Tactical and Technical

McLachlan’s Charge: Improving Army’s Tactical Acumen

By Nicholas Barber August 21, 2020

‘Our level of tactical acumen is not where I would like it to be… We must work harder to re-master all elements of combined arms teams and introduce those new elements of multi-domain capability.’ With these words, the Australian Army’s Commander of Forces Command (COMD FORCOMD) set a challenge for the Army – and one to which we must respond.

The Australian Army is ultimately a tactical army. LWD 3-0-3 Formation Tactics defines tactics as the ‘manoeuvre and employment of military forces to their optimal potential in relation to each other and the enemy in order to achieve a specified mission.’ Through this definition, tactics are distinguished from techniques, procedures and drills, which provide more specific guidance on how a military force is to act under different circumstances.

Professional mastery of tactics includes two aspects: the science and the art. The science of tactics provides the capabilities and limitations to execute manoeuvre. The art of tactics includes the creative and flexible positioning of forces, decision-making under pressure, and a detailed understanding of the human dimension of war. The art of tactics is often the most difficult facet to grasp, and was arguably the focus of COMD FORCOMD’s direction.

Few critiques of Army’s tactical acumen have been as decisive as the comments from COMD FORCOMD, particularly as the Army approaches almost two decades of continuous operations. But he is not alone – Combat Training Centre Trend Reports in 2015 specifically identified shortfalls in the application of tactics by Combat Team Commanders. Nevertheless, responding to this appraisal is challenging for the Army. In fact, militaries throughout history have struggled with mastering the art of tactics, particularly fostering creativity in tactical action. Training tactics in times of peace is especially difficult, as maturing tacticians invariably lack the motivation to innovate because they do not confront a competitive adversary where the consequences of failure are absolute.

If Australia looks to tactical developments abroad, the urgency of remedying shortfalls in tactical acumen cannot be overstated. In 2014, most Western military analysts were surprised by Russia’s ability to integrate regular and irregular warfare techniques in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has recently reformed its collective exercises to promote greater realism in training and familiarity with the tactics of potential adversaries. Australia’s allies have also recognised the significance of devoting resources to maintain a tactical warfighting edge. Given this context, the Australian Army’s training model must not abandon the goal of tactical excellence – in fact, Army’s training must provide its tacticians the best level of tactical training to adapt faster than its future adversaries at first contact.

No individual, organisation or command is responsible for cultivating tactical expertise in Army – nor should such a duty exist. Tactical acumen is a concept that pervades across the traditional military architecture, and entities must not divorce themselves of their role in developing tacticians through declarations such as ‘we do not teach tactics’. Although individuals are ultimately responsible for their own professional development, Army’s tacticians will not improve by command direction to simply be ‘more creative’ or ‘make better decisions under pressure’. Improving tactical acumen will require a collective response across the institution. This article aims to stimulate discussion regarding Army’s response to COMD FORCOMD’s charge, and identifies some possible recommendations for consideration when addressing tactical acumen in training establishments, and unit and formation training.

Training Establishments

Training establishments can best promote the art of tactics by developing a culture of tactical creativity. Unfortunately, Army’s existing training culture fosters the opposite. At least two factors contribute to this mindset. Firstly, students struggle with achieving the balance between adherence to standardised military processes and innovation. Standardised military processes have utility – a basis of uniformity allows militaries to function in times of great uncertainty. Yet, learners are often critiqued on their strict application of processes to achieve learning outcomes. Consequently, ‘box-filling’ becomes the primary occupation of most students undergoing training, often at the expense of creative or innovative tactics. Secondly, learners fear failure in training. Course programs that rigidly follow period allocation within Learning Management Packages (LMP) provide little scope and resources for reassessment. Failure may lead to removal from training and the requirement to repeat a designated course as well as possible promotion, reputation and financial implications. To mitigate this risk, students propose conservative solutions to tactical problems in the hope to meet the minimum standard.

To address these factors, it is first recommended that instructors at training establishments demonstrate that learners can be creative within standardised military processes. It is a common myth that Army’s existing planning procedures, such as the Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace and the Military Appreciation Process (MAP), lead to fixed or templated solutions and preclude creativity. Indeed, one can apply these processes and still be creative.

Arguably, creativity in planning can have the greatest influence when developing course of action concepts in the MAP. One example of demonstrating creativity in this activity can be drawn from the intelligence community. Intelligence analysts use techniques known as ‘Scenario Planning’, including two axes, cone of plausibility and branch analysis methods, to predict possible threat courses of action. By expanding the application of these tools to friendly forces when creating course of action concepts, learners are provided both an awareness and confidence to adopt more creative approaches to the positioning of their forces.

In remedying the learners’ conservative tactical bias, assessors must look at designing assessment tools that allow a balance between the scientific application of tactical processes and the principles of tactical art. The re-introduction of the Tactics Instructor Course is a positive step in providing assessors with the skills to create activities that target a comprehensive assessment of tactics. Learners will only become more confident in applying tactical creativity if they perceive that they will not be punished for presenting a solution that is different from their peers.

Units and Formations

Units and formations are responsible for the continued development of tactical acumen amongst individuals after training. Exercises provide excellent opportunities for the practice of tactical creativity and combat decision-making. However, units and formations have perhaps been susceptible to over-scripting training activities to train techniques, procedures and drills rather than tactics. Designing training in this manner is superficially attractive, particularly when trying to achieve consistent training effects across an organisation; however, the tactician suffers the detriment from scenarios driven by a Mission Essential Task List and Master Events List rather than a realistic situation. Controlled exercises that guarantee victory do not provide a suitable environment for a tactician to challenge Army’s philosophical approach to land warfare nor do they expose the vulnerabilities that future adversaries will inherently seek to exploit.

In improving tactical decision-making under pressure, units and formation should ensure that sufficient time is invested into activity design and scenario building. The introduction of the Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE) will provide a vehicle for units and formations to critically review training programs and present challenging situations for tacticians. Yet, DATE will not itself improve tactical acumen in exercises – culturally, Army must be willing to allow the adversary to compete and win. Only with a competitive enemy will tacticians be forced to apply the art of tactics.

Apart from the refined practice of creativity and tactical decision-making during exercises, units and formations have a responsibility for supporting tacticians in their understanding of the human dimension of war. The re-emergence of Professional Military Education (PME) across Army is a positive initiative in meeting this requirement. Nevertheless, units and formations should ensure that adequate attention is focused on the tactical facets of the seven pillars of Army’s view of the profession of arms. It can be attractive for PME coordinators to arrange activities that involve reading and writing on strategy mirroring the numerous existing military strategy blogs and journals. However, the Army should be cautious not to disproportionately focus unit and formation PME on strategy at the expense of tactical exercises and historical review that are more relevant for Army’s tactical proficiency.

Broader challenges to tactical expertise

Despite the recommendations identified above, Army’s pathway to tactical excellence is inherently inhibited by more pervasive structural problems. Firstly, Army’s best tacticians are often not best placed to nurture tactical acumen in the organisation. Bright tacticians commonly perform well across all reporting criteria, promoting through unit and formation command to senior positions where they reflect on operational or strategic issues. Unfortunately, these individuals are no longer situated to effectively mentor Army’s junior tacticians.

A second challenge lies in the Army’s continuous development of tactics. Militaries often use combat experiences to evolve doctrine and training, although the Army’s combined arms and multi-domain capabilities have not benefited from trial in foundation warfighting against a foreign threat in recent times. Exercise HAMEL does not provide the best opportunity for testing the scope of tactics because the activity is guided by many specific individual and collective training objectives, and the ‘enemy’ uses Australian equipment and tactics. This places Army’s tactics development at a unique shortcoming – tactics are tested against a known entity. Indeed, one could validly question whether any of Army’s combined arms and multi-domain tactics will actually be effective when one day tested in the trials of modern combat. A more challenging enemy is the unknown – an enemy that does not acknowledge Army’s rules and targets Army’s vulnerabilities in the joint and multi-domain environment for a decisive advantage.

In remedying the personnel challenge, the Army may look to its single-service colleagues. Similar to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Air Warfare Instructor, Army would benefit from exploring both training and a career pathway for tactical expertise that is separate from command appointments. The RAAF has rightly acknowledged that promoting tactical excellence is an investment that requires both time and resources, and the Air Warfare Instructor training includes an intensive six-month course followed by the embedding of qualified individuals within RAAF units to oversee ongoing tactics training. For the Army, high-performing tacticians from all-corps and corps intermediate courses could be nominated for a minimum six-month tactics and mentoring program, where graduates would post to specialist positions inside Army units and formations. Although no longer suitable for the command pathway, an elite network of all-corps Army officers devoted to examining real-world tactical threats and developing tactical best practice would provide a valuable resource to enhance individual and collective training, as well as accelerate the development of junior officers.

A second and more substantial development would be the creation of an academy entirely devoted to tactics development. More akin to a think-tank than a school, a tactics academy would essentially provide an experimental ground for Army’s best all-corps tacticians to employ creative and innovative methods for defeating threats, separate from assessment of individuals or certification of collective training. Using a combination of real-world intelligence reporting, simulation and live execution against a realistic adversary, a tactics academy would provide an opportunity to test tactical concepts against foreign threat models without risk. Perhaps most appropriately situated under the Combined Arms Training Centre where resources would be available for trials, tactics development would directly inform the individual training of future officers and soldiers. Moreover, analysis and findings of experimentation could be published through Army’s PME program. In essence, a tactics academy would be an institution for learning, and would support Army’s desire to become a learning organisation.

Although this concept may be unique for the Australian Army, similar institutions already exist in the United States (US). Historically, US air warfare specialists identified the limitations of training US pilots in US aircraft against US pilots in US aircraft in preparation for combat in the Vietnam War and this was ultimately the catalyst for the creation of a classified MIG program. More recently, the Manuever Battle Lab within the US Army Maneuver Center of Excellence provides a similar land model, although has arguably a greater focus on system experimentation rather than tactics development. Indeed, if such an initiative was adopted, the Australian Army could become a leading global institution in tactical proficiency and learn lessons that have often been learned too late in times of war.


In summary, COMD FORCOMD has identified a concern in Army’s core function. Improving tactical acumen is a collective responsibility and meaningful change must occur across training establishments and Army’s units and formations. Creating a culture that allows creativity and bold combat decision-making is essential, and the study of the human dimension of war is an appropriate and targeted PME strategy for tactical units and formations. But more fundamental personnel and structural changes will be required to address some underlying challenges to Army’s tactical proficiency. Without rectification, the Army may be found wanting when it faces its adversaries on the future battlefield.



Nicholas Barber

Nicholas Barber is an Australian Army officer.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


The USAF ‘Weapons Instructor’ program is a role model for how Air Forces develop, maintain and apply tactical experts like air Warfare Instructor Course. The doctrine is here and might be worth a read: http://static.e-publishing.af.mil/production/1/af_a3/publication/afi11-415/afi11-415.pdf

Thanks Nicholas. The tactics of even our most creative commanders are constrained by strategic decisions about force structures and materiel. Exercising against an unpredictable enemy that might actually win is therefore even more important from a strategic perspective than it is from a tactical one.

I like the article

Thanks for the excellent article

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