The Evolving Role of Australian Ground Forces in Australia’s Deterrent Strategy


By Robbin Laird

Australia is building an integrated force and working to extend the reach and range of that force.

This is a core effort for the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force and clearly focused on dealing with challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

But what is the role of the Australian Army in this effort?

Clearly, the Australian Army has been a key player in working relationships such as with Indonesia and Malaysia, and with the new amphibious capability will expand its engagement in the region.

But if we are in the midst of strategic shift from land wars in the Middle East to crisis management in which peer competitors have force on force capabilities which significantly impact on our combat and diplomatic success, what is the role of the ground force?

Major General Findlay, Special Operations Commander, Australian Army. Credit Photo: SLD

At the Williams Foundation seminar, Major General Adam Findlay provided some insights into Army thinking about shaping a way ahead. Major General Findlay is the Special Operations Commander within the Australian Army with significant experience in the Pacific region as well as the Middle East.

Air Marshal Davies made the point at the seminar that clearly for the ADF, Special Forces are a key part of how they would think about the strike function in a future conflict within the region, and the Air Force and Navy certainly have a focus on how to support and integrated with Special Forces in shaping a strike function as well.

Major General Findlay reviewed the evolving threat environment, but turned the discussion around by underscoring that the ability of the Special Forces to leverage a multi-domain networked force provided them with opportunities to have significant effects beyond traditional operational means.

One could add to his observation that this certainly would be the case in crisis management of the sort one can envisage with peer competitors, notably with regard to conflict termination as well.

He noted that the Australian Army is acquiring new systems which can expand their role in operating in the evolving battlespace relevant to the regional environment. “Army is getting long range precision fires; we are getting maritime strike systems, short range active defense systems, and new ISR systems.  This will allow Army to deliver targeted lethal effects over longer ranges. It is part of our approach to becoming a key member of the joint force.”

“We believe that we offer the joint force, access, persistence, presence, and lethality.”

Special forces are re-working its strategic reconnaissance approach after 15 years being in the Middle East. “We are working with our allies and partners in our region as a key part of reshaping our strategic reconnaissance approach. We can only move at the speed of trust.”

“Army considers itself ADF’s people force within our region.”

He noted that the Special Forces were working new capabilities with the joint force going forward and he mentioned specially work with Wedgetail and Growler on the RAAF side. “We are working closely with Navy and Air Force to rework our role in operating in high end warfighting environment.”

He noted that exercises are becoming a key area in which to rework approaches to use them as “testbeds” for new or more effective approaches.  For example, he saw the Talisman Saber exercises as evolving from a largely Army focus to becoming much more joint in character.

The goal is to provide access to forward operational areas where effective strike would be enabled against anti-access and area-denial capabilities of an adversary that were being used to threaten Australian interests.

He argued that the deployable headquarters within Army and the Special Forces will provide a key capability to enabling the effectiveness of joint strike forces as the ADF moves forward in a crisis.

“Our long-range strike systems will operate at hundreds of kilometers and will allow us to contribute to sovereign Australian Anti-Access and Aerial Denial effects.  This will free up Air Force or coalition assets to operate deeper in the battlespace and the land based maritime strike capabilities will support the survivability of Australian maritime assets as well.”

“For the first time adversaries will have to consider the threat posed by land systems to their maritime forces.”

“We can provide persistence and presence by operating from land as well.”

He highlighted as well the evolving role of the Army in ground based active defense systems for the ADF as well.

The new chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant General Rick Burr, has provided some baseline elements for answering the question in his initial Commander’s intent published on July 14, 2018 and in his Futures Statement published on August 8, 2018.

The Commander’s Intent highlighted what the Chief of Army sees as an “Army in Motion.”

To be ready now, we must harness the whole Army and leverage the potential of the joint force and the entire enterprise. We need both capability and capacity. We must be physically, morally and intellectually prepared for operational deployment, at any time, wherever we are needed. Army must also transform to capture future opportunities. Being future ready is a way of challenging the status quo; constantly evolving how we think, equip, train, organise and prepare to compete in the future.  

The statement then goes on to note:

The evolving character of war and the realities of an increasingly competitive and disruptive world demand we unlock our full potential. 

We must create and leverage new opportunities to team with other militaries as well as across the joint force, government, industry, academia and community to generate capability advantage. 

We will optimise what we have at every level in Army by thinking of new ways to operate, by experimenting, innovating and accepting risk.  

And the statement concludes with this comment:

Army is always in motion. 

Our next steps will be guided by a strategic framework, and articulation of our future warfighting concept, Accelerated Warfare.

What we can take away from this is a clear emphasis on the centrality of Army working effectively in the joint and coalition force.

That begs the question, that if the joint and coalition force in question in the Indo-Pacific region is engaging in dealing peer competitors, notably China, what role will the Army play and what innovations are crucial to play that role?

With the release of the accelerated warfare statement preliminary answers are provided to this question.

The challenge is described as follows in the accelerated warfare statement:

We live in an era of increasing competition where the rules-based international order is coming under increasing pressure. Being future ready means continuing our contribution to an open and fair international system, and being prepared for increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Our region is becoming increasingly defined by a changing geopolitical order and operating spectrum of cooperation, competition and conflict. At the same time, the pace of urbanisation and regional competition in littoral environments is bringing its own form of complexity. These trends are a major factor in accelerating the speed and dynamism across diplomatic, informational, economic and military interactions between sovereign states and other actors.

Our operating landscape is changing – adversaries, including violent extremist organisations and state-based threats can now control and influence all operating domains. The advent of rapidly evolving, easily accessed technology increasingly offers asymmetric capabilities to both established powers as well as non-state actors and even individuals. The ability to sense and strike from long range as well as swarming low-cost technologies are increasing the vulnerability of major military systems. 

Future strike capabilities will not just be physical but also digital, executed often at the speed of a mouse-click. Sophisticated Anti-Access, Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities offer the ability to deny manoeuvre while distributed systems that are ‘smarter’ and smaller are becoming increasingly essential to survivability. Networking will be critical in terms of generating a system capable of ‘cooperative engagement’.

While the nature of war as a contest of wills is enduring, technological disruption is rapidly changing war’s character. These characteristics include the convergence of big data, artificial intelligence, machine-learning, robotics, unmanned and autonomous capability with precision weaponry. Fused, synthesised and assured information for decision superiority is also likely to be an essential battlefield enabler with the challenge to protect this information from disruption and deception. 

Technology is not the sole answer. Our challenge is to underpin technological change with a joint warfighting philosophy linked to future investment, force structure, mobilisation and logistics transformation to be relevant, adaptable and survivable in the modern operating environment.

The reach of sensors and fires means Army must address all domains and comprehensively integrate across them. Space and cyber have not been fully contested in previous wars and therefore we have limited knowledge for how conflict in these domains will play out in the future.

Our ability to operate in the traditional air, sea and land domains are at risk of being debilitated from space and cyber yet there is also great opportunity in these domains for military advantage. Future conflict is likely to be across domains where networks and integration are the key to generating military power.

Put together, the geopolitical context, changing threat, disruptive technologies and domain integration means that we must prepare for an accelerating environment. Future warfare, in certain parts, will be fought at the speed of machines with success belonging to the side who can adapt the fastest.

Future advantage will lie with the side who can ‘own the time’ and best prepare the environment.

Let us take some of these items separately.

The ability to sense and strike from long range as well as swarming low-cost technologies are increasing the vulnerability of major military systems. 

What is the Army’s plan to work with Air Force on shaping an active defense and mobile defense of Western Australian defense assets to ensure longer range strike and support for the forces engaged deep within the region?

Future conflict is likely to be across domains where networks and integration are the key to generating military power.

Of course, the reverse is true, namely that Australia needs to have core capabilities to disrupt networks and rip apart adversary combat formations.

What is the Army’s role in the offensive-defensive enterprise?

The US Army at Fort Sill is certainly trying to work through how offensive and defensive systems can support disruption of adversary systems and capabilities, although the US Army is falling short of sorting out how their systems will integrate with Air Force and Naval systems, in operations in an integrated battlespace.

The reach of sensors and fires means Army must address all domains and comprehensively integrate across them.

Of course, this is a major challenge because it boils down to rapid insertion of new sensors and software into combat platforms and integration of those ground-based platforms, above all with Air Force.

How is the Australian Army going to address that challenge?

The final section of the Accelerated Warfare futures statement addresses the question of how Army will respond to the threat environment.

Within this accelerating context, Army must respond. We must push ourselves to think in creative and unconstrained ways to ensure our warfighting philosophy is appropriate and informs our future capabilities.

Accelerated Warfare as a description of ‘how we respond’ means owning the speed of initiative to outpace, out-manoeuvre and out-think conventional and unconventional threats. It requires excellence in the art and science of decision-making as well as deep thinking about Army’s role in understanding, shaping and influencing the environment.

Our role for creating access, persistence and lethality in the joint force are areas for greater discussion. This includes aligning shared interests to create access to our preferred operating environments, technologies and partners. 

We must discuss how we leverage persistent presence through access, endurance and our people-to-people links. Applying lethality on the land, from the land and onto the land for potency and influence across all domains must remain a central focus for our role in the joint force.

As we discuss ‘how we respond’, we will also think about our organisational elements. 

Our people must be leaders and integrators who contribute to multi-disciplinary teams, enabling us to thrive in uncertainty, adapt to change and generate solutions. 

We must leverage emerging technology as a potential source of advantage, integrating new technologies within the joint force. Partnerships through teaming with our international military partners, industry and academia will be of paramount importance to unlock potential and strengthen relationships for mutual benefit.

We must pull the future towards us rather than wait for it; Army must respond proactively by rethinking our contribution to joint warfighting philosophy, strategy and concepts. I look forward to your engagement as we explore these ideas together, define the next steps and inform our capability development priorities.

The key question of course is where one is doing this.

Geography matters.

Does the Army’s role vary dependent upon which geography within the Indo-Pacific region it will be asked to deploy?

There is no one size fits all integration, and the ADF has emphasized this point with its emphasis on shaping a task force concept.

Where do the ground forces fit within which task forces to deal with which missions and in which geographical sectors in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond?

The new Chief has set in motion an interesting approach and we will see where it will and can go in the period ahead. And Major General Findlay added some inserting ideas and nuances to the new Chief’s approach at the Williams Foundation Seminar.

The featured photo shows a double launch by a NASAM system.