the foundation of the force that will reconstitute, recover and respond after the first shots of battle. It will be even less capable of this if substantial damage is done to the ADF in the initial engagements of the war. Apart from smaller contingencies, the ADF can, without foreign assistance, initially only provide ‘holding forces’ to provide an immediate response and defend the most vital resources. In this period, much of its existing capacity is required for the mobilisation of other latent capacity. The time for which the ADF must be prepared to ‘hold’ in a high-intensity conflict could be considerable given the time it takes to activate industry to higher levels of production. Calculations undertaken in the 1970s suggested that it would take no less than two and a half years to expand an army from (for example) 50,000 regular and reserves to a multidivisional force of 150,000 capable of continental defence.[15] Quite clearly this means that everything the ADF has already achieved in the context of a ‘total workforce’ approach to its operations is far short of what is required in war.


Preparing for war is not just about preparing for the moment at which conflict is initiated. Australia’s next war will not be won by an ADF in its ‘prime’ but by one that has been scarred and beaten down yet recovers to claim victory. It is important that the ADF be psychologically and materially prepared for the surprise and shock of the beginning of war.

This essay poses fundamental challenges about our assumptions and understandings around what preparedness for war is. While war may appear unlikely, that does not excuse our misrepresenting it. If the vision of the future outlined in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update rings true, it is important that the ADF’s planners consider casualties, losses and destruction inflicted on the ADF in the early stages of a future war as they design the responses, if not the capabilities, that the ADF possesses.

Capability solutions and extra resources are not sufficient to ensure that the ADF can win the next war. Planners at all levels, from combat units to strategic headquarters, must also consider the arrangements and attitudes that will enable and ensure a considered and effective response to a crisis. It is fortunate that the ADF has more operating and planning experience than likely adversaries and has planning underway in response to the threats recent strategic policy advice highlights. Nevertheless, the challenges are vast and consequential. Crucially, if planners do not grasp that the next war may not be short, the ADF will waste the precious preparation time it currently has. It could build resilience, depth and expansion capacity. Without these, in the next war the ADF will surely fail.

[1] Author unknown, 1942, Sound military decision (US Naval College), 198, from H Eccles, 1959, Logistics in the National Defense (The Stackpole Company)

[2] R Babbage, 2020, ‘Ten Questionable Assumptions about Future War in the Indo-Pacific’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, 2, no. 1.

[3] A heuristic is an approach to problem-solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect or rational but is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal or approximation. See ‘Heuristic’ at, accessed 27 September 2020.

[4] C Nolan, 2019, The Allure of Battle (Oxford University Press), 4.

[5] D Ball, 1979, Problems of Mobilisation in Defence of Australia (Phoenix Defence Publications, Australia), 13, citing IM Speedy, 1978, ‘The Trident of Neptune’, Defence Force Journal.

[6] Department of Defence, 2020, 2020 Defence Strategic Update (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia), 14.

[7] M Van Creveld, 2004, Supplying War, 2nd edition (Cambridge University Press), 236.

[8] Australian National Audit Office, 2002, Management of Australian Defence Force deployments to East Timor, Audit Report No. 38, Department of Defence, Australia (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia), para 4.130, 87.

[9] DJ Beaumont, 2020, ‘Toilet Paper and Total War—The Psychology of Shortages and What It Means for Resilience’, Logistics in War, 8 March 2020, at, accessed 23 September 2020.

[10] R Dunbar, 2020, ‘Is Humanity Doomed Because We Can’t Plan for the Long Term—Three Experts Discuss’, The Mandarin, 6 August 2020, at, accessed 19 September 20.

[11] The Hon. S Morrison, 2020, ‘Address—Launch of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update’, 1 July 2020, at, accessed 28 September 2020.

[12] S Rubinsztein-Dunlop, 2020, ‘Defence Has Imagined Future War and Australia Is Not Prepared’, ABC News, 15 May 2020, at, accessed 25 September 2020.

[13] Ball, 1979, Preface.

[14] R Betts, 1995, Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices, Consequences (Washington, DC: Brookings), 37.

[15] Ball, 1979, 12–13.

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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