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How does the Australian Army Defend our Immediate Region? – Part 1

25 November 2021

I have followed Albert Palazzo’s work with interest over the years. In his most recent Occasional Paper, Planning to Not Lose: The Australian Army's New Philosophy of War, Palazzo lays out the controversial argument that the best outcome of a future conflict for Australia, is not to lose and not losing must be the basis of Australia’s new military philosophy. In this regard, the following observation particularly caught my attention:

Despite the discomfort this proposal may occasion among some of the force’s members, change is coming. The choice is simple: embrace change or accept defeat.

A lot of our training concerns offensive operations such as amphibious landings, land force manoeuvre, urban operations, air operations, maritime operations and Special Forces activities during Exercise Talisman Sabre. So, to move to a defensive mindset would be a profound change for an Army in Motion and a defensive mindset has a problematic history.

Australian Army soldiers and officers from the 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment (Queensland Mounted Infantry) test the Army’s new Boxer Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle (CRV) on the beach during Exercise Sea Wader 2020 at Cowley Beach Training Area, Far North Queensland.
An armored personnel carrier roles off a landing craft in preparation for a beach assault conducted as part of Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021

Many readers of history would recall that the French Army moved from an offensive mindset, often described as ‘the cult of the offensive’, during World War One, to a defensive mindset in the inter-war period. The resulting defensive fortifications that comprised the Maginot Line were a requirement of the resulting defensive doctrine. This mindset and its doctrine were a policy for defeat against the German Army, who had pioneered a method of warfare, which placed manoeuvre back in the ascendancy over firepower. Still, as the late Michael Howard would have said, that was a different time, those were different armies and it was in a different part of the world. Context in history is important.

So, what has changed that would demand Australia and other western forces relinquish offensive manoeuvre in favour of a more defensive posture? A number of authors, including Palazzo have argued that lethal long-range precision missiles have placed firepower in the ascendancy again. As a result of the fielding of long-range precision missiles and sensors, the balance between the offensive and the defensive has swung in favour of the defender, with the consequence that the defence now enjoys a battlefield advantage. Western policy makers started to use the term anti-access and area denial (A2AD) in 2009 to describe this concept; however, the military tactic of prevailing over a distant adversary has a long history, especially if the adversary is superior in overall military power, by preventing it from deploying its forces into the theatre of conflict in the first place. Operations that seek to protect the approaches to a country’s borders, sometimes out to ranges in the thousands of kilometres, is a reality that the 2020 Defence Strategic Update acknowledges.

In supporting his position, Palazzo is careful to state that a philosophy of not losing is not the same as the acceptance of defeat. Palazzo argues that, in war, those who embrace the negative purpose of the defence aspire to impose delay on their adversary and they fight to destroy just enough of the enemy’s power to cause it to renounce its intentions. This is deterrence through denial or seeking to deny the enemy its objective. The term ‘negative purpose’ comes from Clausewitz, who highlights from his own time, that defence was the stronger form of fighting. This was based on the dynamic relationship between the magnitude and likelihood of success. By negative purpose, Clausewitz means the use of every means available for pure resistance (to destroy the opponent’s forces, while preserving our own), which results in an advantage that balances the opponent’s superiority. As Clausewitz counsels, such an approach will inevitably prolong the conflict until the enemy is exhausted. A2AD, or a defensive philosophy, is not for military professionals or politicians fascinated by decisive battle and quick victories.

There is a self-evident logic to Palazzo’s argument. If Australia is a nation with no aspirations other than to preserve itself and to retain the status quo (or the rules based global order), a defensive philosophy could make sense. A strategic defence is ‘morally just’ in accordance with Just War Theory. Engagement in ‘just wars’ generally ensures that the actor maintains their legitimacy on the global stage, which is important when your nation and its people subscribes to the Rules Based Global Order. Indeed, I have argued that we should focus on how to establish A2AD on key maritime terrain that supports our national interests. 

Motivated by the arguments raised by Palazzo, I reached for the doctrine to see if his philosophy, based on the advice of Clausewitz, makes practical sense. 

Based on this doctrinal review, and its application to a sample scenario, in this article I will consider whether area defence may be an appropriate force posture from which to effectively defend Australia’s immediate region. In a future post, Part 2, I will expand the discussion to review the relative benefits and risks of a mobile defence posture. Based on these observations, I will draw some conclusions and implications for the Australian Army, including considerations relevant to the future development of ADF doctrine.

What Does Doctrine Tell Us?

The first document I picked up was Australian Defence Doctrine Publication 3.0 Campaigns and Operations. This publication highlights why we do defensive operations, such as to protect our centre of gravity, preserve combat power and to force the adversary to culminate due to its loss of momentum or exhaustion, its over extended lines of communication and its diminished fighting power. It is less to clear about how to conduct defensive operations – other than to have a plan.

The next document I consulted was Land Warfare Doctrine 3-0-3 Formation Tactics 2016, handily available on ForceNet. This document takes the analysis of warfare from the operational level to the tactical level. Applying Palazzo’s defensive mindset to foundational doctrine like this is a useful way to test its feasibility and utility. Specifically, it highlights that there are three tactics available to the Army to give effect to a defensive force posture:

  1. defence (either mobile or area).
  2. delay
  3. withdrawal

This is land doctrine, but the principles are relevant to joint warfighting because land capabilities are integrated with joint capabilities. In the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, this region is defined as ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific.

Application of Doctrine to a Scenario

The scenario within which I tested Palazzo’s argument was based on my own experience and knowledge. Specifically, I envisaged Palazzo’s new philosophy of war operating similarly to the Falkland Islands’ campaign in 1982. While I appreciate that Australia’s archipelagic immediate region is very different to the South Atlantic, there is nevertheless utility in the analogy. In particular, I considered a situation in which Australia was in the position of Argentina, attempting to either attrit the Royal Navy taskforce sufficiently that a landing was not practicable, or to delay the force so that the inclement weather in the region prevented a landing. In this context, I also considered the relevance of relative nuclear capabilities.  In 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a colonial territory of nuclear-armed Britain. Argentina’s willingness to do so highlights the argument put forward by John Storey, writing recently for ASPI, that access to nuclear weapons does not necessarily deter conflict. In my mind, Australia’s position would be analogous to a non-nuclear Argentina dealing with a nuclear capable Britain.

The Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield on fire after being struck by an AM 39 Exocet missile fired from an Argentine Super Étendard from a distance of 6 miles, May 4, 1982. Sheffield later sank with a loss of 20 sailors. The handful of Argentine Exocets posed a serious problem for the Royal Navy throughout the conflict. © IWM FKD 64
The Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield on fire after being struck by an AM 39 Exocet missile fired from an Argentine Super Étendard from a distance of 6 miles, May 4, 1982. Sheffield later sank with a loss of 20 sailors. The handful of Argentine Exocets posed a serious problem for the Royal Navy throughout the conflict. © IWM FKD 64

Area Defence of the Immediate Region

With an offensive task force, consisting of embarked aircraft and an amphibious capability, enroute to Australia’s immediate region to seize terrain vital to our national interest, an area defence is appropriate when one or more of the following circumstances exist:

  • The enemy possesses greater mobility than the defender. The enemy is likely to enter the immediate region using our maritime approaches. Our maritime forces, including Army’s watercraft replacement project, are likely to have the same mobility. Our land forces, consisting of our A2AD systems, would manoeuvre using either air or maritime assets and are therefore likely to have equivalent, or faster, mobility than the enemy.
  • The enemy has greater air superiority. Overall, we are defending our immediate region closer to Australia. ASPI conducted some excellent analysis of the F-35’s combat radius for combat air patrol in its articles ‘Projecting Power with the F-35’ Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. These publications highlighted that it is realistic for the F-35 to be kept on a combat air patrol, with tanker support to a range of 1,500km from Darwin (or just to the North of West Papua). Within that area, Australia would have greater air superiority.
  • The enemy is unlikely to employ weapons of mass destruction. Our opponent could have nuclear weapons, but consistent with John Storey’s argument, nuclear weapons are only ever likely to be used if a nuclear-armed nation is facing an existential threat. The reality is that, in the scenario under consideration in this article, no such existential threat exists for the nuclear-armed power and therefore, such weapons are unlikely to be used.
  • There is a requirement to retain specific terrain. There is some Australian terrain outside of Australia, such as the Cocos Islands. All of the remaining terrain within our immediate region is owned by sovereign nations with no guarantees of access to it. Some of the land surrounding the various so-called maritime choke points would be important or key to retain. Olivia Garrad writing in 2018, provided a framework for pinpointing Maritime Key Terrain.  This framework involved overlaying maritime shipping traffic patterns, undersea cables and historical sources of tension against images of the world at night. As we identify particular pieces of key maritime terrain, it is worth remembering that movement is governed by it.
  • The terrain restricts manoeuvre by a defending force. Our immediate region is archipelagic. Without air and maritime mobility support, it would be restrictive to manoeuvre by land forces alone. To cope with the increasingly lethal environment, land anti-access area denial capabilities must be light enough for air and maritime mobility; which can be a challenge when the vehicles are heavily protected.
  • Time is available for the construction of defensive positions and the preparation of obstacles. The reality is that time is unlikely to be available, and the attacker will likely have the initiative. Both of these factors were born out in the Falklands War with the Argentinians not having the resources to build effective defences before the task force arrived. In addition, the main obstacle at sea are mines and the ADF does not possess an offensive mining capability. Notably, Greg Sheridan writing for ASPI highlighted that the Defence Department recently released a request for information from industry relating to the near-term acquisition of modern sea mines.
  • Sufficient forces are available. As contemporary maritime affairs and naval historian James Goldrick regularly states, there is no such thing as sea lines of communication. There is the shortest route between two points, but an enemy may choose to go the long way round. The ADF will never have sufficient forces for a comprehensive area defence.
  • The frontage assigned is narrow relative to the size of the defending force. The frontage in the immediate region is vast (in excess of 4,000km) in comparison to the defending force.
  • The depth of the area to be defended is limited. The depth is at least 1,500km, an extraordinarily large area for any military force to defend effectively.

Summary of Area Defence Considerations

While an area defence posture shows mixed results when tested against the scenario, it is clearly inappropriate for defending Australia’s immediate region. While the enemy may have comparable mobility and is unlikely to have air superiority except within range of the air defence systems organic to their task force, the amount of area for the ADF to defend is too deep and wide for our force. This might change if we were in a coalition or partnership as that would likely require the defence of key terrain, but let us continue with the Falklands War analogy; two opposing forces.

In Part 2, I will consider whether a mobile defence posture has more potential to support an effective defence of Australia’s immediate region. Finally, based on my analysis of Palazzo’s defensive philosophy, and drawing on my observations concerning the relative utility of area and mobile defensive postures in Parts 1 and 2, I will then conclude with some implications for the Australian Army and for the future direction of ADF doctrine.


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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