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(Published in the AFR Review 8 July 2005 as

'Revolution in Defence')

Paul Monk

“…the laudably intentioned words ‘Defence Forces’ have created a most injurious and widely spread feeling that our Army’s duty is, so to speak, to sit in trenches and await attack…Nothing could be more grotesquely far from the real needs of the situation…Our field army must be in the highest degree mobile, ready to concentrate anywhere, march anywhere and fight anywhere - not everywhere.”

- Colonel James Whiteside McCay, Director of Intelligence (1911)[i]

“We must be careful to ensure that technology does not give an illusion of progress - we cannot afford to maintain outdated ways of thinking, organizing and fighting…The challenge is to optimize our organisational structure and its approach to decision-making for the tempo and real time demands of 21st century conflict.”

-          Force 2020, Department of Defence, Canberra (2002)

“Why invest heavily in expensive platforms rather than fewer and simpler platforms and a strong emphasis on command, control, communications and weapons systems utilized by small teams with high connectivity in a non-linear battle-space? That, surely, is the way to go for Australia.”

- Major General (US Army, retired) Dean Cash (2005)

The Australian Defence Force is evolving, from a misconceived and unbalanced continental defence force into a force configured for manoeuvre warfare (highly mobile, joint force operations) across a spectrum of conflict in a global security environment. Between now and 2020, its major platforms will be overhauled substantially, its weapons systems will be upgraded and its deployable combat capabilities will be restructured. These changes entail and will be driven by a profound mutation in its doctrine and training. The changes are already under way, but will require between five and fifteen years to take effect fully.

The shift involved in all this has occasioned a desultory public debate, but is rooted in a decade of serious thinking inside the defence establishment. That thinking, by common consent, has been led by the Army. There are good reasons for this. The Army had to bear the brunt of Australian military deployments for many years. Paradoxically, it was, also, poorly funded and cut to the bone in terms of core capabilities during those same years. This was due to both the strategic priorities of the old Defence of Australia doctrine and the budgetary priorities of the Federal Labor government under Hawke and Keating.

The professionals in the armed services, but especially in the Army, were aware of this anomaly and of the emerging challenges in the security environment. Operating within serious constraints, they set their minds to thinking through how they would meet the current and arising challenges. A series of events around the turn of the century has enabled that thinking to take significant effect in this decade. An enlivened commitment to experimentation and reform seems likely to push a good deal of change through the system in the decade ahead.

To understand what is going on here, it is necessary to stand back a little from the sometimes confusing public exchanges about particular capital equipment acquisitions, such as the new tanks, the Joint Strike Fighters or the large amphibious landing ships, to ponder three things. First, the nature of defence reform. Second, the constraints which necessarily limit the rate of change in force structure, regardless of how thoughtful reformers are. Third, the thinking that underlies the reforms now under way and its relationship to what is so commonly and cynically described as an oxymoron - ‘military intelligence’.

It is well enough known that, virtually from its first months in office, the Howard government saw a need for major reforms in the defence portfolio. It is equally clear that it has found such reforms to be far more difficult than might have been expected. Without any question, much still remains to be done. But defence establishments in general are hard to reform. They are complex, conservative and ponderous institutional structures. There are numerous examples from around the world of how painstaking a task it is to fundamentally reform such structures, so we should not feel unduly frustrated or embarrassed by the difficulties we face.

The most instructive example of such difficulties is surely the American defence establishment. Vast almost beyond the imagining of most Australians, it has long been beset by gigantic inefficiencies and yet characterized by an awesome capacity for innovation that has kept it, in most respects, at the forefront of military establishments around the world. The inefficiencies have to do with three intractable characteristics of a large defence establishment: bureaucratic inertia, budgetary politics and the presence of enormous conflicts of interest within the capital equipment procurement process. These are all compounded by the effects of domestic politics on defence planning and budgeting, including the presidential electoral cycle and the Congressional addiction to pork-barreling.[ii]

The quest for defence reform in the United States comes and goes in waves. It was, perhaps, most notable for a decade or so after the debacle of the Vietnam War. The colossal inefficiencies of that war - huge expenditures of blood and treasure, unprecedented expenditure of ordnance and uninterrupted tactical success all culminating in strategic defeat - had to give rise to some serious thinking about the American way of war. It did. Some remarkable innovation has occurred over the past two decades. But the abiding problems have not been overcome[iii]. So dispiriting does this sometimes become that one serious commentator remarked, just a few years ago, that the military reform movement was “dead”.[iv]

Becoming quite that dispirited about the possibility of military reform is a bit like becoming so disillusioned with the inefficiencies and frequent evasions, even outright mendacities, of parliamentary politics, as to declare liberal democracy “dead”. It isn’t. It simply suffers from abiding deficiencies and complex challenges, to which there are no quick fixes. It remains, as Winston Churchill famously expressed it, the worst form of government in the world - except for all the alternatives. Similarly, for all its deficiencies, the American military establishment has many quite extraordinary strengths.

To keep those deficiencies and strengths in perspective, it helps to consider the far greater deficiencies of the Soviet military, which contributed both to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Russian military power in the years 1989-91.[v] The efforts of the Chinese regime to reform the bloated, inefficient and ineffective military machine created under Mao Zedong have been going on now for 25 years and still have a considerable way to go.[vi] Other examples could easily be added. Difficult as it is, we need to maintain a judicious sense of the virtues of Western military establishments, if we are to press the case for reform intelligently, patiently and with due effect.

In the Australian case, three problems have needed to be addressed for some time. The first of these is the dysfunctional bureaucratic structures that have impeded strategic planning, vitiated relations between the civilians and the military within the defence organisation and diffused accountability in the acquisition process. The second is the chronic budgetary problem, exacerbated by the foregoing inefficiencies in the defence organisation, but rooted in a chronic under funding of the portfolio by the Federal government over many years. The third is confusion over procurement priorities, compounded by the two foregoing sets of problems, but rooted in a strategic paradigm which badly needed overhauling.

The good news is that all these problems are being addressed, at least in part, and that progress is occurring on all fronts, at least incrementally.[vii] It would be altogether premature to pop the champagne corks, however, and declare that the necessary reforms are under way and all is well. As Yogi Berra quipped, ‘It ain’t over ‘til it’s over’ and it is far from over as of 2005. What is encouraging is that the need has been perceived and persistent attention given to addressing it. There is movement. Indeed, it might not be too optimistic to state that, in strategic terms, the ‘enemy’ has been out maneuvered and his defensive lines breached. Now is the time to press home our advantage.

In pressing that advantage, however, reformers must be cognizant of three constants in the defence reform equation which will always set limits to the pace and extent of change. These are the political election cycle, the budgetary balance and the procurement cycle. Governments tend to be averse to major reforms unless they feel secure in regard to a range of other issues which have only an indirect relation to the substantive matters that need reforming. They tend to be especially skittish about such reforms in an election year and Federal elections come around every three years. If there is a change of government, incipient reforms may be accelerated, but equally they may be deflected or occasionally even aborted.

The budgetary balance is a headache for defence establishments in any democracy, because voters rarely see defence spending as a priority, however much they may declare, when polled, that they want a defence force adequate to defend the country at need and to play a constructive role in the world at large. This is a challenge in all liberal democracies. It is more than usually so in Australia, because of the remarkable security the country enjoys, on account of the overarching protection afforded by the US alliance and the enormous difficulties any foe would have in making a significant assault on Australia’s shores.

To the budgetary shortfall induced by voter insouciance must be added the intractable problem of conflicting inter-service priorities and the asymmetries in costs between the capital equipment needs of the different services. These factors, combined with the dysfunctional features of the defence bureaucratic structure touched on above, conspire to make alignment between strategic planning, force structure planning and capital equipment acquisition chronically tangled and cumbersome. The difficulties involved in reconciling the priorities and asymmetries within a dysfunctional bureaucratic structure, against the background of the political and budgetary constraints mentioned, would tax the abilities of the most gifted mandarin and the patience of a saint.

But there is, in addition, the procurement cycle to consider. Major weapons platforms might be added in substantial numbers to an existing military off a galvanized industrial base in times of war, but on a regular basis they can only be procured over very long lead times. They also tend to remain in service for decades. The Leopard tanks, for example, took four to five years to be delivered, but have remained in service for 30. The F-111 took 15 years, from 1960 to 1973, to arrive, but has remained in service for 30. The Joint Strike Fighters, if they are ordered, as now seems probable, will come into service over the next decade and remain in service until around 2040 or even 2050.

What this means is that, over any given procurement cycle, defined as the Defence Capability Plan of around 10 years on a rolling basis, there is scope, other things being equal, for about a 30 per cent modification of the force structure. Wholesale overhaul is thus intrinsically impossible and even fundamental change, if agreement on it can be achieved under all the above conditions, requires many years. Patient work is required on the examination of options, the purchasing and acquisition of new platforms and their integration into the existing force structure. The strategic vision, war-fighting doctrine, training capacities and maintenance costs associated with such overhaul all impinge on how effectively new platforms (and their associated weapons and communications components) can be integrated into the armed forces.

Such are the threads by which the Gulliver of serious and practical defence reform and force structure redesign is bound in his efforts to get off the ground. Yet Gulliver is rising. The reason is that the conceptual work indispensable to reform and redesign of the defence force was done by a few professionals in and outside of the services for years. Shortly after the Howard government came to office, it signalled its intention to get new thinking off the ground, by expressing dissatisfaction with the strategic policy advice and capital equipment procurement processes then entrenched in the Department of Defence. The difficulties experienced in carrying out the East Timor operation in 1999, coupled with the psychological shocks of September 2001 and October 2002, galvanised Gulliver into starting to snap the threads that were tying him to the ground.

It is important at this point to distinguish analytically between the conceptual work done by the professionals and the political impulse provided by both the Coalition’s broad strategic preferences and the psychological shocks of 1999-2002. That conceptual work revolved around several fundamental insights into what war-fighting was increasingly becoming, as the 20th century drew to an end and what the shortfalls of the Australian Army were in being able to do its work effectively in that strategic environment. Both centred on the concept of ‘manoeuvre warfare’, incubated in the 1980s within the military reform movement in the United States.

In Australia, it was incubated within the small circle of Army officers who developed, in the mid-1990s, a vision of ‘Army 21’ - the Army needed for the approaching 21st century. A key member of the Army 21 team was then Colonel, now Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, Chief of Army. That his tenure in that role has just been extended for another three years is testimony to his leadership in triggering the reforms that are under way and to the government’s commitment to seeing those reforms through.[viii] It remains, however, for a broader public to understand the conceptual basis of the reforms and the role in their development of the keenest minds in the Australian military.

Manoeuvre warfare is not a faddish idea and it is not something feverishly conceived in the wake of 9/11 or during the war on terrorism. It is grounded in insights that go back to Sun Tzu and have to do with some of the most enduring features of war-fighting. Being able to avoid an enemy’s strength, strike at his weaknesses, outflank and outwit him are age-old strategic principles. They have been adapted by commanders for millennia, as technologies evolved to raise manoeuvre to new levels in range and weapons to new levels of lethality, but the core principles remained constant.

Nonetheless, as with various other areas of human activity, so with military strategy, even the most fundamental principles tend to fall into neglect, or drift into mechanical application and so require reframing, in technological and organisational terms. Neglect of them has a long history and the past two centuries have occasioned some of the most wrenching debates, as industrial economies made possible a hammer and anvil approach to war-fighting that wrought colossal damage and was monumentally inefficient in terms of any rational assessment of strategic or political aims. Such a hammer and anvil approach and its inefficiencies is at the heart of debates about the ‘American way of war’.

In the Australian context, such an approach has never made sense, given our paucity of human and financial resources, the vastness of the continent we had to defend against any conceivable attack and the off-shore environment in which we in fact operated militarily over the years. Yet, in the decades after the Vietnam War, we drifted into a confused strategic posture which supposedly guaranteed our security through a combination of a hammer and anvil approach to continental defence and a minimalist contribution to hammer and anvil coalition operations in the wider world. The first was to be effected by maintaining early warning systems and a technological edge in major air and naval platforms to defend the maritime approaches to the continent. The second by sending niche forces abroad, including small contingents of an undermanned and under-equipped Army.

What gradually sank in, during the 1990s, was that all this made little sense. What Australia in fact required - and was cobbling together whenever its forces were deployed abroad - was a flexible, highly mobile capability for combined arms operations in complex terrain against enemies equipped not for hammer and anvil warfare, but for asymmetric warfare. It was all very well to see the major air and naval platforms as an insurance policy against a major predator menacing us from the north, but no such predator existed and our genuine security concerns were not being adequately addressed by the force structure developed in the 1970s and 1980s.

For the operations that were being undertaken and were at all likely to be undertaken, what was needed was a quite different force structure: a highly mobile Army, which could be sustained on an expeditionary basis, equipped with close armoured support, able to draw down air strike support and able to adapt with a high degree of flexibility to complex war-fighting situations, in which combat, counter-insurgency, peace-keeping and public relations were blended. This entailed a different Army with a different relationship to the air and naval arms and a quite radically different strategic role to that envisaged under the post-Vietnam or late Cold War doctrine of continental defence in depth and niche contributions to allied operations.

This is, step by step, what we are now starting to get. It is called the seamless joint force and it is the concerted objective of those shaping the country’s strategy and force structure under the mature Howard government. Quietly and without undue fanfare, the pieces have been moving into place. This has been obscured, in part, by the fact that the great bulk of new capital equipment allocations has still gone to the air force and the navy - for the proposed Joint Strike Fighters (a minimum of $16 billion, if 100 are purchased), a range of other air platforms and systems centring on surveillance, communications and sustainment; the Aegis-equipped destroyers, the amphibious landing ships and the still maturing Collins class submarines.

However, the Army is at the centre of the new strategy and the criterion by which the platforms slated for acquisition by the other services is increasingly being judged is their serviceability for joint operations of an expeditionary nature. This latter term has been used rather loosely, by Paul Dibb, Hugh White and a few others, to criticise coalition operations in areas outside Australia’s immediate environment. In fact, however, any effective operations within the continent or around its vast maritime and archipelagic periphery would of necessity be just as expeditionary as deployments further afield. Australia itself is best understood as a ‘dry archipelago’ and the much-vaunted ‘moat’ to our north is full of islands which could never be effectively operated in by anything other than a highly mobile joint force. That, consequently, is where we are heading.

Several aspects of the transition have been the subject of public controversy and much misunderstanding. Among these, the justification for acquiring the Joint Strike Fighters and the rationale for acquiring the new M1-A1 Abrams tanks have been especially prominent. The JSF decision is pending, but seems highly likely to go through. The controversy has to do with three concerns. Do we have our budgetary priorities right in allocating so large a percentage of capital expenditure over the next decade and more to these platforms? Why, in any case, do we need them, rather than less state of the art, but much less expensive air support platforms, given our strategic vision? Could we buy fewer of them and hedge our bets in this regard? And even if we get JSFs, should we be getting a short take-off and landing version of them better suited to the inferior air-strip and complex maritime environment of our region, rather than the land-based variety?

The tank question gets less air time and is even less well understood than the JSF one. There appears to be a widespread view that the Army does not need tanks unless it is going to engage in large-scale, high-intensity combat operations and that, since this is not what is intended, it does not need tanks. This is an erroneous view. Repeated and detailed studies have demonstrated that close armoured support is vital to giving infantry the means to protect itself in ‘low’ intensity warfare and to punch through defended positions without suffering serious casualties.[ix] Acquisition of the Abrams might be challenged on various technical grounds, but acquisition of tanks is an integral part of the upgrading of the Army for manoeuvre operations within the emerging seamless joint force.

To fulfil its duties, the Army needs to be expanded modestly, by around 1,500 personnel. This will require extra funding, or some hard choices about capital equipment priorities - perhaps the acquisition of 75 JSFs instead of 100. This increase in Army numbers is vital, to ensure units are capable of being sustained and rotated. Along with it, the hardening and networking of the Army to equip it for manoeuvre warfare across a spectrum of 21st century conflict scenarios and the move toward better equipping the Air Force and Navy to work as a joint, deployable force are all key elements of the new strategic posture and force structure that has displaced the ‘Defence of Australia’ doctrine. This does not mean that defending Australia has been jettisoned by anybody. It means that that defence has been reframed in terms of classical strategic wisdom and current technological and security challenges.

The best evidence for this is the deepening of ‘military intelligence’ in recent years. What Peter Leahy and others pioneered a decade ago has grown into what Deputy Secretary of Defence for Strategy, Shane Carmody, recently described as an “appetite for experimentation now so large” that it has been ramped up, supported and integrated across the Department of Defence. Defence is investing heavily in concept development and experimentation, leveraging off the Army’s rough and frugal work of the early to mid-1990s and the fruits it yielded. In short, serious debate is occurring, strenuous thinking is taking place - and the paradigm has shifted.

All those concerned about the country’s security should know this and take heart. The challenge is to keep the momentum going and strengthen the institutional basis of joint planning, experimentation and learning. There is a great deal that can still be accomplished. Over the next few years, under Angus Houston as Chief of the Defence Force, and with a confident Howard government in office, all this could be taken to the next level. The creation of the seamless joint force and its effective deployment will require a long series of interrelated judgments - strategic, fiscal, administrative, rigorously intellectual - and errors will have compound effects in that complex terrain that is the defence portfolio. There is movement, however, and in more or less the right direction.


[i] Colonel McCay’s remarks were delivered in an address to the United Services Institution of Victoria, under the title ‘The True Principles of Australia’s Defence.’ The address is reprinted in the Australian Army Journal, Vol. II, No. 2, pp. 3-11.

[ii] For some classic reflections on the core problems in US military reform, see James Fallows ‘The Muscle-Bound Superpower: The State of America’s Defence’, Atlantic Monthly, October 1979, pp. 59-78; Walter Isaacson et al ‘The Winds of Reform: Runaway Weapons Costs Prompt a New look at Military Planning’, Time, 7 March 1983; Peter Cary ‘The Fight to Change How America Fights’, US News and World Report, 6 May 1991; James P. Stevenson The Pentagon Paradox: The Development of the F-18 Hornet, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1993; and James G. Burton The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1993.

[iii] For an early assessment of how intractable the problems are, see Thomas McNaugher ‘Weapons Procurement: The Futility of Reform’, International Security 12 (Fall, 1987) pp. 63-104.

[iv] Grant T. Hammond The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security, Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C., 2001, p. 178.

[v] William E. Odom The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998,

[vi] While progress has been made in a number of respects over the past decade, China’s defence establishment has a long history of deficiencies which should serve as a benchmark against which to measure both that progress and its prospects. Three decade old studies of China’s arms industry and its air power provide good benchmarks for such measurement. See Bates Gill and Taeho Kim China’s Arms Acquisitions From Abroad: A Quest for ‘Superb and Secret Weapons’, SIPRI Research Report No. 11, Oxford University Press, 1995, 159 pp; Kenneth W. Allen, Glenn Krumel and Jonathan D. Pollack China’ Air Force Enters the 21st Century, Rand, 1995, 249 pp.; and John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age, Stanford University Press, 1994, 393 pp. For a slightly more recent overview of China’s military reforms and ambitions, see You Ji The Armed Forces of China, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1999, 288 pp.

[vii] A point acknowledged even by the Australia Defence Association, long the leading focal point of criticism of the Department of Defence. The corporatisation of the Defence Materiel Organization is seen as a step in the right direction and Secretary of Defence Ric Smith is praised for his work at both licking Departmental finances into shape and working to overcome the dysfunctional aspects of the bureaucratic culture he inherited.  See Defence Brief: Bulletin of the Australia Defence Association, Vol. 113, May-June 2005.

[viii] For a good summary of Leahy’s views of Australia’s strategic outlook, see his essay ‘A Land Force For the Future: The Australian Army in the Early 21st Century’, Australian Army Journal, June 2003, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 19-28.

[ix] See the clear account of this work in Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen’s essay ‘Rethinking the Basis of Close Infantry Combat’, Australian Army Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1. June 2004, pp. 29-40.