We have people, we have machines. What’s missing?
Australia’s defence discussion has an ideas gap that leaves it vulnerable in the face of new challenges. Planned investments in equipment and personnel are necessary but insufficient, and generating a return on those investments requires new ideas to guide how the ADF will address Australia’s unique challenges. But Australia’s history has left it with a gap in its capacity to generate, test, and explain its own ideas that can provide a common logic across groups, drive organisational reform, and refine future investment.
Ideas drive military outcomes, particularly operational ideas that answer the key question of how a force will fight. A shift in ideas meant that in course of a single generation America’s fighter pilots went from dominating air combat in World War 2 and Korea to struggling for parity over Vietnam. Post-Vietnam reformers revitalised US air combat through new ideas to dominate the skies for the next half century.
One of those reformers was John Boyd, drawing on his ideas of air combat and energy manoeuvrability to shape the F-16 and F-15 fighter aircraft and, eventually, redefine the American way of war.
Boyd used to punctuate his lectures with an axiom that his audiences should think of “people, ideas, machines – in that order.” Boyd understood that ideas are powerful factors in determining military capability and effectiveness; that war was a human activity and success came from human advantage.
Unfortunately, a contemporary Australian version of Boyd’s axiom would be ‘machines, people, more machines – did we mention machines?’ There is some discussion of people and plenty of debates about machines, but there is a yawning gap when it comes to ideas.
Operational ideas provide a common logic that can animate people in ambiguous situations and help disparate and seemingly disconnected groups develop complementary approaches. Ideas shape organisations and processes which are fundamental to coordinating and applying power to achieve outcomes. Finally, ideas drive equipment development by driving requirements definition.
The impacts of tanks, aircraft, assault tactics, and massed indirect artillery on the battlefields of World War I were muted until brought together by the idea of combined arms operations, and the army division evolved as an organisational response to the challenge of orchestrating these operations.
A generation later, a key difference between the French and German forces was their ideas on applying combined arms operations, and the role of radio communications. The Germans required every tank to be fitted with a radio to give their armoured forces the collective agility and flexibility to pursue a shared idea of finding and exploiting opportunities. Together, these were enough to overwhelm the French who, despite superior tanks in many cases, were hamstrung by shared idea that meant they knew only to wait for orders which could only come via telephone.
The clash of air forces in the skies over Europe also highlighted the value of ideas. Radar was enormously useful during the Battle of Britain, but only because its detection capability was exploited and supported by the idea of an integrated air defence system that translated radio echoes into early warning and fighters aloft. Fighter Command’s organisation into groups and sectors provided redundancy, resilience, and responsiveness as the battle ebbed and flowed.
The air war also highlighted different ideas about wining wars and battles. Even in the most desperate days of the Battle of Britain, front line Royal Air Force squadrons and crews were rested; experience was re-invested into training and development; repair, maintenance, and logistics were prioritised; and aircraft production was rationalised and prioritised.
By contrast, the finely honed but fragile Luftwaffe was a wasting asset from the invasion of Poland until it was crushed under the weight of a relentless Anglo-American bomber offensive animated by the idea of independent strategic air power and sustained by superb logistics, training, and organisation.
In the Pacific, Japan’s obsession with decisive battle saw its submarine force employed ineffectively as an adjunct to its battle fleet, while American submarines roamed freely to strangle Japan. The Anglo-American idea was to win the war by being ensuring they could fight again tomorrow, and then the day after that, and the day after that. For Germany and Japan, the idea was to win the next battle. Ideas drive outcomes.
What, then, are the ideas that guide how the ADF will meet the challenges of a deteriorating strategic situation? How will the integrated, networked, and joint force that is under construction operate in the region? How do the ADF’s partners outside government best contribute to this effort?
The planned investment in equipment suggests the emphasis is on relatively agile and stealthy forces, such as submarines and aircraft, employing long-range sensors and weapons to sense opponents and restrict their movements. But there is no clear explanation of how the ADF intends to apply its planned force, and there are more than a few investment choices that seem inconsistent with an agile and stealthy strike force.
These investments are not necessarily off the mark in meeting Australia’s current and future challenges; there is considerable merit in diversity and flexibility. But it is hard to square the investment portfolio with a coherent and logical set of ideas about how the ADF will operate to meet those challenges. This, in turn, makes it difficult for industry and other partners to generate new ways to support and enable the ADF, such as through different types of people, new machines, or indeed new ideas.
This is because Australia’s public defence debate rarely delves into the merits of different ways of applying military power to achieve outcomes. Australia’s history as a contributor to operations led by others means the ADF’s defining idea has almost always been ‘plug and play’, and this approach has profoundly shaped the ADF’s machines, people, and ideas – in that order.
Plug and play prioritised procuring interoperable machines, focused people on maximising interoperability with parent forces, and meant the ADF’s ideas – such as they were – were direct replicas, close derivatives, or components of concepts designed for larger forces. Thus, the three arms of the ADF were better prepared to work with their American counterparts than they were with each other.
This is changing as the ADF seeks to become an integrated force by design, but it is a gradual process – not least because, as Basil Liddell Hart said, “the only thing harder than getting a new idea into a military mind is getting an old one out.”
This history has left Australia with a weak institutional capacity to generate, test, and debate ideas about how the ADF operates. To be sure, there are formal and sophisticated processes within the Department of Defence to explore operational concepts, but these are opaque to partners outside the organisation and are subject to the weaknesses of any hierarchical and bureaucratic organisation.
Without the active support of very senior advocates, operational ideas that challenge the norm are unlikely to progress inside the department. And few senior stakeholders are likely to spend political capital on an esoteric idea if it costs them a favoured piece of equipment. The ADF’s recent emphasis on building a joint and integrated force is necessary, but it can also become a crippling orthodoxy that sees the least abrasive ideas prevail over better but bumpier proposals.
Outside the Defence organisation, there is very little informed and rigorous debate of operational ideas. The likes of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the Lowy Institute, and the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre provide first-rate analysis of the very big issues – overall strategy, defence spending, and the international environment – and the very small issues, such as particular equipment proposals or specific decisions.
Similarly, issue-oriented groups such as the Submarine Institute of Australia or the Sir Richard Williams Foundation provide informative coverage of their topics. What is missing, however, is a capacity to bring these factors together to generate new ideas, test and explore them, and explain their implications and requirements.
The F-35B and nuclear-powered submarines illustrate the gap. There are regular – almost seasonal – debates about whether Australia should operate vertical take-off and landing F-35B from the RAN’s two Canberra class amphibious ships, or whether Australia’s future submarine should be nuclear-powered. Both are fascinating topics but, like ships in the night, the pundits on all sides argue past each other with competing hypotheticals and rickety assertions.
What is missing is a robust capacity to bring these hypotheticals and assertions into direct contact; to explore how an F-35B or nuclear-powered submarine-equipped ADF might operate in a contested and challenged Indo-Pacific, and to compare that to alternative ADF force structures. There are undoubtedly enthusiasts that have played out such alternatives in any number of commercially-available war games, but this kind of robust analysis and explication is simply missing from Australia’s defence discussion.
This contrasts markedly with the robust public analysis ecosystems in the US and elsewhere. Organisations such as the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA) and the Center for New American Security (CNAS) conduct robust war games that explore and test force structures, operational concepts, and problems. These structured activities provide a firm basis upon which different options and outcomes can be compared and, critically, explained to stakeholders outside official government organisations.
CSBA launched the AirSea Battle operational concept that played a key role in progressing the US military’s evolution towards contemporary multi-domain operations. CNAS hosts the New American Way of War program to explore “new warfighting approaches, operational concepts, and associated force structure requirements”, and is playing a leading role in the exploration and development of the US’s new joint warfighting concept. Australia lacks anything comparable.
There will undoubtedly and rightly be security constraints on what can be explored. But ideas can be investigated without getting into the fine-grained and sensitive details of capabilities and limitations, and having to explain challenges and problems in disaggregated and desensitised ways can improve understanding of those problems.
In any case, the strongest ideas are those that have been the most thoroughly tested, while those that have been shielded from scrutiny frequently fail under fire. Moreover, fresh ideas – which have led to more success more often than tighter security – are fundamental to the agility and creativity that is central to the ADF’s vision of its future self.
The benefits of stimulating and testing new ideas at arm’s length from the Defence organisation are significant. Shared logics can be developed and discarded, organisations built and broken, and requirements refined and rejected in an environment safely distant from the battlefields and bureaucracy. For the cost of a few dollars and some wounded pride, Defence and its partners from industry, academia, and elsewhere can collaboratively generate and test new ideas, and their own creativity and agility, to maximise the ADF’s human advantage.
Boyd was right: it is “people, ideas, machines – in that order.” Australia’s machines are on order and the people are coming; it is time to close the ideas gap.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the May-June 2021 issue of ADBR.