‘Tactics: The ordered arrangement and manoeuvre of units in relation to each other and the enemy in order to utilise their full potentialities’
– Fundamentals of Land Power[1]

The recent re-integration of the South West Pacific area into our Indo-Pacific strategy carries with it the expectation that Army is to be once again prepared to make best use of this array of allies, islands, and oceans to defend by manoeuvring forward of our continent. This transcends the mere addition of an amphibious insertion ‘step’ to our current tactics. Rather, it marks a departure for an Army that for previous years has been largely land-locked to train inside of its own continent in scenarios of territorial defence; shaped by continental European and Cold War-era operational art. Recent years have seen Army’s foundational training revitalised with a modern adversary and a burgeoning amphibious focus. However, the effects of geography, and thus the tactics required to execute Manoeuvre Warfare in this geography, are yet to be replicated. Fortunately, Army’s task is made somewhat more conceivable by our history of battle experience in this region; a history that challenges us to innovate off the dilemmas of our past in order to adapt again a mindset for agile Pacific manoeuvre and fires, as our new norm.

Permanence of Geography

‘The difference between training conditions in Australia and New Guinea was stark: ‘the country fringing the beaches was the worst we had been in… almost impenetrable jungle grew in waist deep swamps, crisscrossed by much deeper creeks’
– Patrick Bourke, 2/13 Bn[2]

Our physical surroundings (our geography) above all other elements, will dictate the tactics that we may employ to succeed in war. Large scale armoured clashes endlessly recreated in scenarios set amongst the rolling fields of rural Australia are important foundational training but remain a mismatch to the character of possible combat in the South West Pacific. Combat in our region is instead defined by archipelagic isolation, airfield seizure and airfield/port construction, amphibious and air assault, methodical jungle and urban warfare, long range surveillance and strike on opposing island installations, the contest for sea and air control, and the maintenance of these circuitous logistic linkages. Yet these defining aspects largely elude our foundational training scenarios. There is tension between the land-locked scenarios in which Army trains, and our aspirations to project credible force regionally.

Our tactics are reflective of a training geography disconnected from our likely operational geography. As noted by David Horner, ‘as a generalisation, Australia has fought its wars away from its land’.[3] As one of the most geologically flat, open and stable landmasses on Earth, the Australian continent as a training area encourages a concept of Manoeuvre Warfare of high-speed armoured movement and penetration across open country at vast distances (hundreds of kms) behind enemy lines to trap and destroy hostile formations in wide battles of envelopment. This quintessential armour-centric formula is synonymous with the German operational art used so successfully on the European and Middle Eastern continents of World War II, the exemplar in modern Manoeuvre Theory. The German example of a mobile and agile military led by officers who understood the potential of new technology changed the way the world’s armies planned for war well into the Cold War.

Army’s latent Cold War-era objective of defeating invasion of our mainland by the oceanic equivalent to a Soviet Motor Rifle Regiment lodged on our soil has engrained in Army an unspoken self-identification with the tactics of the Wermacht. Somewhat stereotypically of our age, the German adages Aufragstaktik/Biegsamkeit (mission command), Bewegungskrieg (Manoeuvre Warfare, mobile operations for swift victory), Panzergruppe (combined arms armoured divisions), Kesselschlact (cauldron/envelopment), Schwerpunkt (main effort), and Clausewitz’s ‘centre of gravity’ and ‘culminating point’ lie at the heart of our Army’s intellectual identity.[4] Rightfully so, Germany’s example would produce what still remains as the high water mark for the employment of mechanised armies on land in history.[5] However, Germany’s achievement was land-centric and contingent upon a unique host of strategic and geographic factors which ultimately prevented it from negotiating the 25 miles of the English Channel.

Conversely, in Australia’s oceanic operating area, Imperial Japan campaigned at a distance of over 6,000 miles, in a theatre that would become the largest logistical exercise that the world is ever likely to witness. Both our cultural fascination with the exploits of the European theatre, and our fixation for training within the atypically permissive confines of our open landscape, focus us on a continental model of Manoeuvre Warfare optimised for combat on our landmass, but ill-suited for the oceanic geography of our region.

Re-framing a Credible Pacific Adversary

‘For twenty-six hundred years, Japan had no war on its own soil. All wars that Japan was forced to fight were conducted outside the Japanese islands, each time in conjunction with amphibious operations’
– Hiroshi Oshima[6]

As the geostrategic epicentre of the world now shifts from Europe to Asia, it is our history in actions such as the Pacific War which will carry renewed utility for Army’s transition back to a South West Pacific operating environment. As if paralleling the current state of geostrategic competition, the latter nineteenth century saw Imperial Japan emerge from a long period of self-imposed isolation to embark on a process of rapid modernization. Soon a rising world power, with a modern well-equipped military, Japan undertook expansionistic plans to extend its influence throughout East Asia to seize and protect economic self-sufficiency from the West. It took Japan just four months to win a new empire, penetrating far enough to bomb the Northern borders of Australia. It would take the allies three years to win it back. The similarities between our past and present provide important forewarning regarding the change Army faces in three key aspects:

  • Complexity. Whilst World War II in Europe took place on a battlefield approximately 3 million square miles in size, the Pacific War covered approximately 28 million square miles. This included some of the most topographically hostile environments of any war in history. In 1944, battles in the Pacific War raged in the Marianas, New Guinea, Philippines, China, Burma, and critical actions were taking place in the Himalayas, Alaska, Siberia, Mongolia and Manchuria. War in the Pacific was likely the most geographically complex conflict since the 30 Years War of 1618-1648, and posed logistic dilemmas which surpass, then as now, the industrialised interconnectedness of any continental theatre.
  • Strategy. Most nations of the Indo-Pacific sustain their ways of life through of sea and air lines of communication: the ability to move people, cargo, and information across the vast physical and digital space of the Pacific. The necessary interconnections from which nations draw their strength in equal measure lays bare their logistic vulnerability in war. Aggression by one actor would require they launch a region-wide air, land and sea campaign of a similar scale to that conducted by Imperial Japan in Dec 1941, just to maintain secure lines of vital wealth and life-sustaining commodities. Regardless of the location or direction of the next flashpoint in the Pacific, any localised act of force carries the potential to pull the region into conflict.
  • Inferiority. Despite the decisive Naval victories of Coral Sea and Midway in 1942, and the stereotype of qualitatively superior allied forces harnessing the under-utilised pre-war industrial capacity of the United States, the allies fought much of the war from a position of inferiority. Even after the loss of four of their six fleet carriers at Midway, Japan retained superiority in naval vessels and ground-based aircraft in the South West Pacific, and allied victory was far from certain.[7] Further still, the great Central Pacific ‘island hopping’ campaigns to which we normally attribute to the Pacific War only gained momentum in early 1944; the majority of the fighting, from Jan 1942 to Apr 1944, was fought in the South and South West Pacific area with Australia providing most of the ground forces. The greatest land victories credited to General MacArthur in the South West Pacific – at Kokoda, Buna-Gona-Sanananda, Wau, Salumaua, Finschhfen, Shaggy Ridge, Sattelberg and the Huon Peninsula Campaign – were won by Australian force of arms, and without the overwhelming aerial, naval and logistical power that would mark MacArthur’s campaigns thereafter.[8] Outside of Australia, this is not well known.

Today, Australia again occupies an inferior position relative to our potential global adversaries. It is worth then exploring how, under the same circumstances, Australian-US forces were able to adapt their tactics to defeat a locally superior enemy leveraging the geography of our near region. A brief study of past operations can assist us in bridging this tactical gap. This will be explored firstly through the superiority of enemy tactics, followed by the process of Allied adaptation and eventual supersession.

‘I fear that we were frankly out-generalled, outwitted and out-fought’
– Sir Henry Pownall[9]

The Japanese 25th Army’s conquest of Malaya on 7 Dec 1941 is an excellent example of amphibious fires and manoeuvre adapted to meet the requirements for multi-domain operations in our operating environment. Malaya and adjoining Singapore, the crown colony of the British Empire in South Pacific, was defended by 140,000 Indian, British, Australian and Malayan Commonwealth forces. General Tomoyuki Yamashita invaded the colony with a force of only 70,000. His brilliant orchestration of air, land and sea operations across the 25th Army, 3rd Air Group’s Southern Squadron, the 22nd Air Flotilla, and the 4th and 5th Submarine Squadrons rapidly concentrated force at the points it was needed most.[10] Allied delay actions were routed by frontal tank and motorised infantry assaults, skilful exploitation of jungle flanks by bicycle infantry, and aircraft used as mobile artillery. When blocked by the 11th Indian Division at Kampar, halfway between Penang and Kuala Lumpar, Yamashita cleverly turned the allied flanks with a Divisional amphibious landing further south on Malaya’s West Coast.

In 55 days of battle Yamashita’s exhausted force, riding down the Malay Peninsula over the toughest of logistical margins and wrecked by tropical diseases, reached the outskirts of Singapore having sustained 4,565 casualties (including 1,793 dead).[11] In Yamashita’s following assault on Singapore itself he would defy the possible by ultimately defeating and capturing an allied force twice his number.

‘My attack on Singapore was a bluff, a bluff that worked. I had 30,000 men and was outnumbered more than 3 to one. I knew that if I had to fight for long for Singapore, I would be beaten. That is why the surrender had to be at once. I was very frightened all the time that the British would discover our numerical weakness and lack of supplies and force me into disastrous street fighting.’
– Tomoyuki Yamashita[12]

By the standards of any military operation in World War II, Yamashita’s handling of air, land and sea support was masterful. If he ended the war on the winning side, rather than being condemned to death for war crimes committed under his charge, Yamashita would have been lauded as one of the great Generals of the 20th century. Yet, despite their all-conquering reputation, Japan’s Army would eventually suffer their first defeats not at Guadalcanal as is often thought, but at the Battles of the Kokoda Trail at the hands of Australian troops. How did the combined Australian-US forces adapt to ultimately defeat such a capable adversary?

Allied Tactical Adaptation

‘the COs of both militia and AIF battalions found that their experience in the Mediterranean theatres could not be readily applied to warfare in Papua. Terrain, vegetation, and climate of the tropics all severally affected the basic elements of operations: communications, tactics and the ability to manoeuvre.’
– Garth Pratten[13]

It would take over a year for Australian-US forces to adapt their tactics to equal and eventually surpass Japanese mastery of joint land combat. Supreme allied economic and technological superiority in small arms, tanks, aircraft, servo motors, radar, signals intelligence, manufacturing automation, mass assembly, and eventually the atom bomb would not fully materialise until mid-1944. The great Australian defensive ‘turning point’ battles of Kokoda, Milne Bay, Buna-Gona-Sanananda, and Wau were desperate, confused and piecemeal campaigns that consumed the efforts of 9 Brigades (and 3 US Army Regiments) at the cost of 6,047 battle casualties and 15,575 casualties to tropical conditions for Australia alone.[14] Of the many lessons gained by these torturous victories, arguably the most critical was that further direct assaults against Japanese strongpoints would likely incur unsustainable allied losses. The second most critical was that it was the availability of US air power, for both fire support and transport, that was the key determinant of victory. Herein would be the birth of a new form of Manoeuvre Warfare, with air power as its spearhead.

In February 1943, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff would commence Operation CARTWHEEL, the plan to neutralise the lynchpin Japanese stronghold of Rabaul as a pre-condition to targeting the Japanese home islands. Australian-US forces under US General MacArthur would drive along the North coast of New Guinea, to New Britain and eventually the Philippines; whilst US Admiral Halsey’s forces would drive through the Solomon Islands into the South Pacific. Skilful synchronisation of air, sea and land attack would see Japan’s dispersed strongholds – and eventually Rabaul itself – bypassed and left to ‘wither on the vine’.[15] The tactics of this new war of manoeuvre are paraphrased by General Kenney, Commander Allied Air Forces South West Pacific Area[16]:

  • Step 1. Deploy fighters and bombers to gain air control as far into enemy territory as possible
  • Step 2. Isolate the next land objective by air interdiction of enemy sea reinforcements
  • Step 3. Bomb all key targets on the objective (artillery positions, stores, barracks)
  • Step 4. Allocate airpower to closely support the amphibious expedition from its embarkation until the beach head is secured
  • Step 5. Ground forces to construct a new airfield on the captured objective, to be supplemented by ship-borne supply, from which to base further strike aircraft
  • Step 6. Repeat the process

This virtuous cycle of air, land and sea integration struck the Japanese in successive blows, carefully timed to make repeated use of the same resources, whilst denying the enemy the chance to switch forces to meet each new threat. It would transform the ground war in the Pacific, as would be demonstrated by its first action: Operation POSTERN, the Lae-Salamaua campaign to capture the strategic town of Lae.

Manoeuvre Warfare for the Pacific

Operation POSTERN was entirely evolved from earlier engagements in New Guinea. Here the Australian-US alliance displayed the same capacity for multi-domain operations that General Yamashita had shown in his assault on the Malay Peninsula in 1941. The Australian ground forces commanded by Lieutenant General Herring integrated the 7th US Amphibious Force, 5th US Air Force, 2nd US Engineer Special Brigade, 503rd US Parachute Infantry Regiment, and the 7th and 9th Australian Divisions to conduct a Corps level feint and pincer movement by air, land and sea. This joint force seized their objective and defeated an enemy Division over the course of 6 days. Furthermore, the initial Battles of the Bismarck Sea (sea control) and Wewak (air control), as well as the fire support and transport provided to over half of the assault force, would demonstrate the decisive role of air power in transforming the balance of power on the ground. In this regard the Lae-Salamaua campaign would set in motion the recurring pattern of projecting joint fires as far into enemy territory as possible as a protective vanguard to shield the subsequent seizure of the next base node by the land force; bypassing strong enemy positions wherever possible.

This pattern is summarised by Dr Francis Pike: ‘MacArthur was able to advance his armies forward from the strength provided by one airbase after another. In effect…[this] not only permanently ended the possibility of Japanese advance but also gave the key impetus for the Allied advance toward Japan’[17]. The allied armies had not only set the precedent for defeating the Japanese in battle, but for starving it into submission by exploiting the spaces where it wasn’t, in the true sense of Manoeuvre Warfare.


‘It is in the struggle in the South-West Pacific that many of the basic principles for a sound Australian approach to strategy and force structure requirements can be found’
– Michael Evans[18]

The amassed tactical experience gained by the Australian Army in this type of war was incorporated into its own training through the establishment of the Australian Training Centre (Jungle Warfare) at Canungra in November 1942 and the LHQ Tactical School in January 1943. These establishments focused first on training adaptable, well-rounded leaders grounded in the principles of war based on ordinary circumstance, and not bound to any one operational environment. However, from this grounding in the basics also came a focused analysis on the in-depth differences in methods for fighting successfully in tropical country to prepare officers and soldiers to win battles.[19] Today Army maintains its brilliance in pursuit of ‘the basics’ but is yet to fully integrate the next step of operationalising training through integrating our regional geography to replicate the tactics that should follow, per the schools of our past. The South West Pacific campaign of 1942–45 is the single most important historical example for Army at this moment, and our training should start to incorporate similar scenarios immediately.

Australia sacrificed well more than its fair share in the fighting of World War II, particularly during the Pacific War. Our embodiment of this history grants our Army a unique understanding of the requirements for successful joint land combat in our region. Our return to an Indo-Pacific strategy, though seemingly benign, exerts a force that pulls us to re-evaluate where our tactics must change to match the geostrategic shift that redefines both what is possible and what is required to win wars. When in the past we were faced with regional war on an unsurpassed scale and complexity, with such inferiority in force; combat changed to incorporate elements largely unseen in today’s landlocked training scenarios. Airfield seizure, base construction and defence, high elevation jungle and urban warfare, and the cycle of successive joint force archipelagic manoeuvres and strikes, sustained only by frugal air and sea lines of communication. These comprise the geographic-tactical elements that can be incorporated into our training now. The patterns derived from battles long passed do not provide formulas for success, but they contribute to a vision for training today where immediate solutions aren’t sufficiently visible. Part 2 of this article will draw necessary conclusions regarding how the enduring elements of geography should guide our application of manoeuvre and fires for this region in the future.

‘There was a growing realisation that the jungle was not an alien environment, requiring unique doctrine and desperately light organisations… but rather one in which adherence to established tactical and organisational principles remained critical to success on the battlefield. These needed to be adapted and applied, with judgement born of knowledge and experience…’
– Garth Pratten[20]

End Notes

[1] The Australian Army, (2017) LWD-1 Fundamentals of Land Power, Department of Defence, Canberra, p. 16.

[2] 51 2/13 Battalion War Diary, AWM52, 3/3/13/001, p. 25.

[3] Horner, (1996) ‘The Australian Way of Warfighting’, unpublished paper presented to the Australian Command and Staff College, Fort Queenscliff, p. 3.

[4] The Australian Army, (2017) LWD-1 Fundamentals of Land Power, Department of Defence, Canberra pp. 17-33.

[5] Citino, R (2004), Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare,  p. 75.

[6] Bartlett, M., Lehmann, H., Halbig, M., (1983) Assault from the Sea, Essays on the History of Amphibious Warfare: Japanese Landing Operations in World War Two, Naval Institute Press Annapolis, Maryland, p. 366.

[7] Keogh, E., The South West Pacific 1941-45, Grayflower Productions, Melbourne, p. 185.

[8]  Pike, F., (2016), Hirohito’s War, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, p. 659.

[9] Costello, J., (2009), The Pacific War: 1941-1945, Harper Perennial, New York, p. 237.

[10] Pike, F., (2016), Hirohito’s War, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, p. 244.

[11] Ibid, p. 261.

[12] Cull, B., Shores, C., and Izawa, Y., (1992), Bloody Shambles, Grub Street, London, p.383.

[13] Pratten, G., (2009), Australian Battalion Commanders in the Second World War, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, p. 165.

[14] Keogh, E., The South West Pacific 1941-45, Grayflower Productions, Melbourne, p. 280.

[15] Pike, F., (2016), Hirohito’s War, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, pp. 456.

[16] Ibid, pp. 586 - 587.

[17] Pike, F., (2016), Hirohito’s War, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, p. 607.

[18] Evans, M., (2005), Tyranny of Dissonance, Australia’s Strategic Culture and Way of War 1901-2005, Land Warfare Studies Centre, Canberra, p. 79.

[19] Pratten, G., (2009), Australian Battalion Commanders in the Second World War, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, p. 199.

[20] Pratten, G., (2009), Australian Battalion Commanders in the Second World War, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, p. 197.