Skip to main content

Future Land Warfare Collection 2021: A Proposed ‘Future Concept Narrative’ for the Australian Defence Force

25 July 2021


The 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) and its companion document the 2020 Force Structure Plan have given an insight into possible future concepts and employment options for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Most pundits agree that it is a timely and relevant update to the strategic assessments and investment priorities of the Australian Government’s Defence White Paper 2016, with an emphasis on increasing the ADF’s space and cyber capabilities and lethal strike capabilities and its recognition of the emerging role of the ADF beyond the traditional notion of declared military conflict.[1] The DSU also emphasises the inclination of rival states and future adversaries to operate against Australian national interests using tactics and capabilities that are offensive in nature but fall below the accepted threshold of what is typically identified as an act of war. The DSU assesses that these ‘grey-zone’ actions will require a proportional response principally from the ADF but also from the non-military whole-of-government elements of national power. The findings of the DSU suggest that the ADF has no choice but to change. Failure to do so would be potentially disastrous.

As clear and as articulate as the DSU findings seem to be for many in the national security community, their significance may not resonate beyond. Across government sectors and the polity more broadly, there are differing levels of understanding regarding the contemporary role and purpose of the ADF.[2] One of the critical questions asked of the DSU is to explain how the ADF proves itself as an important and necessary national endeavour. To some, the need for an ADF is not necessarily self-evident.[3] That question must be set aside, however, to consider another important follow-on enquiry. Crucially, does the ADF need a single, end-to-end, agreed concept or narrative describing ‘how it fights’? [4]

Narratives are critical in that they give shape to strategy.[5] Military-strategic narratives in particular need to have resonance, coherence, authenticity and relevance across both space and time. This is vital to win public trust, gain legitimacy and secure cooperation at the nation-state level.[6] Military-strategic narratives strengthen the joint force by enabling and powering new thinking. This intellectual input is crucial now that the ADF is faced with responding concurrently to the variety of traditional and non-traditional security challenges that have emerged within the global system since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The aim of this short paper is to propose the foundations of a future ADF ‘narrative’. Rather than attempting to address every possibility for the employment of the ADF, the idea is to describe how it fights—by ‘the sum of its parts’—in a way that is easily applied across a range of future scenarios. It is a strategic narrative insofar as it seeks to establish a link between the ends as outlined in the DSU, the ways in which the ADF contributes to regional and global order, and the means by which it utilises its resources so it can fight and win in an era of accelerated global change and disruption. The paper is structured to introduce the problem, describe what the ADF must do, explain the proposed approach, identify what must be done to make the approach effective, and conclude with a description of failure.

A Future ADF Narrative: ‘How We Will Fight’

The ADF has a proud history of serving the Australian people. It holds the unique and ultimate responsibility of fighting Australia’s wars, in concert with the non-violent levers of national power. Outside of war, in an era of persistent competition, the ADF contributes to national security by shaping the operating environment, deterring potential adversaries, and preventing strategic miscalculation. Shaping in peace seeks to maximise ADF leverage if deterrence fails, requiring a response to a national threat with the full force of military power.[7] Equally, the ADF understands that credible military capability gives substance to Australia’s strategic principle of self-reliance.

To be a relevant and agile strategic instrument that can offer government a broad range of military response options in a conflict, the ADF has to be ‘operationally adaptable’. This requires seamlessly orchestrating effects across all five operational domains. To ensure unity of effort, and to act at the decisive point of warfare, the ADF must be capable of commanding, controlling and coordinating joint and interagency operations across all these domains at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of the international system. Not only this—the ADF should also expect to fight against an adversary who has technological parity and is capable of sensing and kinetically targeting Australian and allied military forces from their home locations.

These are demanding requirements for the ADF. What is needed is a unifying concept that frames how they will be approached and delivered. The simple idea at the heart of this narrative is that the ADF delivers military power for Australia for three purposes, or ‘outputs’, and from within two broad organisational groupings. These outputs follow three established strategic objectives —shaping, deterrence, and response[8]—but are now developed as more specific constructs. They are regional forward presence, conditional offence/defence and protection of the region, all of which are described and analysed further below. Organisationally, the ADF distinguishes between the strategic force generation (STRATFORGEN)[9] necessary to maintain its own core functions, and fielding the Joint Task Forces (JTFs) raised to conduct joint military operations.

The ADF is a strategic tool. Its posture, operational capacity, sustainment and capability development are set accordingly. Within Australia’s strategic arc, the future ADF can expect to be forward deployed within a dedicated theatre campaign plan which prioritises the notion of persistent engagement. It is just one, albeit major, part of an enhanced, integrated, expeditionary and networked whole-of-government footprint. The collective force posture, task organisation and preparedness measures deliver, under the three constructs introduced above:

Regional forward presence: a shaping ‘anti-access’ ADF posture designed to retain unambiguous allied regional primacy across Australia’s strategic arc through forward-deployed military forces. This presence focuses on ADF persistence in ‘contested spaces’, prioritises integration with regional partners, and acts as an ‘always-on’ capacity to gain and retain competitive advantage for Australia in the fields of diplomacy, information-sharing, capacity-building, economic development, regional health leadership and security cooperation.

Conditional offence/defence: a primacy-orientated ‘area-denial’ ADF force disposition that stresses a posture capable of deterrence in a more overt manner, reinforcing existing security agreements as well as establishing and maintaining an Australian-derived ‘balance of power’. The use of emerging technological ADF capabilities with an emphasis on leveraging the space and cyber domains, as well as the forward basing of offensive strike capabilities in partnership with friendly host nations, represents an ADF area denial capability that can be ‘dialled up’ in the event of a hostile act from a rival nation. The ability to militarily escalate in these situations brings real meaning to Australia’s ability to provide regional and global leadership in situations where the status quo is under imminent or direct challenge from a hostile actor.

Protection of the region: a posture that sets the conditions for armed response when necessary. This posture also enables operational-level theatre setting, theatre-level campaign planning, conflict termination, and transition to a post-conflict balance of power when it is suitable and appropriate.

The rest of this document examines these three constructs and their relationship with strategy and identifies the capabilities essential for them to be effective.

‘Shape’ as a Strategic Objective

There appears to be support amongst Australia’s policymakers to conceive shaping as a whole-of-government approach that proactively stimulates the operating environment. It envisages targeted, deliberate engagement and shaping events that together elicit a unified effect. The ADF functionally groups its JTFs in support of this approach. Initiatives include targeted activities as an extension to the Defence International Engagement Plan and the Defence Integrated Investment Program, as well as long-term partnership development and capacity-building with both traditional and non-traditional security allies.[10] Shaping also includes the efforts of the ADF to conduct advanced forward staging as part of an overall attempt to generate ‘strategic poise’. Adjusting the readiness of its force elements is also tool to shape and influence, as this acts as a signal to rivals and adversaries.

Shaping is here conceived broadly to include the underpinning idea of environmental ‘understanding’ which enables it. Within the intelligence capabilities of the ADF, low-signature special collection operations address the critical information requirements necessary to support strategic military planning. Maintaining access for all elements of national power within the global commons is also a critical requirement to which the ADF will expect to contribute. Cyber, space, naval and air operations would support this effort. It is a sound and perhaps desirable option to force generate a bespoke JTF headquarters to command, control and coordinate this type of shaping activity as an always-on function consistent with the notion of persistent engagement as articulated within the DSU.[11]

‘Deter’ as a Strategic Objective

The future ADF contributes to strategic deterrence by broadcasting to any future potential adversary that the costs outweigh the benefits. It does this by fielding, and being able to force generate, credible military forces. This now requires an increased emphasis on procuring offensive strike capabilities, including long-range missiles, a greater ability to project power across the region, and the ability to field more capable and better equipped Special Forces. The ADF must also be better prepared for an increased leadership role throughout Australia’s near region.

As discussed, deterrence demands capability. While some improvements, such as a better capacity to conduct joint operations, are not primarily technological, broadly the ADF will have to continually modernise its capabilities. This is needed, above all, to maintain an ability to generate the asymmetric offsets which are derived from its existing technocratic edge in fielding modern joint forces. It must also develop an ability to conduct expeditionary tactical cyber network and space operations, which includes an evolution from a reliance on space and cyber-supported capabilities that only provide assurance and management systems to a fully integrated offensive and defensive component of the ADF targeting system. The ADF also requires the necessary assurance and attack systems capable of operating in contested domains as part of a joint, interagency effort. Above all, deterrence demands an expeditionary strike, as this gives the ADF the ability to impose a significant cost on any rival nation or future adversary seeking to directly threaten or undermine Australian security interests across the region.

The future ADF will also strengthen its deterrence capabilities via its regional and global defence frameworks. Alliances such ANZUS and the Five Power Defence Agreement set the conditions for the ADF to be able to contribute to regional security.[12] Additionally, the use of the Special Forces within a joint, interagency context to support intelligence collection and development in support of the Australian Intelligence Community would form part of a normal framework of conflict prevention. The employment of ADF personnel in non-military standing interagency task forces, including border protection, domestic security and counter-terrorism, would also be habitual.

‘Respond’ as a Strategic Objective

The ADF will be called upon to win the nation’s wars. This is the core of the ADF’s purpose.[13] These military operations include the cooperative and focused employment of conventional, special and joint forces in conjunction with other tools of national power coordinated by a joint, interagency command and control headquarters. Once task organised and force assigned, joint forces must be able to operate as either a lead ‘framework nation’ or as part of broader coalition. Importantly, operational preparation of the environment (OPE) tasks which commenced in the pre-conflict phase of competition will now transition into a planned and coordinated advance force operation (AFO) as part of an acknowledgement that conflict is now likely.

STRATFORGEN supports the deployment of the joint force drawn from the conventional and Special Forces inventory, supplemented by national intelligence, logistics, diplomatic and industrial agencies. JTFs, comprising task-organised elements assigned to be ‘mission focused’ would deploy as part of an expeditionary joint force. They must be capable of:

  • deploying rapidly (by sea, air and land)
  • setting operational theatres (positioning forces capable of facilitating a campaign)
  • conducting decisive joint combat operations
  • creating the conditions for favourable conflict resolution
  • sustaining and concluding the military operation.

AFO, concentrating on special reconnaissance, special recovery, support operations, and direct action missions, would focus on providing situational awareness and securing the entry point(s) for the joint force. This would be achieved via a horizontal or vertical envelopment, a tactical air-land operation, parachute assault, the use of a proxy force, or the coordination of a number of these activities. This operation would be heavily supported by cyber, space, maritime, air and land domain capabilities, and utilise a number of orthodox and unorthodox means. Once secure, the entry point would be ready to receive the main elements of the joint force.

In order to be effective throughout the response phase of an operation, the ADF must possess a force able to deploy rapidly to austere areas. From those locations, the ADF must be capable of immediately commencing decisive combat operations. There must be little to no reliance on intermediate staging bases, minimising an adversary’s anti-access area denial strategy to interdict ADF lines of communication. JTFs must possess the necessary organic capabilities to conduct mounted and dismounted close combat operations, employ direct and indirect kinetic and non-kinetic fires, command and control at the formation or divisional joint headquarters level, and conduct counterinsurgency and other stability and support operations. Combat service support using organic, close, and supporting logistic systems would be capable of sustaining the force throughout the operation. Manned and unmanned semi-autonomous systems drawn from organic elements and supporting joint force elements capable of providing surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities are essential to support the analysis and fusion of intelligence in support of the JTF commander. Signature management, cyber defence, and space network capabilities all form part of the resilience framework that make the ADF capable of operations in electromagnetic denied and contested environments.

The ADF’s ability to effectively operate in an urban, littoral and highly lethal operating environment is an imperative for success during the decisive phase of joint combat operations.[14] The ADF must be adequately protected, armed and mobile to function there. Joint forces must be able to conduct effective tactical and operational combined arms operations through the execution of rapid and decisive short engagements concentrating on manoeuvre, mass, and weapons overmatch using combinations of land, maritime, air, space and cyber force elements and operational effects. Concurrently, STRATFORGEN must be capable of supporting joint operations using its readiness cycle to raise, replace and regenerate ‘Rotation 2’ capabilities. The ADF must also retain the ability to meet concurrent training and contingency tasks in parallel with the emergent operation.

The ADF must be capable of applying the objectives for conflict termination.[15] This must be set within the broader strategic framework and would be accomplished through collaboration, synchronisation, and coordination with other elements of national power. JTFs would be required to plan and conduct war termination tasks as well as joint force redeployment to home locations or other operational areas as the mission transitions from conflict into a newly defined balance of power.

Supporting Themes

The future ADF must possess a doctrine that addresses the moral, social, cognitive and physical impact of humans on the operating environment.[16] This also reflects the growing importance of understanding the impact of global media and the rise of ‘fake news’ with its potential to ‘lose the narrative’.[17] Future ADF operations must place greater emphasis on the ‘human terrain’, and this must increasingly form part of the ADF’s intellectual foundation for training and education of its personnel. A values-based approach to leadership and ethical decision-making must reflect Australian culture and society.

The ADF must preserve and enhance its aim to be an employer of choice as part of an all- volunteer force. Its ability to refine its workforce management strategies to recruit, select, train, educate and employ high-quality personnel will directly affect its ability to field future capability. Future military operations also include the capacity to support the nation during times of natural disaster and emergencies. Effective responses to these types of events are critical to the maintenance of public trust and positive sentiment towards the ADF across the community.

The ADF is the component of national power expected to win at war. In future conflict, strategic outcomes will be achieved through effective all-domain joint operations. The ADF must represent a credible, robust combat capability. The ADF needs to continue to expand its operational adaptability to include tasks beyond declared conflict—it must be able to shape, deter and respond. A ‘war ready’ ADF is critical to protect Australia’s national security interests in war, and to ensure the ability to achieve victory in war as well as being able to continue to ‘win the peace’.


This paper offers a military strategic narrative for the ADF that codifies its essential contributions to national security in a simple, clear and memorable manner. This narrative leverages the policies, resources and mandate given to the ADF by the Australian Government in a way that gives purpose and meaning to its core functions and outputs. Such narratives are critical to the future success of the ADF, which is expected to shape, deter and respond in an increasingly complex, ambiguous, volatile and uncertain operating environment.

Failure to realise the importance of a strategic narrative risks increasing the dissonance between the Australian public, its government and the ADF. This fissure could create opportunities for non-state actors and rival nations to exploit. As alluded to already in this paper, these include attempts by future adversaries to undermine national cohesion through the targeted and deliberate use of misinformation aimed at undermining political will and community support for the ADF. The articulation of a clear, powerful narrative is a critical future requirement for the ADF if it is to fully execute its task to protect Australian sovereignty and further national interests.

[1] P Leahy, 2020, ‘New Defence Plan Is a Robust Pivot to Our Own Back Yard’, The Australian Finance Review, 2 July 2020, 12.

[2] P Dean, 2020, ‘The Internal Risks to Australia’s New Defence Strategy’, The Strategist. (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), 14 August 2020, at

[3], 2020, ‘Should the Armed Forces Be Abolished?’, at

[4] A Zammit, 2020, ‘Concepts Behind Australia’s 2020 Strategic Update’, The Murphy Raid [blog], 22 July 2020, at

[5] K Manstead, 2020, Adaptive Strategic Narrative: Preparing for Mobilisation in a Diverse, Digital Democracy (Canberra: Australian National University), 4.

[6] Ibid., pp 4–8.

[7] P Dibb, 2018. ‘The Return of Geography’ in RW Glenn (ed.), New Directions in Strategic Thinking 2.0 (Canberra: ANU Press), 91.

[8] Department of Defence, 2020, 2020 Defence Strategic Update (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia), 21.

[9] To include the ability to ‘scale’ (expand from minimum to maximum capabilities within the current force posture settings), as well as to ‘mobilise’ (expand force posture beyond present settings as a consequence of the ‘nationalisation’ of a security emergency, such as war or catastrophic event).

[10] B Breen, 2016. The Good Neighbour: Australian Peace Support Operations in the Pacific Islands 1980–2006 (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press), 23.

[11] Department of Defence, 2020 Defence Strategic Update, 26.

[12] D Horner, 2011, Australia and the New World Order: From Peacekeeping to Peace Enforcement: 1988–1991 (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press), 10.

[13] J Blaxland, 2014, The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press), 34.

[14] D Kilcullen, 2011, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press), 98.

[15] B Breen, 2014, Preparing the Australian Army for Joint Employment: A Short History of the Adaptive Army Initiative (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia).

[16] T Frame, 2018. Widening Minds: The University of New South Wales and the Education of Australia’s Defence Leaders (University of New South Wales Press), 10–34.

[17] C Hamilton and M Ohlberg, 2020, Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World (Simon and Schuster), 55.

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.

Using the Contribute page you can either submit an article in response to this or register/login to make comments.