Again I find myself replying to The Strategist more with comfortable agreement than bad-tempered rebuttal and I appreciate Michael Clifford’s recent observations on my paper, Forging Australian Land Power: A Primer.
Clifford asserts that Australia’s political class doesn’t excel as defence operators. Maybe that’s because the political class doesn’t see a need to create leaders sufficiently skilled to operate in anything other than a minimal risk environment. But such an attitude is only wise if the risk environment remains low or when there’s guaranteed protection from a great power.
This has been Australia’s happy condition throughout its history, but it’s not a permanent one. Security situations change and our great power protector may be showing signs of weakening while the threat environment is definitely showing signs of becoming more dangerous. Australia’s security challenge is becoming harder to navigate. As my primer states, those tasked with managing Australia’s defence must become better versed in strategy, history and an understanding of the nature of war if they are to provide for the nation’s security.
There are other factors to blame for a national state of intellectual indolence in defence matters. The Army, I fear, is gradually becoming disconnected from Australian society. Already it’s largely isolated geographically from most Australians, but it’s also becoming socially isolated. For example, little is known by the public of the Army’s experiences in more recent wars. Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t forgotten wars like Korea; they’re never known ones. Public ignorance of military affairs suggests a failure in civil-military relations. That’s serious enough and warrants redress, but it also has other effects including denying Australians the ability to question defence policy, since they know little of it.
I won’t comment on Clifford’s remarks regarding the reform success of the First Principles Review or the Strategic Reform Program. Instead, I’ll clarify my refusal to be specific on the need to prepare for war against a peer or near peer competitor.
I stand by my decision not to say anything about existential conflict in Forging Australian Land Power. I maintain that the best way to consider war is in all its complexities and that no nation can sensibly prepare to fight just one kind of war against one type of adversary. War is too complex and varied and the record of the predictive powers of pundits is too poor to risk such a course.
The reality today, however, is that the Army has been shaped in a particular direction and is limited on what options it can offer and what opponents it can tackle. Its ‘go to’ force is the Special Forces, and the rest, while highly capable, can only fight if embedded within a larger coalition for operations above a relatively small scale or intensity. For anything more serious or prolonged the Army must rely on a partner for all the myriad support capabilities and sustainment requirements it would need.
Lastly, I do agree with Clifford on the need for a better definition of the term ‘land power’. I fell into the author’s trap of assuming that what was so familiar to me was obvious to all. But maybe it isn’t obvious. When a society doesn’t have access to an understanding of its wars, when a people don’t think deeply on defence policy and when military professionals aren’t comfortable with discussing their craft openly, perhaps it’s too much to expect widespread comprehension of war’s most important dimension: the battle for the land and the will of the people who live upon it, and the instrument most effective to achieve both—soldiers.