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Riding the Future Battlefield

PME needs to produce strategists able to draw sufficient conclusions from insufficient resources.  One tool used to develop such leaders is the staff ride. The Australian Army has limited experience with staff rides, conducting its first staff ride of the modern era in 2017. In our view, this nascent staff ride programme can do more, not just to explorie past battlefields but to include potential battlespaces that represent the Future Operating Environment.

Historical analysis of past battlefields asks questions like, “What happened?”, “Why?” or “With what result?, concluding with a critical reflection on commander’s decisions.  This approach is limited to conflicts long since resolved.  As a result, the average staff ride is akin to an on-site business school case study.  While reflecting on past strategies locked in a particular historical context provides valuable opportunities to learn from the judgement of others, the opportunity to use staff rides to think about the future appears to have been missed.

The irony of staff rides missing a future focus lies in their becoming increasingly remote from their original purpose. Introduced by Lieutenant-General Gerhard von Scharnhorst in the late 18th century, staff rides were made widely popular by Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder in the second half of the 19th century. von Moltke took subordinates (riding horses) on tours of areas where there was a potential for war to occur in a future context. This meant that von Moltke saw the principle purpose of staff rides as a means of training staff officers to appreciate the operational and strategic significance of terrain and informing contingency planning in a future context.  We propose that Army staff rides return to that original, future focused purpose.

The Prussian Army further evolved the staff ride to create what could be described as an intermediate stage between table-top war games and army manoeuvres. This expanded form of staff rides saw commanding officers and their staff deploy into the field as if at war, but without troops, with ‘teams’ for both sides. Reconnaissance and movement orders were given to umpires, who decided what units would be sighted or encountered, and when, passing the information back to the commanders and staffs. That is, staff rides were the simulators of the 19th century.

Extrapolating von Moltke’s approach, Army needs officers who understand land warfare on, for example, an Antarctic continent where global warming has caused the ice sheets to retreat.  This might involve finding locations around the world that match the conditions under such a scenario (e.g. partnering with Canada for exercises in Arctic tundra).  It may also be worthwhile to consider staff rides that enable officers to get a visceral experience of the offensive and defensive potential of locations around Australia (e.g. future cityscapes, machine run farming or autonomous mining facilities).

Given the ability to develop increasingly sophisticated simulators to map out entire ‘war games’, it is prudent to consider the implications of reliance on these ostensibly cheaper training tools.  That is, the staff ride stands to be a valuable component to development of a future focused strategic mindset, rather than an historical adjunct.

Our proposal allows officers the opportunity to look towards an emerging future; the staff ride can prepare future commanders to war game more realistically than on a table top or in the artifice of a computer simulator.  There is nothing quite like allowing officers to ‘smell’ potential battlefields of the future ‘from horseback’, rather than constraining future battles to abstract and conceptual thought experiments in sterile air-conditioned comfort.

Where staff rides do explore historical sites, participants need to be challenged beyond re-fighting the Battle of Dien Bien Phu from the perspective of a French Officer in Indo-China (or, more accurately, an historian).  Additional value can be extracted by viewing the same problem from a modern perspective and how these officers, within the term of the Future Operating Environment, might be called upon to fight a similar action.  That is, staff rides which reflect on how past battles would play out with current and emerging technology presents as a valuable tool to develop leaders with a strong sense of current and future military strategy.  While there are challenges of organising this type of staff ride, the best time to resolve such problems is before the solutions are needed in real time.

While honouring its history, the Australian Army understands that long and proud traditions do not win battles.  What wins battles is foresight and preparedness.  If Australian Army staff rides continue to look backwards, Army misses an opportunity to educate forward thinking, future facing military strategists.

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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