A critique of ‘Forging Australian Land Power: A Primer’
21 Jan 2016|

20150714_OH_K1023900_0052.jpg An Australian Army M1A1 Abrams Tank rolling into battle as the enemy party at Shoalwater Bay Training Area, Queensland, during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2015.

Dr Albert Palazzo, the Director Research at Army Headquarters, has just published a thought-provoking short monograph entitled Forging Australian Land Power: A Primer. His stated objective is ‘to assist those tasked with thinking about the past and present to shape an Australian Army that is more capable into the future’. In essence, it isn’t about waging war as preparing for battle. For defence and foreign policy practitioners and other interested observers, it’s well worth reading.

His argument flows clearly and logically, making a reasoned argument about the enduring utility of land power in the Australian context in three parts. In Part I, he examines the utility of land power and uses three terms in priority order: ‘compelling’ (the waging of war), ‘influencing’ (preventive defence or military diplomacy) and ‘aiding’ (assisting with recovery from disasters). He uses those three terms as his reference points to describe the Army’s key functions. It’s a handy distillation of the Army’s tasks.

In Part II he considers the historical pattern of Australia’s defence policy as it pertains to land power, some of which I take issue with below. Then in Part III he goes on to explain the significance of what he sees as the seven enduring truths. Those truths he lists as follows:

  • There will always be war;
  • All wars are about human will;
  • Understanding a war’s context is essential;
  • Compartmentalised thinking must be recognised, challenged and discarded;
  • Flexibility is the best means to counter unpredictability;
  • Military leaders and civilian decision-makers must master strategy and understand history; and
  • Investment in leadership intellect is the most important capability improvement.

His encapsulation of the seven enduring truths reflects the mind of a keen military historian with a breadth and depth of knowledge of the history and workings of the Australian Army that few can match. It’s a stimulating and enjoyable read.

In Part II, however, the paper follows what’s come to be seen as the conventional Army view about pitfalls of the Defence of Australia (DOA) construct. My sense is that the DOA picture that’s painted is unduly bleak and Army-centric. For many in Defence outside Army, there was a bright side to DOA which was overlooked in this paper. The DOA construct provided a (some would argue barely) plausible scenario around which to justify and fund force structure. I touched on this in The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard.

Also, with jointery, the DOA period (mid 1970s to 1999) saw the creation of the principal joint bodies including Headquarters Australian Defence Force, the Australian Defence Force Academy, and Headquarters Australian Theatre, which was the precursor to Headquarters Joint Operations Command. Those were all significant innovations that helped improve the way the ADF could operate, including the Army, and were important precursors to the spike in operation tempo from 1999 onwards. In fact, those reforms paved the way for significant progress within Defence towards closer cooperation and collaboration on operations in the region and far away. Today’s force is a boutique force, but a highly honed one—thanks in part to the reforms from that period.

In addition, the DOA strategy and the benign post-Vietnam War context also allowed investment in other important defence infrastructure. That included strategically significant bare air bases across Australia’s north, the relocation of land forces to northern Australia under the Army Presence in the North program and the invigoration of the regional force surveillance units. That’s clearly not all bad.

The subject of warning time is criticised as well. But warning time, as it was explained, concerned the possibility of major war or an existential conflict, as opposed to the operations of choice undertaken far from Australian shores with carefully calibrated niche forces. Despite the cutbacks experienced by the land forces, operations were launched successfully in Bougainville, Solomon Islands and even East Timor. The remarkable success of the East Timor Intervention only reinforces the point. Indeed, even the Korean War and the Vietnam War didn’t require much more from Australia than a relatively small but well-calibrated force contribution. No doubt, such operations occur with little, if any, warning. A comparison with the size of Australia’s14-division army of World War II makes this point clear.

In Part III, the paper discusses compartmentalised thinking. Perhaps it would have been better to call this section ‘delusional thinking’. My sense is that Defence has become much better at being joint, interagency, and international in outlook than the paper acknowledges. Prior to 1999, the inter-departmental emergency task force construct, for instance, was rarely invoked. However, today it’s par for the course. In that sense, there’s far less compartmentalisation than before. The point applies more to acquisition and the Defence Materiel Organisation, but less so to plans and operations, I would argue.

The paper steered away from the specific conflicts we may face. That’s understandable on one level as the paper is intended only as a primer. But I think there’s something that could be said about fighting a near/peer competitor in an existential conflict or at least a full on war, versus fighting against a third world force—be it in the Middle East or in Australia’s neighbourhood.

My sense is that we’ve learnt several wrong or incomplete lessons by thinking we can assume technological mastery and supremacy when we may face something quite different one day. Palazzo’s piece, however, is primed to stimulate some constructive reflection.