Human Performance Optimisation in the ArmyBy Gavin Sonsee August 4, 2020
An age old problem
’People are the foundation of ADF capability’. This truism is repeated so often that it has almost become a cliché. As a species, humans are not armed with fangs, claws, running speed, flight, venom, fur or other helpful tools to survive a savage world. We are however, armed with a highly evolved brain. Without our problem solving skills, tool-making intellect and resourcefulness, evolved primates would not have survived.
Throughout the history of human conflict, the fundamental problem with the way humans wage war remains the same: as impressive as our weapons and technology may be, one of the weakest links continues to be the human being. Hunger, fatigue, and the need for sleep can quickly drain morale and degrade mission effectiveness. Fear and confusion can lead to costly errors of judgement and performance. Emotions and adrenaline can drive otherwise decent people to lose their moral and ethical compass, and the impact of war can take an equally devastating toll on individuals and families.
Despite this, the human brain is also our most valuable asset and maximising its potential is critical if we are to win future conflicts. Human Performance Optimisation (HPO) programmes have existed as small pockets of excellence in various parts of the army for several years. SOCOMD and the Combat Brigades have been active in this area, and several of these initiatives are delivering impressive results (N.B. only available on the DPN). Despite these best efforts, many programmes are fragmented. The great lessons learnt in one unit or formation are not well understood elsewhere and there are few ways to ensure that the entire Army benefits from the knowledge or skills gained. Put simply, this aspect of the Army’s approach to developing our people is often not as systematic as other aspects of modernisation.
A coordinated approach for the future
In late 2018, the Chief of Army established the Directorate of Human Performance – Army (DHP-A), to better coordinate and synchronise the disparate range of Human Performance initiatives underway within the Army.
Part of the Army’s problem was that human performance had no clear definition. To some it was all about physical fitness. For others, HP was about using emerging technology to produce ‘super soldiers’, enabled by physical and cognitive enhancements as reflected in both popular culture and military futures studies . This explains the Army’s disparate approach, with each situation compounded by individual preferences and the key interests of soldiers and research partners. In April 2019, the Army People Capability Steering Group endorsed Optimising Human Performance: The Australian Army Human Performance Plan (available on the DPN), in order to define Army’s approach to HPO and identify the Lines of Effort for establishing the operating and organisational conditions for improved HP.
This plan defines HPO as ‘the development and application of skills, knowledge and technology to generate the physical, cognitive and socio-cultural capability of individuals and teams to anticipate, prepare and perform effectively within the changing land warfare environment’. The plan describes the Army’s ambition to optimise human performance at the core of its work, and the three dimensions for HOP development. These three dimensions are:
- Physical performance - covers physical strength and conditioning, nutrition and diet, and sleep hygiene. In essence, how to draw the most from sport and science to train smarter, minimise injuries and increase capability.
- Cognitive performance - describes factors that affect learning performance and aims to produce soldiers who can make better decisions under conditions of complexity and ambiguity.
- Finally, socio-cultural understanding – covers group cohesion and team building including character development, leadership, esprit d’corps, moral and cultural awareness. These are all essential attributes for organisations that operate in complex human terrain and need to transition seamlessly between cooperation, competition and conflict.
The industrialisation of Human Performance
By focussing on developing a deliberate approach to manage and codify HPO innovations and activities, TRADOC will enable the Army to ‘industrialise’ HPO across the Army. This will ensure that the lessons from trials and experimentation conducted across the Army’s brigades have a pathway for implementation across the rest of the Army. This includes the use of tools like Smartabase and SPARTA Science, improved nutrition, injury prevention and rehabilitation, resilience training, welfare support and psychology support. The Army’s efforts here are often supported by our strategic partnerships with elite sporting bodies, such as the AIS, Rugby Australia, Swimming Australia and the North Queensland Cowboys. These relationships give our people valuable insights into civilian best practice and the latest research.
The Army also works closely with DSTG and civilian universities to understand how science and technology will evolve in the future. This is being done through the Human Performance Research Network, or HPRnet. For the past three years, seven universities across Australia have been working with DSTG and the Army to research areas such as team resilience, situational awareness, human-autonomy teaming, cognitive performance, physical performance and bioinformatics. This research is occurring right now, and involves volunteers from across the Army. If you have participated in any of these projects you have helped shape the future of the Army workforce.
This year, HPRnet has been expanded further, and now an additional eight universities have joined the network to broaden the HPO areas being researched. Over the next four years, this new phase of HPRnet will investigate areas such as brain stimulation, gut microbiome, the effect of movement variability on physical resistance, team training, augmented reality, resilience at sea and autonomous team tasking.
Effectively harnessing emerging technologies and an improved understanding of human performance across the physical, cognitive and socio-cultural dimensions is critical if the Army is to win future conflicts. By industrialising our approach, we will deliver a capability edge across the Army’s workforce that supports the Army’s drive to be future ready.