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Force Design in the 1990s

Army in the 21st Century (A21) and Restructuring the Army (RTA) were two related force structure initiatives undertaken by the Australian Army in the 1990s. A21 radically proposed to abolish traditional divisional/corps structures, fielding instead independent task forces with embedded combat arms. The RTA trials tested A21 concepts and capabilities over several years; yet A21/RTA was abandoned in 1999. What happened, why, and what lessons does A21/RTA offer?

This retrospective appraisal of A21/RTA is a case study of attempted transformational change in the Australian Army. The monograph features interviews with over thirty senior military, public service, academic and political leaders of that era; and applies organisational theory to interpret internal and external dynamics.  Seven elements required for successful change management in large organisations are described:

  1. respond to compelling change drivers
  2. create a clear, shared, credible vision
  3. build senior leadership buy-in internally ;  and political sponsorship externally
  4. provide change enablers (resources, time, skills, training)
  5. achieve early successes
  6. reinforce and solidify change with supporting efforts; and
  7. evaluate and improve.

These elements are used to evaluate A21/RTA. The monograph finds that while A21/RTA faced formidable strategic, resourcing and cultural challenges, the reform failed to be both technically feasible and culturally sensitive. A key A21/RTA lesson is that successful reform requires all seven elements; and institutional culture is amongst the most challenging aspect of change management. The monograph’s findings prompt a provocative question: is Army suffering ‘cultural capture’?

A21/RTA's lessons are relevant for contemporary organisational challenges and military change management, and are offered in two layers: a surface skim, and a deeper dive. Practitioners will be attracted to the seven elements of successful change management, and are encouraged to apply and test them within their own organisational challenges. Readers prepared to hold their breath for a few more fathoms will find other profound and subtle lessons.

One of those deeper lessons concerns the troubled relationship between the strategic orthodoxy of that period, 'Defence of Australia' (DoA), and Army's eventual force design and force structure response to DoA: A21/RTA. A superficial analysis of the A21/RTA period of Australia's military history may simply conclude 'East Timor in 1999 proved Army was right'. The more confronting lesson is that crafting coherent strategy and force design ishard; but, perhaps like the elaborate 'epicycles' used to justify outmoded earth-centric astronomy in the 16th Century,[1] the task is made even harder when the start state is an unchallenged ideological orthodoxy. This lesson underscores the imperative of transparency, open debate: and of sound civil-military relations.

[1] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, USA: University Of Chicago Press, 1970, 210 pp.

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