by Chris McInnes
The Australian Army needs to examine several cultural touchstones to ensure it is future ready for the transformative systems it will soon introduce into service.
Investment by the Australian Government over the next decade will see Australia’s land force shift from a largely analogue force with limited options in a single domain, to an Army pervaded by highly-technical systems and capable of reaching into and across multiple domains, and at range. Achieving the potential of this force will require the Army to think differently about technical skills and combat focus.
A brief survey of the systems to be introduced in the near term illustrates the magnitude of the Army’s challenge.
The mammoth LAND 400 projects with a price tag exceeding $30 billion will deliver more than 200 new Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles and approximately 450 infantry fighting vehicles, either the Lynx or Redback. The 38.5 tonne German-made Boxer takes over the reconnaissance role from the 13 tonne Australian Light Armoured Vehicle (ASLAV), while the 42-50 tonne South Korean-made Redback or German-made Lynx will supersede the upgraded Vietnam-vintage M113AS4 armoured personnel carrier.
These significantly-larger and vastly more sophisticated vehicles will fundamentally transform Australia’s land manoeuvre capability by enabling the Army’s combat forces to move faster and hit harder in more contested environments.
This manoeuvre transformation will be complemented by unprecedented improvements in the Army’s fires capability. LAND 8116, with a budget north of $3.5 billion, will introduce self-propelled artillery into Australia’s order-of-battle for the first time in the form of up to 60 Korean-made Hanwha AS9 howitzer platforms and 20 support vehicles.
The 2020 Force Structure Plan also outlined $5 billion funding for land-based long-range missiles, replacement (or upgrade) of the Army’s existing M777A2 towed guns, and an examination of directed energy weapons. In short, the Australian Army’s tactical reach and weight of fire from the ground is set to grow enormously.
Investments will also transform the Army’s aviation capabilities. The much-troubled fleet of 22 European-made Tiger reconnaissance helicopters will make way for 29 of the latest version of the venerable American-made Apache attack helicopter under Project LAND 4503, for close to $4 billion. Although the Tiger has made positive headway in recent years, the Apache will undoubtedly enhance the interoperability, reliability, and firepower of the Army’s combat aviation arm.
The utility helicopter fleet will grow through the acquisition of 16 light helicopters to meet specific special operations requirements under LAND 2097 Phase 4, and investment in unmanned aircraft through LAND 129 Phase 3 will improve tactical reconnaissance capabilities. The Army’s ability to generate effects in the air will also be enhanced through the LAND 19 Phase 7B ground-based short-range air defence (SRGBAD) systems due to be introduced from 2023.
A couple of observations flow from this survey that highlight the challenges facing the Army.
Firstly, these investments mean the Army’s combat capabilities will be built on foundations of complex sophisticated technical systems. The inherent challenges of operating and maintaining advanced military equipment will be compounded by the fact that, apart from the Apache procurement through US foreign materiel sales (FMS) arrangements, Australia will bear the primary burden for technical integration and management of these fleets. Moreover, many of the systems will be heavily-customised to meet Australian requirements, while being sourced from multiple countries and manufacturers.
This reality challenges the Army’s traditional workforce ethos of ‘generalist first, specialist second’ that emphasises broad soldiering skills over technical specialisation and proficiency. This model derives from the Army’s traditionally people-centred capability model and contrasts with the technology-centred approach employed by the Navy and the Air Force.
The difference is summed up by the adage that, ‘the Army equips its men, while the Navy and Air Force man their equipment’. While there are strengths to the Army’s workforce approach, it has undoubtedly contributed to the woes experienced by more technical areas of Army capability, such as the enduring capability and reliability problems with the Taipan and Tiger helicopters.
Importantly, the troubles in Army aviation affected one relatively small – if expensive – part of the organisation during a time of relative technical stability in the rest of the Army. This stability meant the broader Army could absorb, or at least not be aggravated by, the strain coming from Army aviation. And as a former Army aviator said to me, aviation problems do not stop the Army performing its core role because the infantry can still drive or walk to where it needs to go.
But these mitigating factors are not applicable to the next decade. The planned investment program will introduce technical instability in breadth as the entire Army will be directly affected simultaneously. The technical challenges flowing from the highly-sophisticated nature of the networked and digital equipment being introduced will add depth to this breadth.
These challenges will be further magnified by the inherent difficulties of managing heavily-tailored fleets supported by a diverse array of original equipment manufacturers and systems integrators from multiple countries. Perhaps most importantly, sub-optimal capability management and poor reliability will directly degrade the Army’s, and the broader joint force’s, core combat capabilities.
The Army can no longer treat technical complexity as an outlier. An alternative workforce management ethos that accounts for the central role of technical equipment in the Army’s combat capabilities is essential.
Secondly, the Army’s modernisation program means more parts of the Army can generate more effects that are more relevant to the joint force. This has two implications – the Army of the future will be less infantry-centric than it has traditionally been, and the modernised Army will be able to support, rather than just be supported by, other elements of the joint force. These implications suggest shifts in the Army’s combat culture are necessary to be future ready.
The infantry is the Australian Army’s core corps, and its emphasis on closing with the enemy and engaging in close combat has been the Army’s focal point for its entire existence. This profoundly shapes how soldiers of all corps think about combat, operations, their role, and the role of others in the Army and joint force. For many, the role of the entire Army – and by extension the entire joint force – is to support the infantry as it attempts to seek out and close with the enemy.
This traditional emphasis needs questioning. Australia’s deteriorating geostrategic environment – described by the Prime Minister last July as being akin to the 1930s and 40s – means that the idea of Australia’s land force being centred on close combat seems out of step with geography, demography and, in turn, policy.
The region’s maritime geography suggests the role of Australia’s direct land combat power within the joint force will be to secure bases from which indirect combat power can be applied. Australia’s small population similarly means large-scale ground manoeuvre – and its consequent casualties – is not preferred. Consequently, the Australian Government’s clear policy, as spelled out in the Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan, is to rely on advanced technology, sophisticated networks, high mobility, and standoff strike systems to maximise Australia’s comparative advantages in human and economic capital, while offsetting its weaknesses in mass.
However, a decreased emphasis on the infantry should not be replaced by one that privileges invigorated artillery or aviation elements as the centrepiece of land combat power. Nor indeed should the Army’s focus be supporting land combat forces and operations, but rather on how land capabilities contribute to joint effects. Generations of land-centric operations mean that for many in the Army and the other services, ‘joint’ has come to mean the Navy or Air Force supporting the Army. The idea that ‘joint’ might be the Army supporting the Navy or the Air Force has, for a long time, seemed absurd.
But that is precisely what future operations in Australia’s region are likely to require. The government is investing in the Army to become a mobile, hard-hitting, long-range land element within a joint force similarly centred on standoff strike and rapid manoeuvre. Thus, the culture within the Army – just as within the Navy and the Air Force – needs to transition to one focused on joint outcomes. Arguably, the Army has the longest road to travel in this regard, if only because it has been the supported element for several generations.
The Australian Army has an exciting future ahead as colossal investment in advanced capabilities transforms its combat potential. Realising this potential – and becoming truly future ready – demands reconsideration of some key cultural touchstones.
The Army faces technical challenges in depth and breadth as it seeks to integrate, manage, and operate a diverse array of sophisticated systems across the entire Army. A workforce model that unduly emphasises generalist skills over specialist competencies threatens to compound these challenges and directly undermine combat outcomes. The Army’s combat centre of gravity will also shift away from the infantry, requiring a profound internal cultural change.
But to fully realise Army’s joint potential, the mindset needs to shift from looking inwards to support the Army, to looking outwards to joint outcomes.
This story first appeared in the March-April 2021 issue of ADBR.