The Australian Army has to do more than fight. It must carry a legend and serve the slouch hat mystique.
The mythology’s a century old and is as much a part of the Army as its iconic hat.
As WWI ended in 1918, C.E.W. Bean, promised a ‘history to crystallise for all time the greatest incident in Australian history – the first revelation of the Australian character.’ Bean delivered; his history of Gallipoli, Ken Inglis declared, was the Australian Iliad.
Sixty years later, T.B. Millar’s magisterial Australia in Peace and War could judge that the Army’s performance in WWI ‘saw Australia grow and gain coherence and confidence as a nation, acquiring myths and traditions which are part of the equipment of nationhood.’ That war and the conflicts which followed, Millar wrote, ’emphasised both dependence and independence in Australia’s international relationships: dependence based on habit and fear, independence based on brashness or self-reliance, all four qualities being part of the Australian make-up.’
In his pioneering Australia’s Defence, published in 1965, Millar found the diggers immortalised by Bean still marching: ‘In two world wars and the Korean War, Australia’s soldiers carried a reputation not so distinctly bestowed on her sailors and airman, and broadly but not wholly deserved – a reputation for independence, for initiative, for poor discipline and hard drinking off duty, for determined and skilful fighting in battle.’
We ask a lot of our Army. They are to be military professionals able to match a template of the national character. Today’s soldiers are to be well-trained regulars who honour the character traits of earlier civilian volunteers—the profession of arms with a larrikin pedigree. This is the mix the chief of Army, Angus Campbell, is reaching for to build ‘a great Army, worthy of its ANZAC heritage, suited for the demands of current and future operations.’ And the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, hits the same note: ‘It’s a very different armed force today, but with the same values at its core.’
Both were speaking at ASPI’s conference on the Army’s future. So history is agreed, now to write the future. (This is a reversal of the old Soviet Union joke: The future is certain, comrade, it is only the past that is unpredictable.)
Part of the dissonance in crystal-balling for the Army is that those khaki definers of the national character aren’t actually in the front line in defending the continent. Oz strategy since Vietnam has decreed that the Navy and Air Force do that job. The eternal cycle of argument about Australia’s expeditionary tradition versus the defence-of-Oz strategy is more than Army wrangling over resources and alliance commitments. It’s also about where legend sits amid today’s defence planning.
As Michael Clifford observes, there’s a policy tension ‘between Australia’s role as a “middle power” and our perceived national security priorities. The current Government seems to favour a more expansive global role for Australia’s defence force compared with a narrow, more traditional regional focus.’
The Prime Minister set some new security priorities by making his big ‘announceable’ at the Army conference a commitment to Oz shipbuilding. A lot of dollars will flow from the promise for ‘a continuous build of major surface warships here in Australia to avoid the unproductive on-again, off-again cycle that has done this industry so much damage.’
The Abbott Government might have been at the wheel when the Oz car industry crashed, but it’s leaping to the budget pumps to keep the ship industry afloat.
In the perpetual Canberra contest to decide winners and losers, mark this a significant moment for what a Labor government would call ‘industry policy.’ It may be 30 to 40% more expensive to build naval ships in Oz, but the Coalition can embrace it as defence policy. Continuous build means continuous cash; more ships and a younger fleet for the Navy.
But, what is Army talking up as it surveys the future? What’s the message of the moment and what’s falling off the page?
Turning the Army into Marines seems to be a fading meme. The Australian Army’s heart is just not in that marine force stuff. But the old favourite Jointery (joint operations by Army, Navy and Air Force) made a strong showing.
Talking about the US military achieving an enduring presence west of the international dateline, the commanding general of the US Army, Pacific, General Vincent K. Brooks, highlighted the multiple benefits of getting ‘a joint force with multiple options.’
Amen, says the Australian Army. The Chief of Army got quite passionate in expressing ‘profound commitment’ to the value, indeed, necessity of Jointery. General Campbell predicted that historians will look at this decade as a ‘tipping point in building joint forces.’
The ADF has been chanting about Jointery a long time. It became the official religion in the first Defence White Paper in 1976, with its opening pronouncements on Australia’s defence requirements; ‘…we believe that any operations are much more likely to be in our neighbourhood than in some distant or forward theatre, and that our Armed Services would be conducting joint operations as the Australian Defence Force.’ In the Jointery hunt for nearly 40 years yet the Chief of Army thinks we’re only now nearing a cresting moment. As the voice says from the back seat, ‘Are we there yet?’
Australian military Jointery is short of being able to pass the Hartzog test of connectivity and coordination: the ability to get one rifle bullet, one artillery shell, and one Hellfire missile to all hit the same moving target simultaneously.
The blunt answer on Jointery is that there are many miles still to go, Army has a battle-management system that speaks Hebrew, and Army has spent seven years teaching its French-speaking helicopters to respond to Anglais d’Oz.
And Army’s head of Modernisation and Strategic Planning, Major General Gus McLachlan, told the conference that having two battle management systems is less than perfect. But looking on the bright side, it certainly offers added redundancy. Little wonder General McLachlan said the motto for buying the digital future is ‘open architecture’, so all our military kit can actually communicate.
On the jointery and networked quest, the Army says it’s on a route march from being an analogue force to a digital player. More history to make. More tipping points to come.