The 2020 Strategic Defense Update says the Australian Defense Force must “deploy military power to shape our environment, deter action against our interests and, if necessary, respond with military force”. It is less certain that the military options available to decision makers are well suited to these tasks in the contemporary regional environment.
This is undoubtedly the case of the land force. So how could the Australian Army better integrate with the joint force and our regional geography, staying grounded in formation tactics while becoming an integral part of what has been described as a joint targeting system? and federated? Put simply, how can we become as deadly and survive as possible? In the latest edition of Australian Army JournalI offered deliberately provocative and creative suggestions on how this might be done.
The tired debate over tanks and armored vehicles has resurfaced with an impending Land 400 decision. I emphasize that I am not anti-tank or anti–Land 400. deeply appreciate the value of armour. There is room for a discussion of how ground forces might operate in the region that avoids quasi-religious characteristics on both sides of this debate.
The vague terms of military art must first be worked out. “Formation tactics” are among the main organizing concepts of how land forces have traditionally fought. Broadly speaking, this doctrinal framework provides a set of tools for combating “close combat”. Although there is a great deal of flexibility within this framework, for Australia this approach is centered on brigades as the key unit of action, with combined arms (i.e. integrating of various arms of the force like infantry, armour, aviation and fire) the stone base of their capability.
The Australian Army, along with Allied armies and the rest of the ADF, is refocusing on strike capabilities, including major acquisitions of missile systems. All of this is accompanied by disturbing skepticism among informed analysts as to what military force will and will not be able to accomplish in the region, usually centered on anti-access/area denial capabilities (A2/AD ).
Debate is heated over what the future force will look like and how the ADF might focus on “training” and “deterring” adversaries. Yet despite some organizational developments, the Australian Army is still organized around more or less traditional combat brigades, and formation tactics arguably remain the framework within which most army leaders think.
One of the main difficulties is that what makes a force successful in close combat is not necessarily optimal for conducting a strike, especially in a maritime environment.
I suggest a conception of force with radically different relations between the elements of force. It is a highly dispersed and greatly flattened network of nodes, aggressively intertwined with deception measures and capable of unconventional sustainment. A capability that is both close combat and strike must reside in the same task groups. Close combat allows striking options and striking allows close combat at different points in space and time.
Robust but small (50-200 personnel) elements or nodes are scattered across a maritime environment, paired with a mix of strike assets like anti-ship missiles, and deeply interwoven with decoy measures. This dispersed posture provides options for concealing strike capabilities (both land-based missile systems and sensors integrated into ship and aircraft gunfire) within a joint task force that may well conduct a range of other tasks. . Crises can escalate, for example, while ground forces are already in the region performing training and assistance tasks or engaged in a stabilization mission, almost certainly alongside a whole-of-government presence.
Such groupings – small-scale combined arms capabilities (yes, sometimes including armored vehicles) combined with sensors and anti-ship (or land strike or anti-aircraft) missiles – are deployed along the coasts and dispersed between the islands. They are deployed with and supported by military transports, small landing craft, Chinook helicopters, etc., as well as ships such as civilian ferries and aircraft such as Boeing 737s. Dummy command nodes are numerous and constitute a key part of the operation’s signature management, making it as difficult as possible for an adversary to make sense of Australian posture through the noise of radio traffic. The effort is integrated with whole-of-government effects and intelligence flows.
In these groupings, close combat and strike capabilities can be seen as a pair, with responsibility shifting to a “protective” function. The close combat force provides intimate protection for missile systems, opens up deception options, and allows the group to fight for position so strike assets can fire if necessary. (The firing capability could be an integrated land-based missile, but it could also be an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or a naval platform). In other conditions, strike capabilities protect the group from adversary strikes and, necessarily linked to other platforms and joint sensors, mitigate the risk of isolation.
An important part of this schematic concept includes efforts to minimize the vulnerabilities of our traditional structures. For example, a number of equivalent command nodes should co-exist, either working together in an established operational design or alternating supremacy as a “first among equals” headquarters. This could provide a level of redundancy to the opponent’s strike, which will surely target such command nodes, and enhance the deception effect that is supposed to be pervasive.
A varying level of reliance on civilian and military logistics is also inherent in this concept. We need to think about how to project and sustain regional operations while scarce military assets (like landing ships or transport aircraft) are managed, or when unconventional sustainment options, like civilian shipping or commercial airliners, could help deceive an adversary.
All armies operating in our region face convergence pressures. The U.S. Marine Corps’ recent concept of “Expeditionary Forward Base Operations, known as EABO, reflects similar adaptive pressures facing the U.S. military.” Several authors have already called for the emulation of A2/AD approaches.
It is not surprising that similar questions arise with EABO and related developments. Perhaps most important is the tendency to talk about the operating environment as if it were a blank page. (Clearly not – see “Riding shotgun” in a previous army newspaper). Not only adversaries have a say, but also sovereign partner states, who have their own sensitivities and interests. All military concepts for operating in the region are void unless our relationships with key regional players allow those concepts.
The more important question, however, is what relatively small and light forces can actually accomplish. We have extensive experience of isolation and loss of forces in the near region: the Sparrow Force disasters in Timor and the Lark Force disasters in 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 framework, “walking among the giants”, will always be limited. We may simply not be able to credibly hold adversaries at sufficient risk.
More bridges are needed between professional discussion and policy making. The Australian strategic conversation is awash with references to deterrence. Physical acquisitions are important, but judgments about the operational art of the possible should inform our strategic posture. Creative and provocative suggestions for how we might rethink the force should be part of this discussion.