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Part 1: People capability - The military’s strategic imperative

Australian soldiers in parade formation seen side on up close

The Australian military should strive for a balanced skills strategy, which augments STEM capabilities with humanities, social sciences, and management disciplines.

Any military is only as good as its people, platforms and partnerships – its veritable ‘Strategic Trinity’.

However, the effects of these are not uniform, with people exerting a disproportionately significant impact on its long-term effectiveness. The calibre of the people – and their overall skills, training and experience – not only shapes their actual combat readiness, but also the quality of the platforms and partnerships more generally. It is the people, after all, who make the decisions about platforms and forge enduring partnerships. As such, the issue of people capabilities (or skills development) is of primal importance from a strategic planning perspective.

This is particularly true for a ‘boutique’ expeditionary force such as Australia’s, whose military engagements since Federation have almost always been far from its own sovereign borders. In the 21st century, it is facing an increasingly complex geostrategic ecosystem, as well as an expanding mandate that includes new domains (space and cyber) and traditionally non-military activities such as disaster relief. The broader Indo-Pacific region within which it is nested is defined by ancient cultures, historical grievances and conflicts, economic resurgence, political nationalism, and social structures defined by ties of religious, ethnic and linguistic kinship. And both within this region and further afield, it has to develop the capacity to concurrently deal with both larger state-based adversaries and violent non-state insurgencies.

Its primal challenge is therefore to keep developing the skills profile of its personnel, to empower it to deal with the diverse, unpredictable demands created by the aforementioned conditions. Doing so in turn requires an ability to look ahead and plan back; to imagine and anticipate the challenges and constraints that this evolving ecosystem will create for it over time, and to take steps to mitigate their effects in a timely and proactive manner. All this has to be done despite resource constraints on its overall size, and in fact, would be the guiding principle for effective allocation of scarce resources.

So, in a nutshell, the ADF’s primal challenge is one of skills development, and can be rephrased thus: to create a force that is flexible enough to do more despite its limited size and budget, able to upscale its capabilities should the need arise, while being resilient enough in the face of increasing complexity, uncertainty, and pace of change.

In order to meet this challenge, the first and most important need for the ADF is to develop a balanced skills profile. This will provide it the capability, not only for actually doing things, but also for deciding what things to do in the first place, and why. To summarise a common refrain, the most important things is not solving problems, but in finding the right problems to solve; to not provide right answers, but finding the right questions to answer in the first place. A failure to put this principle front and centre would result, to use another colloquial phrase, in ‘straightening deck chairs on the Titanic’.

A balanced skills framework would be one that balances STEM capabilities along with those in humanities and social sciences (HASS) and management studies. It needs to be understood and appreciated that to identify the right problems and ask the right questions, and to engage with partners with very different cultural paradigms, a deep understanding of disciplines such as history, religious and cultural studies, languages, politics, sociology, economics, geography, organisational behaviour, and strategic management, etc. are absolutely essential. These disciplines should stop being seen as optional extras or an afterthought, and should be embraced as indispensable to an effective, outcome-driven planning process.

While the importance of STEM capabilities cannot be overstated, they are best thought of as a ‘necessary but not sufficient condition’ for long-term military effectiveness. This means that they are a critical prerequisite for maintaining both combat readiness and credible deterrence, but by themselves they are not enough to achieve these goals. To further understand this, think of the analogy of passports: one cannot legally travel overseas without them, but by themselves they do not guarantee the right to travel (one also needs confirmed tickets)!

In essence, it should be clear that STEM skills alone will not be enough to provide an enduring, decisive advantage to modern militaries. If that were so, the US – with the most advanced military technologies and platforms in the history of the world – would not have struggled as it continues to do against irregular, non-state insurgents like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda offshoots. Instead, we see the U.S. locked into its longest wars ever, with no satisfactory end in sight, and being forced to negotiate its own exit from Afghanistan with the Taliban.

This experience should act as a cautionary tale for the Australian military; a bulwark against the impulse to think of STEM capabilities alone as the panacea for the ADF’s future challenges. Instead, it would be well-advised to fundamentally shift its thinking, to start appreciating HASS disciplines as a ‘force multiplier’ in an economically resurgent but strategically volatile region. It is encouraging that many ADF personnel undertake post-graduate studies in HASS and management studies, on their own initiative and in their own time, through funding arrangements with UNSW. Such personal initiative should be encouraged and nurtured, and institutional funding for such opportunities should be further expanded. The Australian military, and indeed the nation itself, will be better off for it.

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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