Anthony Bergin, Hayley Channer and Sam Bateman’s recent Strategy Report ‘Terms of engagement…’ touches on a problem that’s defied strategic planners worldwide. Nations tend to know how to intervene militarily when it’s unavoidable. Doctrine lays out the phases of a classical campaign from the assembly and preparation of forces through decisive operations, the stabilisation of the situation and its transition to whatever ‘post-conflict’ reality emerges. Recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t worked too smoothly in the latter phases, but at least there is an established framework for planning and, once the government commits itself to the intervention, all its agencies generally get with the program.
Much harder is planning and coordinating all the things that should be done before the intervention becomes necessary. The military term of art for this is ‘Phase Zero’, consisting of those things done (1) to make an intervention unnecessary in the first place and (2) failing that, to ensure that everything is poised for a successful campaign (Phases One to X) to return the situation to Phase Zero as quickly as possible.
Optimal Phase Zero planning has largely eluded Western countries because it involves efforts from across government. Military forces have strong planning cultures and elaborate processes for what they do, but these only affect a few of the things that must happen in Phase Zero. Some of the most effective measures for preventing serious crises, such as diplomacy, international aid and foreign institutional reform are not within the military orbit: the agencies responsible for them have their own ideas and are often jealous of their autonomy or fearful for their resource levels. Phase Zero seems to demand a degree of coordination of which bureaucratic cabinet governments are not normally capable, at least in the nominal ‘peacetime’ that characterises this Phase. All countries discipline their policy processes and bureaucracies when sufficiently threatened, as Australia did in the Second World War, but otherwise we prefer looser management.
The USA has made one of the better attempts to deal with Phase Zero through its Unified Command Plan (UCP). Among other things, the UCP divides the world into a number of geographic ‘Combatant Commands’ responsible for coordinating all US military efforts, in peace and war, in their respective areas. US Pacific Command, responsible for most of the Asia–Pacific, is of obvious interest to Australia but we’ve also been heavily involved with US Central Command in the Middle East and South Asia for the past decade. But even the UCP’s geographic commands have limitations in coordinating the efforts of US Government agencies outside the Department of Defense. For Central Command, the transition from a decade of highly coordinated (and highly resourced) military operations to a new situation post-2014 sees it grappling with Phase Zero planning once again. The international presence in Afghanistan may be winding down, the region has not become more stable—if anything, the challenges of Phase Zero are increasing. The USA must now decide how to secure its interests in the region, but no single agency has the whip hand for that planning.
Australia has a similar problem. We’re not a global power so we needn’t plan for every corner of the world as the US must, but we surely need a comprehensive Phase Zero campaign plan for our own region. This should coordinate the efforts not only of Defence, but DFAT, AusAID, the AFP and the myriad other agencies that are engaging with the region under their own programs. At a policy level, there is guidance for this in the respective White Papers, but the scheme we need must have meaningful detail and measures of success. In fairness, we are addressing parts of the problem: arguably, the Australian Civil-Military Centre and the Australian Civilian Corps are Phase Zero strategic investments designed to improve our whole-of-government response to emergencies when they arise. The Civil-Military Centre has also recognised the potential for conflict prevention through focused international efforts. But these organisations have no planning remit: we are still a long way short of a satisfying plan or of a sophisticated process for developing and maintaining one. Even within Defence, responsibilities for the necessary planning are divided between Joint Operations Command for the military pieces and International Policy Division for the Defence Cooperation Program and International Engagement. There is considerable opportunity for planning gaps and uncoordinated efforts. At the very least, this is inefficient: at worst, we could be wrong-footed in a crisis.
But Australia has a chance to make some real progress in this area. As well as the education achieved by the Civil-Military Centre and the Australian Civilian Corps, recent deployments in Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan have thrown together young servicepeople, diplomats, public servants, policemen and aid workers in complex situations where they’ve had to make it work ‘on the ground’. We may now have the nucleus of a new generation who understand how the pieces of the whole-of-government puzzle fit together and, more importantly, believe in the benefits of coordinating them well. This may be our best opportunity to get some real sophistication in our Phase Zero campaign planning. Time will tell, but the challenges emerging in our region and globally surely demand that we do everything we can to stay at Zero.
Andrew Smith is an independent researcher based in the United States. Image courtesy of Defence.