The bedrock of survivability
By Chris McInnes
Mention ‘survivability’, and discussion will typically and quickly turn to technical matters – a new gadget to defeat incoming missiles, a different widget to bamboozle sensors and decision-makers, stronger armour to withstand whatever might make it past the gadgets and widgets, or technical solutions to address detectability, susceptibility, vulnerability, and recoverability of systems and systems-of-systems.
A considerable portion of Australia’s capital investment in military systems over the next few decades is focused on survivability, with the Australian Army’s fleet of ever larger and heavier land vehicles epitomising the pursuit of technical survivability.
But the utility of these technical systems is built on, and determined by, a factor that is too often overlooked in investment decisions and strategic guidance: readiness. In simple terms – supported by the Macquarie Dictionary – readiness is the, “condition of being ready”. In the ADF’s doctrinal terms, readiness has a more complicated – and tortured – definition, but still fundamentally comes down to the condition of being ready to do particular tasks within a specified timeframe. Readiness captures the breadth, depth, and currency of a force’s proficiencies at the individual and collective levels.
Readiness is the foundation of survivability because it profoundly affects an individual’s or group’s adaptability in the face of new challenges such as unexpected weather, enemy actions, or technical failures. The more ready a force is, the less cognitive capacity must be devoted to thinking about the performance of basic tasks. This frees up mental resources to think further ahead of a given situation or respond to the unexpected.
This basic premise applies to any skilled endeavour, from elite musicians and top athletes to skilled surgeons and heavy machinery operators. The more practised you are at a given skill, the more able you are to adapt that skill to new circumstances.
The military aviation community has perhaps the most fine-grained measurement and control of readiness, through its emphasis on proficiency and currency in the management of aircrew and capability more generally. Breadth of skill is closely managed to ensure that aircrews and units have sufficient time and resources to develop priority skills to the required depth.
On an individual level, the duration of aircrew operational deployments is generally constrained by a desire to avoid excessive loss of skills in areas that will not be practised on operations. At a collective level, a similar effect is apparent. The need to regenerate advanced antisubmarine warfare skills prior to the introduction of the P-8A Poseidon was undoubtedly one of the key factors in the withdrawal of Australia’s AP-3C fleet from the Middle East in 2013.
The emphasis on skill depth and currency in military aviation is also readily apparent. One need look no further than the ‘hours patches’ adorning aircrew flying suits, and the proclivity of even very senior officers to bolster their professional credibility by declaring how many hours they have spent flying particular aircraft types. The message is clear: time in the air matters … a lot.
But even vast experience is tempered by a recognition that lots of experience a long time ago means your readiness is lower than a less experienced individual with greater currency. Accordingly, tactical leadership roles will usually be allocated to the individual with the highest proficiency and recency.
This was borne out when a junior officer rather than the commanding officer led Australia’s first F/A-18A combat mission into Iraq in 2003 because he was the most proficient in the required skills, and therefore had the most available cognitive capacity to solve problems in the air. Indeed, while not always true, there is an adage that the commanding officer is always the worst pilot in a squadron, simply because they do not have the time to maintain their flying skills at the same level.
This approach is also apparent in the design of exercises such as the USAF’s Red Flag. The genesis of Red Flag was from an analysis of air combat during the Vietnam War that revealed a disproportionate number of losses occurred in a crew’s first 10 combat missions. The USAF’s simple solution was to expose crews to their first 10 combat sorties in realistic exercises rather than real-world combat.
As a result, crews on their first real combat missions were more practised at the basics and were better able to deal with the complexities that real-world missions threw at them. Red Flag has evolved over time to maintain pace with developments in friendly and adversary capabilities. The early Red Flags used to culminate in large integrated air strike packages penetrating defended airspace. That standard is the starting point in contemporary Red Flags, which also feature the integration of an array of multi-domain capabilities and threats.
So where does readiness sit in the ADF’s thinking and planning for the future? Readiness is one element of Defence’s preparedness, which also includes force structure and sustainability.
Defence maintains an elaborate preparedness management system that links investments, exercises, and training to strategic guidance, emerging challenges, and potential tasks. In many ways, this preparedness management system is the central mechanism by which the ADF’s capability outputs are managed and controlled.
For good reasons, much of this thinking and planning happens behind closed doors, with recent public discussion limited largely to Australia’s challenges relating to force sustainability and mobilisation, particularly considering the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is reasonable to assume that managing the tension between depth, breadth, and currency of readiness is a key challenge.
However, the Government’s public strategic guidance – in the form of the 2016 White Paper and the 2020 mini-white paper Force Structure Plan (FSP) – provides some positive and concerning insights into the role of preparedness in Australia’s strategic planning.
Firstly, the positives. Both the 2016 and 2020 papers announced investments in systems, infrastructure, and supplies to bolster readiness in the ADF, including training facilities and simulation systems to support more advanced exercises and additional sustainment funding to support increased activity levels. An emphasis on higher readiness was apparent in the 2016 paper, which devoted more than a page to articulating the need for higher levels of preparedness. The 2020 update has limited discussion, but this probably reflects a ‘no change’ perspective rather than reduced emphasis.
Where the 2020 FSP is particularly useful in readiness terms is the clear direction that the ADF should focus its efforts on Australia’s region. This should enable the ADF to achieve higher readiness in roles relating to the near region, potentially at the expense of those necessary further afield. In broad terms, the ADF can concentrate on building skills relevant to maritime tropical environments at the expense of arid deserts, with the recent cessation of the Royal Australian Navy’s decades-long presence in the Middle East reflecting this shift.
But on the concerning side is that the discussion of preparedness in Australia’s strategic guidance is quite heavily focused on force structure and sustainability. The term ‘readiness’ only appears once in the 2020 update and not at all in the 2016 paper, with the discussion above derived from references to preparedness or training.
Both papers clearly direct the ADF to enhance its readiness and provide additional resources to support that effort, but the limited detail makes it difficult to discern how or when Defence intends to achieve that outcome and thus, how industry can best support such an effort.
That matters, because one of the few things that Defence can do relatively quickly in response to deteriorating strategic circumstances is improve its readiness. For example, the future submarines are still decades away, but additional resources, particularly workforce, can mean that the current Collins class submarines can be readier than they have ever been.
Similarly, more advanced and integrated training and exercises are the only way that the highly integrated joint force of the future, envisioned in so many Russell Hill documents, can come to fruition. An ADF that can generate and conduct major joint force exercises – such as Talisman Saber – more frequently and with greater realism than is currently the case, will give the Government far greater options to shape, deter, and respond than any piece of equipment or infrastructure.
But most importantly, such a high-readiness force is also the very best way to optimise the adaptability and survivability of any Australian forces sent into harm’s way.