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Hindsight in 2021

A Case Study in Thinking for Future Warfare

Australian Army officers from Joint Task Force 646 and representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, attend a hand over, take over meeting at McKinlay Shire Council.

“All human institutions must inevitably deal with the tension between continuity and change, between preserving that which has met the needs of the past and adapting to the challenge of change in a confusing present and uncertain future.”

                                                                                                 Harold R. Winton[1]

If hindsight is 20/20, how will we prepare for future warfare knowing what we know today?

The past offers us an abundance of clues as to what might be within the range of acceptable futures tomorrow. Namely, great power competition, the rise of violent extremist organisations, proliferation of disruptive technologies, and the continued offence-defence dilemma playing out between historic antagonists in different parts of the world. That these are not particularly new components of the twenty-first century global system suggests our thinking requires examination to ensure we retain agility and insight to avoid the resultant shock of the unexpected, as suffered in the past.

There are great trends and constants that could guide an approach to future warfare. A previous post on the value of history compels us to critically examine our collective experience to derive and learn from the true lessons, which is proven positively in the example given in this blog. Lived experience of warfare offers a multitude of clues to those searching for ways to future-proof their thinking when considering how to be best prepared for the next conflict.

The following is a short example of a nation that grappled with different ways to conduct warfare. Its trait is not the acquisition of the most modern technology in sufficient quantities, but the change in thinking that drove everything else. That is – an emphasis on educated leaders at all levels, reinvestment in operational doctrine, and rigour in thinking about how to fight and succeed in a future war.

This article reaffirms that constructive thought must lead action. Particularly, as our contest of ideas is important in an era of accelerated warfare and the applied value of our collective brainpower will continue to be the decisive difference tomorrow.

Beyond Stalemate: New Thinking for the German Interwar Army

The organisation of an army has a profound influence upon the development and evolution of operational doctrine. The German Army was inadvertently granted a tremendous benefit by the Allied powers in the Versailles Treaty when it was forced to fundamentally change the structure of its military organization.[2]

The German Army (Reichswehr) of the 1920s was defined by its educational and doctrinal transformation under Colonel General Hans Von Seeckt, who was an effective operational and strategic-level commander as well as an efficient army administrator. Starting from a relatively low standing in the aftermath of the Great War, the Reichswehr continued to suffer from a lack of a German national industrial base into the 1930s.[3] The Treaty of Versailles limited the army to one hundred thousand men, four thousand officers, was bereft of tanks, and denied an air force.[4]

While many other nations who participated in the Great War saw this as a deterrent for a conflict with Germany again, Johnathan House describes Germany’s position as a blessing in disguise, as planners could study concepts and doctrine in the present and use technology to lead future development.[5] Surrounded by adversaries and to ensure its national security, the German strategic outlook thus had to favour the primacy of attack in short wars to avoid enemy economic mobilisation and a protracted struggle, as they had experienced and learnt from the Great War, and this proved to be beneficial in its development.[6]

From 1920, Von Seeckt envisaged a “war of movement” (Bewegungskrieg), which was an operational concept that allows the attacker to carry out large-scale envelopment on the enemy for quick strategic victory. He took on the personal mission of reorienting and re-educating the German Army toward this vision.

In December 1919, his committees examined the Great War leading to the development of operational doctrine, Army Regulation 487: Leadership and Battle with Combined Arms. Issued from 1921, it formed the basis for education in the Reichswehr. Von Seeckt’s reforms rewrote army manuals, inaugurated research projects, and harnessed emerging technology to ensure the German military was the best trained for what would become blitzkrieg.

Doctrine development in the 1920s was the primary method of innovation in the Reichswehr. It reflected a renewal in officer and NCO education when Von Seeckt emphasised university-level standards, technical training, and service in combat arms, which is arguably like the emphasis in Australia’s Army today. The general staff again became the primary agency for effecting reform, although it manifested in a slightly different form as the Truppenamt – a cover for the general staff.[7] The German War Academy (Kriegsakademie), with its basis in history and military theory, was re-established with further emphasis on technological integration.[8]

As reform took hold, more voices debated mechanisation in future war. Officers, such as Ernst Volckheim and Oswald Lutz, appeared as early armour proponents who later influenced its direction. In 1923, when Volckheim began writing, articles on mechanised warfare in the weekly military journal (Militar-Wochenblatt) were summaries or translations of British thinking. By 1926, such articles were written by many German officers.[9] Resultantly, by the end of the 1920s, Germany had a coherent combined arms manoeuvre doctrine and officers had envisaged the character of the coming war in Europe in redemption for failing in the Great War. Even an experimental Panzer battalion was established by 1929.[10]

With the rise of Hitler and the Wehrmacht, Werner Von Fritsch and Ludwig Beck’s Die Truppenfuhrung (Troop Leadership), published in 1932, stressed flexibility, Auftstragtaktik harnessed decentralised execution, and for officers to employ Bewegungskrieg. Thus, Von Seeckt succeeded in creating the right climate for creative thinking about succeeding in future warfare and it flowed into the next decade’s implementation to achieve the desired reform.

Von Seeckt envisaged a new army driven by its collective ability to learn and adapt to emergent conditions, rather than one experientially confined to the four years of trench warfare instilled in the leaders of the previous decade. It was a force that foresaw the ability to effectively bond technology to already well-developed thinking, thereby succeeding in the conduct of future warfare.

An Applicable Context

The German interwar example offers that organisational change and preparation for future warfare is largely a product of deep institutional thinking driven by influential leaders with a core group of advocates and believers. In the German Army example, that this thinking would not be bolstered by new equipment for more than a decade after inception is a testament to the enduring strength of such an approach. It was a long way to come in such a short time for an interwar Army that, arguably, lost the war due to a host of reasons beyond its military prowess.

It is now just over a century since Von Seeckt commenced the reforms of 1920. Today, the Australian Army finds itself in a similar uncertainty on what the future of warfare will entail. Acquiring new technology and better weapons is important, but it will not answer the ‘how will we succeed?’ questions posed to us by our adversaries, and today’s contest of ideas will bring out tomorrow’s approach to Accelerated Warfare. Waiting for the newest weaponry won’t underwrite a future chance of success – getting the thinking (and doctrine) right beforehand will.

Simply put, if you do not know where you have been (the past), then you do not know where you stand, and any road to the future will do.[11]

If we accept the premise today that we are unprepared to conduct the warfare of tomorrow then our transformative thinking journey has already begun. If we do not accept that premise, then we haplessly cling to the perceived stability that rotational conflicts of choice, in support of our historical allies, allowed us to believe and not developed resilience in thinking to survive the inevitable shock of the unexpected. Thus, the hindsight of 2021 is more important than ever in contemplating the character of future warfare and the enduring strength of our ability to respond to it. In getting the interwar thinking right, Von Seeckt was seemingly on to something – the vision of success starts in our minds and then on the pages of our doctrine.


[1] Harold R. Winton and David R. Mets, eds. The Challenge of Change: Military Institutions and New Realities, 1918-1941. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), xi.

[2] Harold R. Winton and David R. Mets, eds. The Challenge of Change: Military Institutions and New Realities, 1918-1941, 43.

[3] Hew Strachan. European Armies and the Conduct of War. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1983), 161.

[4] James Corum. “A Comprehensive Approach to Change: Reform in the German Army of the Interwar Period”, in Winton and Mets, (2000), 34.

[5] House. Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A survey of 20th Century Doctrine, Tactics, and Organisation., 52.

[6] Ibid, 150.

[7] James Corum. The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Von Seeckt and Military Reform (Kansas: University Press, 1992), 49. The general staff was forbidden under the 1919 provisions at Versailles. Von Seeckt simply adopted a new approach for the traditional function within the German military institution. He was not unlike Moltke or even Scharnhorst in his approach that used education spread by professional elites.

[8] Ibid, 46.

[9] Ibid, 130.

[10] Ibid, 136. Colonel Alfred von Vollard-Bockelburg established it from 1927-1929: Tanks and ‘motor cars’ were used to form the first experimental Panzer unit. This would be the forerunner to Guderian’s concepts of the 1930s.

[11] Williamson Murray, America and the Future of War: The Past as Prologue, (Stanford: The Hoover Institution Press, 2017), 3.

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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