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Getting an Army in Motion Moving

29 October 2019
Getting an Army in Motion Moving

The recently released Chief of Army’s statement, Army in Motion, is a critically important document for the Army’s future, even if it appears neither remarkable nor awe-inspiring at a first glance. In its mundanity, however, it is exactly what Army needs to do. As a statement of intent for the entire force to embrace, Army in Motion is highly relevant for the future of land power in Australia. I for one am all in.

As General Angus Campbell has observed, Australia is facing a more disruptive future, one that will create numerous challenges, which Army will have to address if the land force is to continue to provide utility to the Government. The challenges will come fast, they will be multi-faceted, and some will be of such complexity to qualify as wicked. Some challenges are already obvious and have been evident for some time, such as the rebalance of power that is underway in the Western Pacific. Others are just now rising above the awareness threshold of the non-specialist, such as the technologies which comprise the Fourth Industrial Revolution that include the military implications for artificial intelligence, human enhancement and adaptive manufacturing, amongst others. Yet, as challenging as these developments are they pale in comparison to the risks that climate change poses for Australian security, and for the security of the region.

It is clear that Australia will likely have to contend with a new security context in the coming decades. The Australian Army must embrace change by becoming what the Chief has called an Army in Motion. However, despite my support for change, I am nor very sanguine of the force’s success. This is not the first time that the Australian Army has needed to be ‘agile’, but it is a situation in which change is coming along multiple lines and at the most rapid pace.  I am not convinced the Army is up to the task. The challenge Army faces is so enormous that it is worth pondering why an organisation that must adapt may find the implementation of meaningful change too hard to undertake. I believe the Australian Army possesses three inhibiting traits that will hinder, if not prevent, the accomplishment of the Chief’s vision. They are: a deep-seated fear of change, a senior leadership that at certain levels has a low appetite to address change and an organisational preference for the maintenance of the status quo.

To be sure, the Australian Army is not the only military to suffer from these faults. The historical record is littered with examples of armies that failed to appreciate the necessity to adapt to a new reality. After all, it was the British and French Armies during the First World War that first demonstrated the potential of the tank. Yet during the succeeding interwar years the leadership of neither army was able to articulate and inculcate a coherent theory for armoured warfare. It was the leaders of the German and Russian Armies who implemented the basis for armoured warfare.

Admittedly, to embrace the future is always a gamble. It requires a willingness to take a leap into the unknown and to make decisions with incomplete or non-existent data while spending the public purse. There is never a guarantee that the one will get it right, no matter how well the odds of success are shaped by hard thinking and experimentation. The French leadership of the interwar period, for example, did not realise that they had gotten the possibilities of a future war wrong, at least not until the Germans showed them. Nor is there any guarantee that existing trend lines will provide useful guidance into more than the immediate future. The unexpected may intervene and disrupt one’s expectations and change what was supposed to happen to something else. For example, China’s continued rise and military modernisation at present looks unstoppable. However, a catastrophic series of climate change events may delay, halt or even reverse its development into a great power. A wise future’s thinker, therefore, approaches the art of what will be with some respect and caution.

But a respect for caution is not the main driver of Australia’s fear to implement significant change. The tendency to play it safe in the Australian system is mainly driven by a visceral desire to avoid risk-taking. Some year ago, I wrote of the need for the Army to have a debate on the future of war. What followed its publication was silence. No debate eventuated; unlike in the United States Army where a vibrant and sometimes brutal discourse on the future of war took place. A difference between that the American and Australian systems is the willingness of the institution to be more tolerant of risk while also allow its members to object or raise concerns in public. Risk avoidance permeates Australian Defence culture, the APS and the ADF alike. Too often, those who distinguished themselves on operations struggle to escape polices that delimitate all actions taken in Canberra, with the result that process perversely trumps outcome. I see no reason to expect a different result this time, even with the Chief’s encouragement.

The Australian Army has reason to be proud of its war-fighting competency of its soldiers and its tradition of success in battle. With some justification, its highly trained soldiers are sought after by our coalition partners. However, Australian excellence is limited mainly to only one level of the art of war –the tactical. Perhaps this is inevitable. As a small power, the strategic level of war has largely been the remit of Australia’s great power partners. In Vietnam, for example, the strength of the Australian Task Force was at the battalion and company level, and influence at the strategic level was virtually non-existent. Unfortunately, disruptive change requires leaders who are visionaries, individuals who excel at the strategic level so that real change can be implemented rather than simply the incorporation of a new iteration of the same. Generals Campbell and Burr have demonstrated that they are strategic leaders who can see and respond to the big picture. Too few other senior personnel share this trait. For most, their view of the weeds prevents any aspiration to see the stars.

Too much comfort with tactical leadership is an enduring problem for the Army and in part is a result of a tendency to develop strategic leaders in terms of their ability to manage processes or at being good at STEM. Yet, in thinking and deciding upon strategy, it is the humanities that count. If the Army is serious about producing strategic leaders it should be mandatory for those on the leadership pathway to undertake a graduate degree at a civilian university in History, Philosophy, Political Science, Anthropology, Language or the Fine Arts. Moreover, this study should be full-time at the Army’s expense. Essentially they would receive a posting to study and through this exploration of the humanities learn how to think and to think broadly. Military strategists must firstly understand people, because that is where strategy lives.

The last impasse to an Army in Motion is the tendency to favour the status quo over change. A preference for the maintenance of the status quo is a powerful cultural constraint that has effect of protecting sacred cows from necessary slaughter. Every solder has invested their career in a particular branch whose status and aspirations remain a part of them no matter their career path. The battleship admirals did not go peacefully, nor did the horse soldiers even when their time had passed. However, they did go – or rather, they were pushed. Can Army as an institution overcome the forces of the status quo and, for example, seriously imagine a future where the decisive effect is delivered by distant strike rather than by a close assault? I don’t know, but any serious modernisation would require all sacred cows to justify their continued utility and to face the knife if found wanting.

The Chief is right.

The context of Australia’s future in the world is changing and the coming decades are likely to be more disruptive, dangerous and violent than Australia has experienced for some time. Government will probably call upon Army to undertake a host of varied tasks, perhaps even simultaneously. Military forces can and do change. I hope that Army can do what it needs to do without the shock of a crushing defeat being inflicted by a more future-ready opponent. The historical record is also filled with accounts of armies who failed in their prime duty to protect their people.

The Chief has laid out a vision.

It is up to Army to make it so.

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.