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Towards a Land Power Narrative: We Provide the Access

The Army has value. As a national institution, few rival the place of the Army in the nations psyche. This pride of place remains a source of strength for the Army and ADF, binding our people to our military through a national story of courage, mateship and sacrifice. This is a position of great privilege but as James Brown high-lights, it is also a burden that obscures a deeper meaning of land power[1]. The national view of the Army is not a story of land power and the role of the land force in achieving national objectives. It is a legend founded on popular myth and sentimentality of ideals that romanticise, but ultimately diminish the value of a professional soldier in favour of a larrikin citizen. This is a poor basis through which to understand the challenges of the 21st Century and the land force role as an element of national power.

Land power is constituted not by the Army but by all elements of national power which combined, support influence on land. The value of a more sophisticated narrative, which focuses on the core function of a land force, is to define a more accurate value proposition to the nation; A proposition that improves awareness of the Army’s fundamental role in national power and which frames the minimum level of capability to continue this role in an increasingly contested, congested and geopolitically competitive 21st Century.

The Army does have a narrative and it does have an iconic capability. Our narrative is the story of people, albeit a story that focuses on the legend of ANZAC, and our iconic capability is the star of that story – the Australian soldier. What’s missing from this narrative is a deeper exploration of people and the role of land forces in providing ACCESS to people – the place where decision is ultimately decisive.

Access to people is the critical effect delivered by land power. Clausewitz’s dictum, that war is a contest of wills, remains instructive. It is influence over people and persuasion to ones will, ranging from soft power effects to hard power coercion, which makes land forces a critical element of national power. While this sounds a straightforward and perhaps a banal statement, the lens that we apply to this view is retrospective of the norms of the 20th Century. We predominantly view this role of land power in a 20th century short history. This view focuses our thinking on a geopolitical environment where access to people is guaranteed by the strength of British and subsequently American power.

Access to people is not guaranteed. Access to people is a product of hard won, hard maintained and deliberately evolved land forces capable of pursuing national objectives. Western society values the open exchange of ideas, goods and people. Not all states or all cultural groups share these values. In fact, the recent resurgence of interest in anti-access and area denial (A2AD) strategies, dominated by discussion of physical access, is perhaps even more valuable in understanding the impact of cognitive denial. Cognitive denial describes the prevention of influence through denial of communication between people.[1] China’s domestic control of media and internet content and North Korea’s denial of physical access to its citizens are examples of anti-access and area denial in a cognitive sense. If war is a clash of wills, and you don’t have access to people, how do you achieve victory?

Information effects without physical access are limited. Recent polling of Russia’s alleged involvement in the MH17 attack is instructive. The Russian efforts to dominate the narrative following the downing of MA 17 both domestically and internationally has had polarising effects. Internationally, the misinformation and deceit were identified as diversions. As greater analytical and evidentiary material has developed, it is apparent that Russian materiel was made available and used by pro-Russian forces to down the MA 17 flight. Concurrently, the Russian messaging to its own people, where greater control of information was possible, has led to more than 90% of Russians believing that the West conspired against Russia. The facts are irrelevant. The value is in demonstrating that access to a population allows a degree of control for which no amount of information effects can adequately overcome. We return to the point. How can national objectives be achieved if people - the decisive terrain - remain beyond reach? If global trend patterns continue, we are entering a post-industrial era of continual information contest[3]. Understanding the limitation of influence without access to people is important, particularly since Western societies are modelled on the open exchange of ideas and information which makes access to Western societies assured. 

An inability to gain access to people will be a point of weakness and potentially failure in a long contest. No amount of air or sea posturing is likely to change this dynamic when the people we seek to influence are not even aware of our actions. Access to people and influence over them is a human endeavour. Army offers a specific role to the ADF and Government in enabling access through three factors; Persistence, resilience and a linking function.

The persistence of land forces is critical to building a relationship and trust which contribute to cognitive access. No amount of propaganda supported by even extreme violence has historically won influence over people without a commitment to physical access. The blitz against the United Kingdom by the Nazis, the US bombing of the North Vietnamese, the UN blockades of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the NATO air campaign over Kosovo are all examples of force and posturing that failed to achieve strategic objectives because access to people was not achieved. The ability of land forces to gain access to people and sustain persistent contact sets the condition for decisive influence.

The resilience of land forces is fundamental to gaining access to people. The Army is uniquely positioned amongst the elements of land power to gain access and sustain operations in austere environments made hostile through natural or man-made means. The ability to live in and operate from austere and denied land environments allows access to populations by whole of government (WOG) capabilities. Australia’s ability to support Aceh after the boxing day tsunami, the ability to provide provincial reconstruction teams to Uruzgan in Afghanistan and the ability of the Queensland Government to support the victims of flooding in 2010-11 were possible through the Army’s  resilient and persistent access to people. The conversion of land force access into influence allows the achievement of national objectives – this is land power. It is achieved through WOG resources but enabled by Army’s unique capacity to provide access.

Lastly, the Army provides a linking function. Army’s characteristics of persistence and resilience allow it to be the linking force for land power effects. The linking force describes Army’s capacity to provide access to diplomatic, informational and economic effects across cultural and physical boundaries. The ability to defeat land based adversaries with force, to interact with indigenous polities and to provide a persistent and resilient backbone to other contributors to land power (diplomatic, informational and economic) are a unique contribution the Army makes to Australia’s national interest.

Army retains pride of place in the national psyche through the story of ANZAC. This privileged position is a source of power through the access it provides to our people. It is also a burden that obscures the Army’s wider contribution to national power. Army must evolve this narrative to focus more clearly on the value proposition which is unique - the ability to provide persistent, resilient access to national power influence in the land domain. We provide the access. This simple but purposeful narrative is a means to articulate our message to government and our people. We must explain why the Army exists and what is required to retain access in the 21st Century.

Editor's note: Scott Holmes was the rank of Major at the time of writing.

[1] James Brown. ANZAC’s Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession. Schwarz Publishing, Victoria. 2014.

[2] Sam J. Tangredi. Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD strategies. Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, Maryland. 2013. ISBN: 978-1-6125-1 1 86-J.

[3] UK Ministry of Defence, Global Strategic Trends - Out to 2045, Strategic Trends Programme, Fifth Edition, pp 55-59.

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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