Talking to the chiefs: Angus Campbell (part 1)

Keeping the nation safe requires the Australian Defence Force to maximise the advantages of closely working on operations with a broad range of government agencies and allies, says the ADF’s new chief, General Angus Campbell.

The ADF moved long ago from just being ‘joint’, in terms of the three services operating closely together, to a norm of tight interagency cooperation, Campbell tells The Strategist.

‘The defence organisation that operates on its own is operating below its true capacity’, he says.

‘I don’t think we’ve been on an operation for decades that didn’t involve other elements of the national security community, our diplomats, our customs service, and our intelligence agencies, embassies and high commissions’, Campbell says.

‘When this whole range of organisations is knitted together with Defence, with the Australian Federal Police and operating collectively, that’s the only way to generate the full measure of Australian capacity to contribute to and, in some circumstances, lead the resolution of problems.’

That is what made Australia effective in calming civil strife in Solomon Islands and Bougainville, for example, the general says.

As chief of the defence force, Campbell is focusing on three key areas: performance on operations, relationships with other nations’ forces, and the handling of the historic $200 billion capability acquisitions.

‘First, the continuing high-level effectiveness of our operational commitments’, he says. ‘Everyone in Australia expects their defence force to be expert at our job, the conduct of operations, the preparation for people to undertake those operations, and the reintegration, redevelopment and the reset of people, equipment and concepts of operation after a deployment.

‘I see a very impressive force doing great work in the world, and we need to continue that, learn from it, and take the right lessons to continue to strengthen that work.’

Such operations have to be innately joint, coalition and networked and secure in terms of both physical and cyber protection, he says.

‘What I see is a very, very impressive organisation across the board, and I see the people in it, not just doing their job well, but being able to discriminate and understand how to innovate, how to determine the right path in those grey circumstances where there’s no black or white answer.’

Campbell says, ‘The second area is building defence-to-defence relationships, the habits of cooperation, the norms of operating together with partners in our near region and in areas where our interests are expressed.

‘This is profoundly important. You’re always stronger when you’re working as a joint team, as an interagency team, and as a coalition team, and that’s something that we have to constantly work on and never make assumptions about.’

The third area, he says, is about respecting the commitment and the trust implicit in the major equipment purchasing program costing about $200 billion.

‘It’s a big, and complex, challenge’, Campbell says. ‘It’s going to take a very considerable effort, not just from our uniformed people and Defence public servants, but also through the relationship between us and local and international industry partners who are fundamental to realising military capability.’

That won’t succeed without the right people and well-resourced, innovative reform of systems and processes to ensure efficiency.

‘Without both people and reform what we’re trying to do can’t be realised.’

Asked what strategic challenges Australia and the ADF are likely to face in the next few years, Campbell says that trying to predict the future is fraught and usually pointless because there are so many challenges, interests and possibilities at play.

‘We need rather to acknowledge that we have changing relationships with the great-power nations—the United States, China, India, Japan, South Korea—particularly in the Pacific, and to take account of the behaviour of nations such as North Korea’, he says.

‘Then there’s the influence of terrorism, which is not just specific to one type or one purpose of terrorism, but rather it’s a reflection of the empowerment that modern technology provides to the individual, and the capacity for disparate individuals to connect and to act.

‘We may well see an ongoing challenge in the terrorist insurgent space, whether it’s in the Middle East, or as we’ve seen in the southern Philippines, or in the movement of fighters between nations coming home or going elsewhere. That challenge will continue but in different forms.’

Campbell says the risk of conflict between nations has not gone away and statecraft is essential to manage issues. The risk needs to be actively mitigated by engagement, by building understanding and by the work that diplomats, military personnel, governments and police agencies and international organisations do every day, he says.

Rapid technological change affecting every aspect of life throughout the region provides great opportunities but also challenges and points of rub and tension. Campbell says Australia wants the continued development of a rules-based international order and recognises the prosperity and opportunity that has emerged for the Indo-Pacific in the last 70 years since the destruction of World War II.

A role the ADF, with almost 60,000 active members, can play in the region was demonstrated when Islamic State–related groups captured the Philippine city of Marawi last year.

With Australia providing training and intelligence support, Marawi showed how the ADF could work with the Armed Forces of the Philippines to build their capacity and improve the security of their country.

‘I think that that assistance was appreciated and it’s been an experience of mutual learning and development’, Campbell says.

‘We’ve further deepened our understanding of the security challenges in the region, of the kinds of operations the Philippine armed forces have been participating in, the particular circumstances of urban warfare in that kind of an environment, as much as we’ve been given the opportunity to help develop the skills of the Philippine armed forces. As long as we’re welcome, I think it’s that right thing a neighbour does to help.’

Campbell says Australia’s military-to-military relationship with Indonesia is good and it’s moving in a very positive direction. He had a very constructive, friendly and enthusiastic meeting with Indonesian National Armed Forces commander Air Chief Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto in Darwin. ‘We talked about developing things we’re doing and new things to do together.’

Campbell visited Indonesian F-16 fighter pilots with their aircraft and ground crew who were in Australia to take part in the Royal Australian Air Force’s Exercise Pitch Black. ‘They were impressive young people, incredibly enthusiastic to be part of the activity and an indicator of our relationship that I think bodes very well for our military-to-military engagement.’

In Campbell’s previous job, as chief of army, this special forces officer banned certain badges and other paraphernalia—including the grim reaper, the skull and crossbones, Spartans, the Phantom and the Punisher—that he considered inappropriate for a democratic nation’s military force.

That’s important, he says, because the ADF is subordinate to the law and the civil authority and dedicated to the protection of the nation. ‘We’re not a force that acts outside the law as a vigilante. Nor do we regard the law as an optional choice.’

‘The symbols we have project a message of who we are to everybody around us’, Campbell says. ‘They reinforce the nature of our service to the nation and dedication to a democratic, lawful society that we protect.

‘In doing that, they project to local communities, villages, people in desperate circumstances, the weak, the wounded and the vulnerable, who are the norm of the operational areas in which we are active, a message that we are Australian, we stand for law, and we stand for the protection of the innocent, and the vulnerable, and indeed, the care for the wounded.

‘We are not seeking in any way to terrorise, and that can be how certain symbols are received by a community in which we are operating.’

Campbell says his intention was to remind ADF members to avoid the unintended but nevertheless influential effect of glorifying death as their purpose.

‘Death is not our purpose. Defence is our purpose. And on occasions, it absolutely requires killing, but it has to be a conscious choice, not an assumption that we as an organisation simply kill without discrimination. I saw the emergence of symbols that were at odds with the relationship between a military and a democratic society which it’s duty-bound to defend.’

It is estimated only about 3% of the army wore such symbols. ‘But left to prosper and propagate, they can be very seductive’, Campbell says, ‘and it can be very easy to get into a comfortable popular-culture norm that’s quite at odds with the responsibilities given to persons who have access to the most lethal weapons systems our nation has ever provided them.’

Since Campbell became CDF, he’s raised that with the service chiefs. ‘We’ve had a discussion and I think that the service chiefs get it.’