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You may not be interested in preparedness, but preparedness is interested in you

Armed soldiers walking with blurred scrub in the background

The inherent challenges of an Army that seeks to be ready now and future ready

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update presents a picture of an unstable and uncertain strategic dynamic. The confluence of great power competition, the proliferation of disruptive technologies and military modernisation create both risks and opportunities. The Defence Strategic Update further states that “reduced warning times mean defence plans can no longer assume Australia will have time to gradually adjust military capability and preparedness in response to emerging challenges”.[i] This realisation elevates the importance of preparedness to the Army as reflected in the Army’s Contribution to Defence Strategy Version 2 which strongly re-affirms Army’s mission to prepare land forces – to make them able and available when needed - to enable the joint force in peace and war.[ii]  In this strategic context, this article examines why it is important to have a conversation about preparedness - now.

The nation expects the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to be ready to respond to strategic crises and other needs of Government. The ADF uses the term ‘preparedness’ to describe the military’s capacity to meet this demand.  According to the Australian Defence Doctrine Publication 00.2, preparedness is:

“the sustainable capacity of Defence to deliver a prepared joint force in being, able to accomplish directed tasks and to provide contributions to government that assist in dealing with emerging issues and events that affect Australia’s national interests.”[iii]

So, preparedness is the conceptual framework through which the military links ends (strategic objectives), ways (plans and contingencies) and means (funding, resources, ready forces).[iv]

While preparedness is a prerequisite for Army’s capacity to deliver directed operational outcomes in the national interest, it is unrealistic to expect the entire force to remain in a high state of preparedness in perpetuity. Preparedness costs money, time and is hard won.  It is inevitably compromised to balance considerations of risk, uncertainty and practicality.  Critically, preparedness is bounded so that Army can meet short notice contingency requirements, within budget and resource allocation (ready now), while also maintaining its capacity to pursue necessary modernisation projects and initiatives to meet the requirements of the objective force (future ready).[v]

Given the criticality of preparedness to the achievement of national strategic objectives, military decisions concerning preparedness must be informed by clear parameters.  I propose that, as a minimum, preparedness should be measured against the risk that Army needs to mitigate, its operational requirements, and the resourcing liability of meeting those force generation requirements. Specifically, risk is articulated in the most recent Defence Strategic Update and is regularly reviewed as part of the strategic policy framework.[vi] Operational requirements are articulated by the force employer through the various named operations and contingency plans they manage.[vii]  While risk and operational requirements will dictate the ADF’s approach to preparedness, they are moderated by resourcing; specifically what the Army can prepare within the designated budget.[viii]

The following illustrates the inter-relationship between these factors.  The foundation for assigning readiness levels to the joint force is an assessment of the threats that exist in the strategic environment.  Levels of readiness are determined based on the time, effort and resources required for a unit to increase its capability from a baseline (or other directed level of capability) to an operational level of capability.[ix] This assessment informs advice to government concerning what capability the ADF is able to provide in response to emerging threats. 

For instance, when it is not required on operations, a combined-arms team normally resides within respective home unit locations and force concentration only occurs when the unit is called-out for a task. Any such change to the force’s posture needs to be achieved within the assigned readiness notice. For some units, risk and operational requirement mean that this readiness requirement is quite lenient, allowing time to work up to a mission.  By contrast, other units apply leave restrictions to members, maintain operational stock, and have external enablers permanently force-assigned in order to support the unit’s rapid operational deployment if required.  

This discussion supports two key conclusions concerning preparedness.  Firstly, preparedness is a sliding scale depending on what the risk tolerance may be for a particular contingency. Low likelihood, or adequate indicators and warning, mean low levels of operational readiness might be acceptable.  But no notice or high likelihood risks necessitate the maintenance of units at high levels of operational readiness. Secondly, there are numerous levers and settings that must be carefully calibrated to manage readiness levels consistent with strategic requirements and affordability.

None of these choices are easy. For example, Britain’s preparations prior to the Second World War show the complexity of the choices in a strategically uncertain environment.  Much was demanded of British strategy to determine where to weight effort against the range of warnings and global threats, levels of military mobilisation, critical force design choices – all balanced against available resources.[x] Pre-war investment in a defensive air force with new radar technology and advanced aircraft proved to be decisive in defending Britain, which was a key strategic priority.  Meanwhile, more cost-effective approaches were taken to defensive measures throughout South East Asia based on an under-estimation of the risks posed there to British interests.  The consequences of this miscalculation proved to be catastrophic to Allied citizens and forces facing a determined military opponent intent on achieving imperial domination within the region. Balancing risk, readiness and cost is a demanding pursuit where often the best outcome is the least bad option.

The cost of preparedness can be measured in various ways. Collective training, equipment procurement, stockholdings and sustainment can be readily costed and forecast. Equally, there are unseen costs that are difficult to quantify and require the application of professional military judgement to understand - such as the impacts upon personnel and their families of sustained high readiness requirements. Expanding our appreciation further, each of the fundamental inputs to capability contributes to our generation of prepared forces. These range from organisational structures and command and control arrangements that enable ready forces, to estate and infrastructure that provide the facilities that allow for day-to-day administration, training and maintenance of the force. Tallying these costs requires Army to make choices about what is important and what is affordable. 

Ever present in this approach to preparedness is a tension between being ready for contingencies in the ‘here and now’ and the capacity to adapt and transform to meet the security threats of the future. A force that is exquisitely trained to meet the risks that are evident in our current strategic environment potentially lacks the foresight and adaptability to meet the unexpected ‘black swan’ scenario, or to make preparations now for threats over the horizon.[xi] Modernising the force requires effort across the full range of intellectual, cultural, organisational and technological dimensions of Army.  But a fascination with the future cannot come at the expense of meeting the challenges of the here and now.  Army’s approach to preparedness must balance both requirements.

While this tension could be viewed as an obstacle to Army’s capacity to achieve its current and future preparedness requirements, there is a more constructive way to assess the situation.  Ready now and future ready is not a binary choice, but rather a constant feedback loop that ensures that Army is postured to respond when called on by government, while maintaining a constant state of adaptation. The preparedness lessons we are learning now are being tested in an environment of competition, which should inform our thinking of what future war might hold. Equally, professional military and academic thinking on the trends of future war should inform how we ready the force now and can help prevent the development of an organisational culture that seeks to fight the last war (only with better tools).

The Defence Strategic Update underscores our organisation’s realisation that the contemporary strategic environment does not support conceptualisation of the Army as being a force that is either at peace - or at war.  We need to be prepared for both.  It should be no surprise then that ‘prepared’ land forces are the essential feature of Army’s Contribution to Defence Strategy including their capacity to enable the joint force to achieve the strategic defence objectives of shape, deter and respond. Preparedness will remain a costly pursuit, meaning choices still need to be made to appropriately weight strategic risks, the requirements of the operational plans and the resources to generate the prepared forces capable of meeting the threat.  Equally, preparedness remains temporal, with an eye on being ready for the challenges of the current environment, while anticipating threats over the horizon. So, while you may not be interested in preparedness, preparedness is certainly interested in you.[xii]


[i] Department of Defence, 2020 Defence Strategic Update, (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2020) 4.

[ii] Australian Army, Army’s Contribution to Defence Strategy (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2020) 30.

[iii] Department of Defence, ADDP 00.2 Preparedness and Mobilisation, (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2013) 3-3 (emphasis added).

[iv] Arthur F. Lykke, Jr., “Defining Military Strategy,” Military review 77 (1997) 183.

[v] Army, Army’s Contribution to Defence Strategy, 4-5.

[vi] Department of Defence, ADDP 00.2 Preparedness and Mobilisation, 2-3.

[vii] Department of Defence, ADDP 00.2 Preparedness and Mobilisation, 2-3.

[viii] Department of Defence, ADDP 00.2 Preparedness and Mobilisation, 2-3.

[ix] Department of Defence, ADDP 00.2 Preparedness and Mobilisation, 3-11 – 3-16.

[x] Daniel Todman, Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937–1941. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[xi] Richard K. Betts, Military readiness: Concepts, choices, consequences. (Washington DC: The Bookings Institute, 1995) 30; Colonel David Beaumont, An uncertain and dangerous decade: Preparing the Army for the next ten years, (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2020) 19-20.

[xii] General Angus Campbell, ‘Speech to Australian Strategic Policy Institute International Conference — ‘War in 2025’’, 13 June 2019, available at

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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