Redesigning the Australian Army for an uncertain future
24 Mar 2022|

The 2020 defence strategic update states that the Australian Defence Force is ‘to deploy military power to shape our environment, deter actions against our interests and, when required, respond with military force’. It’s less certain that the military options available to decision-makers are well suited to these tasks in the contemporary regional environment.

This is arguably the case with the land force. So, how might the Australian Army better integrate with the joint force and our regional geography, remaining grounded in formation tactics while becoming an integral part of what has been described as a joint, federated targeting system? More simply, how can we become as lethal and survivable as possible? In the most recent edition of the Australian Army Journal, I offered some deliberately provocative, creative suggestions for how this might be done.

The tired debate about tanks and armoured vehicles has re-emerged with a looming Land 400 decision. I stress that I’m not anti-tank or anti–Land 400. My professional life started in an armoured regiment and I deeply appreciate the value of armour. There’s space for a discussion about how land forces might operate in the region that eschews the quasi-religious characteristics on both sides of this debate.

Vague military terms of art need some elaboration first. ‘Formation tactics’ is among the key organising concepts for how land forces have traditionally fought. Crudely speaking, this doctrinal framework provides a set of tools for fighting ‘close combat’. While there’s a great deal of flexibility in this framework, for Australia this approach centres on brigades as the key unit of action, with combined arms (that is, integration of various arms of the force like infantry, armour, aviation and fires) the foundation stone of their capability.

The Australian Army, along with allied militaries and the remainder of the ADF, is in the process of refocusing on strike capabilities, notably with major acquisitions of missile systems. This is all occurring alongside a worrying scepticism among informed analysts about what military force will and will not be capable of accomplishing in the region, usually centred on anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

Debate is alive on what the future force looks like and how the ADF might pursue a focus on ‘shaping’ and ‘deterring’ adversaries. Yet, despite some organisational developments, the Australian Army is still organised around more or less traditional combat brigades, and formation tactics arguably remains the framework through which most army leaders think.

One of several key difficulties is that what makes a force successful in prosecuting close combat is not necessarily optimal for conducting strike, particularly in a maritime environment.

I suggest a force design with radically different relationships among force elements. This is a highly dispersed and dramatically flattened network of nodes, aggressively interwoven with deception measures and capable of unconventional sustainment. A capacity for both close combat and strike needs to reside within the same task groupings. Close combat enables strike options and strike enables close combat at different points in space and time.

Robust but small—50 to 200 personnel—elements or nodes are dispersed in a maritime setting, paired with a mix of strike assets like anti-ship missiles, and deeply interwoven with decoy measures. This dispersed posture offers options for concealing strike capabilities (both land-based missile systems and sensors integrated with fires from ships and aircraft) within a joint grouping that may well be conducting a range of other taskings. Crises may escalate, for instance, while land forces are already in the region conducting training and assistance tasks or engaged in a stabilisation mission, almost certainly alongside a whole-of-government presence.

Such groupings—small-scale combined-arms capabilities (yes, sometimes including armoured vehicles) teamed with sensors and anti-ship (or land strike or anti-air) missiles—are deployed along coastlines and dispersed among islands. They are deployed with and sustained by military transports, small landing craft, Chinook helicopters and so on, as well as vessels such as civilian ferries and aircraft like Boeing 737 jets. Dummy command nodes are many and form a key part of the signature management of the operation, making it as hard as possible for an adversary to make sense of the Australian posture through the noise of radio traffic. The effort is integrated with whole-of-government effects and intelligence feeds.

In these groupings, close combat and strike capabilities can be seen as a pair, with shifting responsibility for a ‘protect’ function. The close combat force provides intimate protection for missile systems, opens options for deception, and allows the group to fight for position so strike assets can take the shot if needed. (The capability taking the shot might be an integrated land-based missile, but it might also be an F-35 joint strike fighter or a naval platform). Under other conditions, strike capabilities protect the group from adversary strikes and—necessarily tied in with other joint platforms and sensors—mitigate the risk of isolation.

A significant part of this schematic concept comprises efforts to minimise vulnerabilities in our traditional structures. For instance, a number of equivalent command nodes should coexist, either working together in an established operational design or rotating supremacy as ‘first among peer’ headquarters. This could provide a level of redundancy to adversary strike, which will surely target such command nodes, and reinforce the deception effect that’s intended to be pervasive.

Also inherent in this concept is a variable level of reliance on civilian and military logistics. We need to think about how to project and sustain regional operations while scarce military assets (like landing ships or transport aircraft) are being husbanded, or when unconventional sustainment options, like civilian shipping or commercial airliners, might help deceive an adversary.

All militaries operating in our region face convergence pressures. The recent US Marine Corps concept of ‘expeditionary advanced base operations, known as EABO, reflects the similar adaption pressures facing the US military. Multiple authors have already called for emulation of A2/AD approaches.

It’s unsurprising that similar questions are raised with EABO and related developments. Perhaps the most prominent is the tendency to talk about the operating environment as if it were a blank slate. (It is clearly not—see ‘Riding shotgun’ in a previous Army Journal). Not only do adversaries get a say, but so do sovereign partner states, which have their own sensitivities and interests. All military concepts for operating in the region are void unless our relationships with key regional players enable those concepts.

The most significant question, though, is what relatively small and lightweight forces can actually achieve. We have ample experience of the isolation and loss of forces in the near region: the disasters of Sparrow Force in Timor and Lark Force at Rabaul in 1942 are sobering examples of the real risks facing disaggregated forces in the archipelago. The isolation and destruction of even very large conventional forces in maritime Southeast Asia throughout World War II illustrates this risk. In strategic terms, our marginal benefit or comparative advantage in a regional setting, ‘walking among the giants’, will always be limited. We may simply not be capable of credibly holding adversaries at sufficient risk.

More bridges are needed between professional discussion and policymaking. The Australian strategic conversation is awash with references to deterrence. Material acquisitions are important, but judgements about the operational art of the possible should inform our strategic posture. Creative and provocative suggestions about how we might redesign the force should be a part of that discussion.