The war in Ukraine has reinforced the notion that conventional warfare is not obsolete. In all probability, it is the predominate style of warfare that will influence and shape our world over the coming decades. Upon arriving in the United States over 12 months ago, a resurgence in conventional warfare, commonly understood as Large Scale Combat Operations (LSCO), was taking hold.
But it takes time to change a culture that is familiar and comfortable with counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, to a culture that must adapt to the challenges and unfamiliarity of LSCO. There is always resistance to change. But the home of infantry and armour at the Manoeuver Centre of Excellence (MCoE), Fort Benning, Georgia, have spearheaded a shift in modernisation for the U.S Training and Doctrine Command. Over the past two years the focus has centered on the pacing challenge, China, and acute threat, Russia. As Commanding General of MCoE, Major General Curtis Buzzard puts it, “we could be one miscalculation away from being pulled into a conflict against a peer threat”. The sense of urgency to modernise at MCoE is palpable.
The Australian Army never strayed too far from conventional warfare over the past two decades, even though we were operationally focused on COIN operations. But the character of war is rapidly evolving, and with that, the way we prepare our people to fight. Whilst observing the rapid resurgence of modernisation at MCoE, it led me to ask a simple but profound question: Is the Australian Army thinking about modernisation and transformation from every perspective? We tend to view progress and change through the lenses of material, organisation and training. Yet we seldom discuss the adaptation of our peoples’ mindset.
Events in Ukraine provide valuable lessons and insights into the evolving character of war. This, combined with my observations at MCoE, has led me to believe we must act with a sense of urgency to adapt the mindset of our people for the challenges of LSCO against a peer threat in an environment reminiscent of our current challenges. This article explores three essential themes that we must inculcate in our mindset and culture; focusing on sanctuary, information, and privation. So, how do we adapt the mindset of our people?
There is no sanctuary
We may not be in battle, but we are on the front line in perpetuity. From the comfort of our homes, on our devices and from the port to the theatre, we must assume our activities are observed. This is amplified in battle. As observed in Ukraine, command posts and high value targets are targeted by geolocating personal electronic devices (PEDs) carried by soldiers on operations. Due to a lack of discipline, education and awareness, both sides are still being targeted on the battlefield due to soldiers emitting a signature through their PEDs.
We must train the way we fight. Although it is standard practice in the Australian Army to prohibit PEDs on exercise, how many units rigorously enforce this practice and can confirm their absence? This is challenging to overcome as we are attached to our PEDs, and they are easy to conceal. But we can reduce the ubiquity by educating our people on the terrible impact that one ill-disciplined soldier can have on an entire unit. There is no shortage of footage from Ukraine that may drive this message home and reinforce this mindset.
Due to advances in technology, the battlefield is increasingly transparent. Simply put, there is nowhere to hide. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), satellite, radar, emerging technologies and our electromagnetic signature are beacons to our location. On 14 January 2023, Ben Wallace, UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, unveiled the latest figures on Russian military losses, including destroyed command posts and communication stations; and the figures are dire. Open-source intelligence, Oryx, indicates there has been 122 Russian C3 nodes destroyed since the war began – predominately by long-range precision fires. There is no disputing the figures. If they can see us, they can destroy us.
Consequently, we must always assume our forces are under constant observation and surveillance. If we drive this mindset, we will generate a culture where we place greater emphasis on camouflage and concealment, train with UAS overhead at every opportunity, and eliminate the belief that digging in is an obsolete practice. Further, we must habitually disperse our forces, use urban terrain to mask and dilute our signature and ensure our command posts are light, protected and highly mobile.
Most critically, we must improve our electromagnetic discipline on the battlefield and reduce our signature. We are accustomed to communicating with little respect to emitting our electromagnetic signature. This will have dire consequences. As Major General Curtis Buzzard puts it, “units must learn to operate like a submarine, resurface on the net briefly to confirm commander’s intent, and disappear from the electromagnetic spectrum.”
A culture of mission command has set the foundations to operate in this manner, but we need to take it further. We must promote a mindset where condition setting, and triggers maintain continuity and tempo on the battlefield. We must train our P.A.C.E plan and operate without communications for extended periods. If we emphasise masking and have the mindset to train and operate decentralised in a comms-degraded environment, we will adopt cunning methods of deception, decoys, counter-UAS, and become masters at masking our people.
Information campaigning will influence the fight
Social media platforms have become a battleground in which information is the first victim. Disinformation is a powerful tool in the hands of adversaries, as it will shape the minds and perspectives of a nation and its military long before the ship leaves the dock. What impact will this have on our people and their will to fight, and how do we prepare them?
As seen prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s cyberwar included the use of news media and social networking websites to disseminate ‘fake news’. Russia’s actions exploited existing social divisions in Eastern Ukraine, sparking public distrust in the Government’s ability to provide protection. This destabilisation effort helped justify the separatist narrative in Eastern Ukraine, which was comparable to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 where the invasion began in the minds of the Crimeans.
Messages never sleep or rest, they are persistent and influential. One could argue that information campaigning can have more influence on the battlefield than tactical actions. Australia has rarely dealt with this approach, but it is increasingly amplified given the abundance and accessibility of social media.
We must create a mindset and culture of awareness; and train our people to anticipate this calculated attack against our nation and Army’s people. If we wait until the outbreak of conflict to promote awareness, then our adversary has influenced our peoples’ will to fight before boots hit the ground.
Equally important is positive information campaigning. We must not underestimate the positive impact and influence this will have on our soldiers’ will to fight. President Zelensky has shown the world a masterclass in information campaigning. His clear and charismatic messages have influenced his countrymen and women to fight and repel the Russian onslaught. His selective release and curation of battlefield results were essential in gaining support from the West. His proliferation of Twitter feeds, mass emails, and videos of exploding tanks and cities devastated by Russian atrocities solidified global support for Ukraine.
Australia’s will to fight will be largely shaped and influenced by information campaigning and our ability (or inability) to counter. Through education and awareness, we must remain active and not passive with our counter disinformation campaign and create a mindset of awareness that prepares our people. If we educate now, we will gain the intellectual edge, and the impact and influence of disinformation on impressionable young soldiers may be largely diminished.
Privation will characterise the battlefield
The privations of war are not new, they are ingrained in the nature of war. When you look at photographs from the battlelines in Ukraine, you could be excused for mistaking them as photos of the Western Front in WWI. Although the Australian Army endured hardships over the past decades, the war in Ukraine has shown us that high casualty rates, trench warfare, food and sleep deprivation, continuous observation with intermittent shelling in austere conditions are just some of the privations experienced in LSCO. Our Army has not experienced this character of war in generations.
Over the past two decades, we assumed and fought with air superiority, evacuated casualties within the ‘golden hour’, received timely resupply, and recuperated in the relative safety of a secure area or Forward Operating Base. Does our culture and military still take these luxuries for granted? And, do we have the mindset to endure the privations brought on by the reality and brutality of LSCO?
The war in Ukraine has shown us that a transparent battlefield combined with increased lethality induce casualty rates we have not seen since the Korean War – relative to time and scale. Given the intensity and challenges of LSCO, the ‘golden hour’ to evacuate casualties is no longer a realistic expectation. Our people should prepare to go without advanced medical treatment for hours or days, and even continue fighting whilst wounded. If we understand these challenges, we will prepare ourselves by committing additional time and resources to training combat first aid and increase our survivability. Further, if our people appreciate the realistic casualty rates expected of LSCO, we may create a culture where its standard to train two or even three positions up, generating a fighting force that is agile and maintains tempo.
Equally as challenging is resupply. We must have a mindset that fighting with limited ammunition, fuel, food, medical and technical support is a realistic flavour of war. Air assets may not be available, and extreme austere environments may create unfavourable terrain. Unmasking and exposing our high-value resupply or evacuation assets may be an unacceptable risk, but we can reduce risk.
Cunning, deception and believable sophisticated decoys are key to drawing attention away from our high-value assets and capabilities. If commanders and non-commissioned officers are exposed to these challenges in training, we will gain the intellectual edge; and generate an innovative culture and mindset that is constantly thinking about methods to effect resupply and evacuation, not a culture that takes it for granted.
Privation will characterise the battlefield, there is no hiding from it. But through training and education, we can reduce the shock of war by creating a culture and mindset that prepares our people for LSCO. This, combined with our strong leadership and indomitable NCOs, we will absorb the privations of war and adversity as our forebears did.
The challenges of LSCO are increasingly evident and evolving, and we too must evolve our mindset. We have one of the best equipped and proficient militaries on earth. But if our mindset is not inculcated to the reality and brutality of LSCO against a peer threat, we will swim against the current at the outset of war. We have the resources and awareness to train and prepare our people to thrive in a transparent battlefield and reduce our electromagnetic signature. We have witnessed the powerful impact of information campaigning, and we appreciate the hardships induced by the privation of war. We must now act decisively to promote awareness to our people and generate an innovative culture where the adaptation of our mindset is constant.
We may soon be faced with some of the darkest moments in our young nation’s history, but if we actively adapt the mindset of our people for the realistic challenges of LSCO, we will gain the intellectual edge and competitive advantage.
I’d like to know, what are your thoughts on “steel sharpens steel” in a training and preparation context? What I am asking here relates to placing a battle group or other sized formation “inside the box” in a “WYSIWYG” or what you see is what you get context. That is, the team in the box is given an AO and the commander a mission. The team in the box then acts as they would, with initiative and mission command. They also face the consequences of the frictions, as well as luck and results of “red team” enemy action.
To learn the team in the box could cycle the same mission and conditions several times to attempt different tactics, or perhaps learn from failures. Of course with appropriate AARs and reflections on their own performances.
Perhaps this could be a way to inculcate the required attitudes, mindsets and behaviours throughout the formation as every individual could see how they contribute to success?
Great to see you’re getting some good insights into our allies thinking.
I agree with you that some of the most beneficial training is through ‘steel sharpens steel’ training. By having two opposing forces of similar strength placed ‘inside the box’ – executing a mission as you described – we will gain valuable lessons with one side adopting Australian doctrine and tactics, and the ‘red team’ adopting realistic peer tactics and doctrine.
I believe the greatest benefit comes through repetitions with teams switching sides and executing the mission as the opposing team. Not only does this refine our own TTPs, but all units involved are compelled to analyse and indoctrinate peer threats tactics and doctrine, which inculcates a deeper appreciation and understanding to better prepare our forces.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
Ref PEDs - I literally just walked into the office lunchroom and saw a Ukrainian command post on the news, with sophisticated radios, simple wall maps, and you guessed it – one of the staff officers using a smart phone! What alternate personal comms arrangements can we put in place today to start that mindset adaption so we can be ready to fight tomorrow?
Once again, a great article. Keep feeding these insights back to us.
Most will agree that personal comms arrangements should never be permitted during war fighting operations. We must educate our people on the terrible impact that one PED can have on an entire unit as shown on multiple occasions in Ukraine. If we promote awareness, and deploy on exercise with rigorous restrictions on PEDs, our people will gradually become accustomed to being without personal communications, if only marginally.
Additionally, and somewhat related; we have the means to look at ourselves by highlighting our own Electromagnetic Signature (EMS) in the field. We must take every opportunity during training activities and exercises to highlight a unit’s EMS so they can take appropriate measures to improve. If we habitually look at ourselves to understand our EMS and the potential impact, we will create a culture that trains to reduce our signature through cunning and innovation.
I hope this helps and thank you again for taking the time to read this article!
Keep up the great work - it matters for our soldiers, sons and daughters.
I am so pleased to see an article that demonstrates so clearly the reality of what future ops are most likely to be. The key is as you identify it: "the nations will to fight" and the impact of info ops/media.
Agree also with comments by John Brennan re trg for worst case and with overmatched numbers. This situation faced by ARA in KOREA in the 1950s.
Keep up the good work.
I will spread this article amongst some of the
vets from the 1960-1990 era.
I am pleased to hear you found this article useful, and I also agree that training against a numerically larger force is paramount given the reality of the next major conflict.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article and provide feedback.
All the best, Dave.