Defence review must find a way to join the parts of the ADF together—before it’s too late

The Strategist has been defence-review-heavy recently. Much of the conversation has centred on conventional land forces and armour in particular. This has been couched in terms of generic land combat rather than in the context of Australia’s defence policy, which prioritises independent operations in our near region. Prioritising the region makes sense both for the US alliance and for the Hugh White scenario, in which we have to fight alone. It also provides some specificity, but the geography-agnostic arguments continue to be made.

Last month I argued that the review must pin down the type of fight the Australian Defence Force needs to optimise for. This month I provide examples of the practical consequences of genericism.

Unless Australia is invaded, the army needs to get out into the region to be relevant, but no single service is master of its own destiny. What it can aspire to is constrained by the navy. As a rule, it takes three ships to keep one operational. It may be possible to surge to two or three with long enough notice, at the cost of subsequent downtime. The Canberra-class landing helicopter docks’ heavy vehicle deck can accommodate 12 main battle tanks but the army’s new armoured vehicles will be too heavy for the light vehicle deck, so they will be competing for space on the heavy deck too. HMAS Choules can theoretically carry more. Divide the number of vehicles in a brigade by the capacity of HMA Ships Canberra, Adelaide and Choules, then multiply the number of trips by the time each will take, and you’ll soon see that this won’t be blitzkrieg.

There’s no commercial shipping available in the region suitable for landing heavy armour either. Even if there were, it would need a suitable port, of which there are few and likely not where we want to go. Once hostilities start, hitting static installations like ports doesn’t require a kill chain; it’s just a matter of hitting a grid reference. Lose the port and the landed force becomes the stranded force.

If the deployment isn’t pre-emptive, the force will need to land across beaches. Those beaches must be served by roads and bridges capable of supporting the army’s ever larger and heavier vehicles. There are few such beaches in the region, so they are highly predictable. Predictable landings are contested landings. Contested is bad. The weight of the force means it will take a long time to land, so, even if it’s not contested initially, it soon will be. Then it needs to be supported, which doesn’t look any prettier. Perhaps this is why no one has ever tried to manoeuvre armoured formations around an archipelagic theatre. The historical cop out of ‘The Americans will take care of it’ doesn’t work either. They can’t even shift their own forces—hence the Pentagon’s angst over its failing light amphibious warship program.

Lest I seem to be picking on the army, the navy is similarly constrained by the air force. Surface ships operating without air cover have a bad history. Covering operations in the Bismarck Sea, the Louisiade Archipelago, New Caledonia or Timor from distant mainland bases is questionable at best. I’ll leave it to air force logisticians to explain the infeasibility of placing expeditionary air bases closer to the fight with the air force’s current and planned structures.

All of this illustrates how each service has evolved its thought habits around fighting a different war to the other two. In his 2011 bestseller, Good strategy/bad strategy, Richard Rumelt wrote: ‘Strategic coordination, or coherence, is not just ad hoc mutual adjustment. It is coherence imposed on a system by policy and design … [T]o get more performance out of a system you have to integrate its components and subsystems more cleverly and more tightly.’

The current force structure represents ad hoc mutual adjustment. Policy and design don’t impose coherence on the system. The elements are not even a system. As good a proof as any is Australia’s amphibious warfare capability. Uniquely to Australia, it comes under the ‘land’ domain and the navy and army are running their own separate amphibious capability projects to their own separate concepts of operations. When you live next to the world’s largest archipelago and can’t get this right, you have a systemic problem.

Service cultures will push back. As Rumelt says:

Strategies focus resources, energy, and attention on some objectives rather than others … [A] change in strategy will make some people worse off. Hence, there will be powerful forces opposed almost any change in strategy … When organizations are unable to make new strategies … then you get vague … goals that everyone can agree on.

A generic fight is a good way to facilitate goals everyone can agree on and avoid focusing on some objectives rather than others. It allows each service to quietly consent to stay out of the other two’s business as long as it gets its third of the pie. A test of the review will be whether it forces Defence to join the parts together to a common purpose.