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Shared Challenges and Mass Insecurities

Australian Army personnel from 6th Engineer Support Regiment disembark from one of HMAS Canberra's landing craft in Port Vila during Operation Vanuatu Assist 2023.

In June 2022, the British Chief of the General Staff used the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Land Warfare conference to make a major speech. In it he publicly directed his organisation to ‘mobilise’ in response to Russian aggression. Striking in its forcefulness, that speech was widely reported among many responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

One year on, General Sanders used the same forum to run a ruler over developments to-date. In a room full of military leaders and analysts from across a broad swathe of countries, nations’ preoccupation with the lessons learned from Ukraine’s costly experience was unsurprising.

Five shared challenges were particularly prominent. The first is workforce. The British Army is struggling to meet its recruiting needs generally, as well as struggling to recruit and retain people in certain critical trades. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force face similar struggles. The seriousness of this challenge is a direct echo of the recruitment and retention challenges facing both the Australian Army and the wider Australian Defence Force (ADF). One might add that the US Army and other militaries share this same difficulty too – the US Army alone fell some 15,000 people short of its needs last year. Indeed, ‘western’ militaries writ large are all facing the twin challenges of changing societal expectations and (presently) low unemployment rates.

Second, the need to grapple with how to both organisationally and technically realise ‘multi domain’ operations is widely shared. Unsurprisingly, given their relative size and depth of capabilities, the US Army is leading these efforts among allies, with experimental ‘Multi Domain Task Forces’. The question of how to achieve this capability, while maintaining the very familiar looking and ‘traditional’ skills that the war in Ukraine demonstrates, is still a core part of this challenge. For the Australian Army, achieving an ever-deepened level of integration within the joint force, while also optimising the force for the littoral or the archipelago, presents another layer of this same imperative.  

Third, the shadow cast by extended operations in the Middle East remains real for many forces. Discussing the very large footprint occupied by US formation headquarters, for example, American officers observed that this product of relatively permissive operating environments has still not been adequately adjusted to high threat realities. Progress (back) toward effective lean and survivable headquarters is, however, very much in train across allied nations.

Fourth, as in Australia, there is widespread dissatisfaction with extant procurement systems. The conclusion that the status quo is too slow and does not iterate quickly enough is a chorus across peer militaries. The British Minister for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, observed that certain Ukrainian capabilities are being acquired or updated on a ten-week or shorter basis in partnership with mobilised industry partners. The extent to which this kind of responsiveness is replicable outside the pressures of an existential war is an open question. However, this theme was explicit in Australia’s recent Defence Strategic Review (DSR).

Fifth and finally, the pressure to get more from reserve forces is present in various countries. Both British ministers and senior officers expressed a desire to have a more integrated full-time and reserve workforce, and to eliminate barriers to people moving as easily as possible between different forms of service. Happily, this is clearly an area in which the ADF has already realised serious reforms. The Service Category (SERCAT) system, which was introduced as part of the ADF’s 2016 total workforce review, facilitates a much smoother continuum of service than was previously allowed for by the simple ‘Regular’ versus ‘Reserve’ employment status.

Beyond these shared discussions, which are ultimately issues of management and technical expertise, one further, cross-cutting theme was evident. That was the question of mass. Certainly this was a topic discussed as regards the tactical level as there are clear lessons from the Russia-Ukraine War. For example, in the face of pervasive and effective sensor-fires threats, concentrating to achieve sufficient mass for offensive actions is more dangerous than ever.  But present at a deeper level was the question of mass in a more strategic or macro sense. In the lead-up to the refreshed British military Command Paper (a subsidiary, companion document to the capstone Integrated Review), media reporting had suggested that bitter arguments were occurring about potential, further cuts to the size of the British Army. These have not occurred – but the force has already shrunk from a little over 100,000 as recently as 2010, to 72,500 presently.

Many observers watching the war in Ukraine cannot help but be drawn to the (re-learned) conclusion that attrition matters, whether we like it or not. Discussion of reserve force capability is to the fore again because, among other things, the Ukraine war has prompted serious discussion of how large, second echelon forces might be constituted. The ‘multi domain’ fixation is related here, too. At one level it is a response to technological developments and adversary developments. However, it can also be seen as an attempt to maintain the marked qualitative edge that has allowed Western forces to live with distinct numerical inferiority.

There is a shared theme between the British and Australian status quo here, too. Engelsberg Ideas recently published a piece by strategic studies scholar William James titled, ‘What is the British Army for?’ There are plenty of things the British Army is useful for, at least if 20th Century experience is anything to go by. But as James’ article makes clear, defining and defending a clear purpose has been a struggle for British Army leaders.

Perhaps, for a relatively small maritime trading nation, an island off the coast of a continent, some desire to do away with messy entanglements on land might well be something close to an instinct. At least for some, the British question here is: what can a small army really do in the face of far larger adversaries and neighbours? That might sound like a familiar query to Australian ears, though Britain’s vexed relationship with the European continent has a much longer history.

The DSR has been helpfully explicit in articulating the central role of land power in a form optimised to operate in the littoral within a national strategic framework. Long range fires are clearly now key capability priorities, but retaining enough capacity for the close fight will be an ongoing balancing act. The need to achieve this balance has sometimes been overlooked in Australia so a focus on this aspect of the DSR is particularly worthwhile. The precise composition of relevant ‘combined arms’ teams is something that will continue to evolve; Army needs to – and is – embracing this change.

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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