What is the ADF’s ‘core role’ in today’s complex strategic environment?
15 Mar 2022|

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent announcement of a plan to increase the size of the Australian Defence Force to 80,000 uniformed personnel by 2040 reflects the step change that’s expected in Australia’s strategic outlook over the next few years. The announcement coincided with a string of ADF deployments within Australia, including around 1,700 personnel to support the aged care sector and more than 5,000 to assist with flood relief in Queensland and New South Wales.

Yet, the government made clear that the intent is to continue to fund the ADF for high-end warfighting involving large capability acquisitions. No provision appears to be made in the plan to increase the ADF’s capacity for community assistance.

The government’s increasing use of the ADF for domestic support continues a decades-long trend by governments on both side of politics to call on the ADF for emergency response both within and outside Australia’s borders. These concurrent requirements on the ADF will only increase as the effects of climate change worsen in Australia and the region.

Defence’s role is enshrined in the Defence Act 1903 as defending and protecting the nation against foreign forces. However, the act also allows the government to call the ADF out for other purposes. State and territory governments can make requests for emergency support relatively easily under Defence’s policy on assistance to the civil community.

But whenever the ADF is used in such roles on a sustained basis, we see a reinvigoration of the questions that governments and Defence routinely ask themselves. For instance, is this the best use of the ADF’s high-end warfighting capabilities? And, ultimately, what is Defence’s ‘core role’ in Australian society?

Traditionally in Australia, the answer to the ‘core role’ question has been ‘warfighting’, but it’s worth reconsidering that answer. When domestic crises occur, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and catastrophic bushfires and floods, it makes sense that, as one of the nation’s best trained and equipped institutions, the ADF is asked to provide support where it is needed. However, it is not structured to conduct that role full time. Virtually no ADF units’ or platforms’ primary role is civilian assistance; hence the need to use capabilities designed, acquired and sustained for other purposes when such tasks are required.

But there’s a more fundamental conceptual issue here. Seeing capabilities as either warfighting or civil assistance potentially falls into the trap of viewing contemporary interstate competition through a war or peace lens. We’ve seen over the past decade that such thinking exposes Australia to malign actors that routinely use their militaries in the ‘grey zone’—that is, below the threshold of conflict, or between traditional conceptions of war and peace. Such constructs run the risk of the ADF’s high-end warfighting capabilities becoming irrelevant in grey-zone competition in the absence of a declaration of open conflict.

The government’s thinking on the role of the ADF appears to be moving beyond the simple war or peace dichotomy. The 2020 defence strategic update gave the ADF three tasks—shape, deter and respond. The latter two have traditionally been the role of Australia’s military. What’s new is elevating the first to the same level. While that has not yet significantly informed investment or force structure decisions, it shows that the government sees the ADF as an everyday tool of government, shaping the optimal regional environment well before conventional conflict might occur.

But culture trumps strategy every day. How does professional military culture see the ADF’s role? Debate on the role of militaries in the Australian civil–military community appears to be relatively scant, but there’s a rich discussion on the subject in the American civil–military community. Here are brief examples from three influential scholars who have structured the debate.

In his 1957 book The soldier and the state, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington contends that the central expertise of ‘officership’ is the management of violence. That’s because he views the sole role of the military to be to conduct wars on behalf of society.

In 1960, American sociologist Morris Janowitz published The professional soldier as a response to Huntington. Janowitz asserts that the American military is facing a duality between the heroic leaders, whom he sees as the absolutists, and the managerial leaders, seen as pragmatists. He argues that the military profession is a dynamic bureaucratic organisation that evolved in response to changing conditions beyond solely the management of violence. He goes as far as suggesting a possible constabulary role for the US military.

Another American sociologist, Charles Moskos, suggested a pluralistic model for the military. He argued that certain sections of the military resembled the civil sector, such as units with uniformed doctors and lawyers. Other sections did not, such as combat units whose sole role was to fight. Moskos’s model drew harsh criticism from those who argued that it created two militaries while affecting the organisation’s professionalism and effectiveness by diverting it from its core role.

This disagreement highlights that the role of the US military wasn’t considered set even after its overwhelming success in an archetypal conventional war, World War II. In the even more complex strategic environment we face today, there’s room for debate on the core role of the military that questions the relevance of binary conceptions like war and peace.

Importantly, a clear understanding of the ADF’s core role is a structural determinant within a defence system that favours a platform-centric worldview. This means that Defence identifies with, forms itself on, acquires its equipment for, and trains to meet its core role.

Defence has, in recent years, been given the licence to review its force structure and equip itself without adapting to the changing environment. That has given it the potential to structure and equip itself into irrelevance from directed tasks.

In today’s complex strategic environment, shaping is just as much Defence’s core role as deterring and responding. The government appears to have indicated that it will continue to seek ADF support for civil assistance.

Capabilities for civil assistance have the potential to be effective for a whole range of non-warfighting activities offshore and will be more important in the face of security concerns arising from climate change. So, the ADF will need to consider its force structure through this lens. This will ensure that Defence supports the government in ensuring the security and prosperity of the nation in the long run.