Australian Army must embrace change to meet evolving threats

The speed of technological change and the deteriorating strategic context are driving transformation of the Australian Army, says Lieutenant General Rick Burr.

The army chief acknowledges that technological advances are coming so fast that it’s challenging for the force’s processes, concepts, capabilities and structure to keep up with them.

‘We’ve been describing this environment as accelerated warfare, and what we’re seeing is that it’s not something for the future; it’s already here,’ Burr says. ‘The pace and the convergence of change are manifest in this rapidly evolving environment. As an army, a joint force and a defence organisation, we must be able to respond at speed.’

For that to happen requires considerable supporting initiatives and structural and cultural changes, he says. ‘That’s our philosophy with Defence’s transformation strategy and the army’s initiatives to organise and think differently to cope with this level of change. They’re all in play.

‘It’s about understanding our strategic environment, how to sequence those changes and how to work with others, because no one can do it on their own,’ Burr says.

‘How do we contribute to the regional security architecture and the power of partnerships? How do we build more resilience into our systems and our industrial base and our supply chains? We are thinking about all of these things, and it’s likely that businesses are confronting these same challenges.

‘Everywhere you look inside the army there are new capabilities coming, new structures, new ways of training and new approaches to accessing talent, recruiting, retaining and growing our people.

‘We’re experimenting with concepts and ways of operating in this new strategic environment.’

This includes strengthening land forces in Western Australia, raising the level of command of the Special Air Service Regiment to colonel to provide more experience and oversight, and re-raising the 10th Light Horse Regiment to ensure the army has the right capabilities and capacity across Australia’s broad geography.

‘We need to be strong and capable and connected on land but also at sea and under the sea, in the air and space, and in the cyber and information domains so that we’re getting the most out of these together.’ As a small defence force, the vital focus is to aggregate the effects of the total force, Burr says.

He says there’s long been a view that the army could only grow from within, but now it must creatively ‘borrow, bridge, buy and build’ from industry and the community to ensure it has the best talent.

That includes building on the very successful response of Australian Defence Force Reserve personnel during bushfires, floods and the Covid-19 pandemic with a more flexible approach allowing them to serve in different roles, and in more contemporary ways.

‘Part-time and flexible service is critical to our future,’ says Burr. ‘It allows us to share talent in specialised areas. For that to grow outside the army, but still be available to the army, offers us enormous capability.’

The army must be more accessible, especially to those in remote and regional Australia, and make it easier to keep families together, and be more family friendly, says Burr.

The army’s people also are the foundation of strong army-to-army relationships in the region and beyond.

Along with the AUKUS agreement with the United States and Britain and developments in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with India, Japan and the US, work continues to strengthen the enduring relationships with countries in the region.

An an example, the relationship with Indonesia is strong and multifaceted, Burr says, and many years of junior officer combat instructor training and special forces cooperation have led to more recent combined arms exercises.

New capabilities and technology transfer around ‘guided weapons, quantum and autonomy’ are also an important element of partnerships and alliances such as AUKUS.

‘As part of this, the army is adding capabilities into the joint force that make a key contribution to the thinking and the innovation around long-range fires and high-speed weapons.’

This means strengthening land-based air defence, artillery and long-range missile systems with new equipment, and enhancing aviation capabilities with the Apache attack helicopter and the acquisition of four more Chinooks. Army aviation is also looking to the future and integrating crewed and uncrewed platforms as part of the army’s robotic and autonomous systems strategy.

‘There’s a compelling need to leverage emerging technologies,’ says Burr. That involves stimulating innovation, experimentation, and engagement with industry. Experimental ‘optionally crewed’ vehicles were tested during the live-fire Koolendong exercise involving Australian personnel and the US Marine Rotational Force—Darwin. The vehicles provided tactical formations with options for innovative tactics as the two nations’ troops trained to rapidly respond together to crises in the Indo-Pacific.

So, with all of these technological advances, is the army chief confident that planned fleets of large armoured vehicles won’t be rendered obsolete given the ability of inexpensive armed drones to destroy armour as in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia? Are these large platforms so vulnerable to swarming drones that they can’t be protected?

Burr is confident that it can be done because these new vehicles will be future-proofed with the electronic and processing power to drive protection systems and directed-energy weapons which are still maturing. He says uncrewed aircraft are a rapidly emerging threat and the army’s ageing vehicles must be replaced with modern vehicles protecting troops against all.

‘This a critical area of research and development to understand how we can employ uncrewed aircraft ourselves and to better protect against them. The armoured fighting vehicles we are acquiring will be the foundation of this system of protection.’

The ADF will always need land forces to operate in high-risk environments, Burr says, and that’s why the close combat system being delivered through armoured fighting vehicles and new technologies is so important.

‘Australian soldiers need to be protected, connected, lethal, and able to leverage the power of the joint force,’ he says.

Burr emphasises that people and machines will always work together. ‘People are fundamental to everything we do. Only soldiers on the ground can interface with local populations: in conflict, response to disasters, and even at home as we have seen recently during Operation COVID-19 Assist.’

Only humans can apply ethical judgements to the use of force, Burr says. These are the clear lessons from two decades of continuous operations in the region and the Middle East, and the army is committed to learning these lessons.

Burr says the allegations of unlawful killings and other illegal actions by special forces in Afghanistan are being dealt with through the Office of the Special Investigator considering criminal proceedings.

Separate to any criminal prosecutions, administrative action was initiated by the army against 17 individuals for breaches of professional standards. Burr says 15 of those soldiers have either separated, are pending separation or have transferred to a reserve service category. Two of the 17 have been retained.

‘Combined with all the other initiatives, I’m very confident that our special forces are absolutely focused on the future and have my full confidence. They did an exemplary job during the evacuation from Kabul, as did all our forces deployed there.’

Burr says the vast majority of army personnel did incredible work over a sustained period in Afghanistan. ‘We remember the 41 who gave their lives and those who have suffered beyond their service, and we recognise everyone who’s served and their families and those who supported them.’

The Kabul operation demonstrated the need for high-readiness forces in a very difficult situation to help people move from danger to the safety and hope that the airlift out of Kabul offered, says Burr.

‘That was a very stressful, very difficult place to be, and our young soldiers did a remarkable job as part of that effort.’