Sovereign Access – New Conceptions of Old Mobilisation

By Mike Kalms October 25, 2021

In August of 1914 Australia mobilised for war. The good thing was that we knew we were. The King asked us to, we responded.

In 2021 even the word ‘mobilisation’ just sounds archaic. It carries connotations of industrial re-gearing, a factory economy moving to a ‘war-footing’ and the conscription of young people for service. Why the hell would we ever do that again?

Well, we may not have a choice.

Mobilisation: one-word, multiple viewpoints

But even if you agree that circumstances might exist in the future where Australia must ‘mobilise’ – I doubt many in that small nodding crowd would agree ‘how’ mobilisation would occur in 2021, its triggers, responsibilities, plans and resources.

When it comes to a complex conceptual planning for low probability politicised future events – no nation or organisation is good at getting this done. Defence is no different.

So let’s stop doing that.

Mobilisation was only ever prioritised access of national resources by government for some temporal strategic effects. It was the embodiment of sovereign power. Fixed-period nationalisation of people, products, asset and systems.

It got a fancy title because Australia (and other nations) did it in response to well-defined, usually cataclysmic, world events (most notably World War 1 – but there have been others).

But if the trigger for a future mobilisation isn’t well known, or isn’t agreed, or is being deliberately gamed by an adversary; then all we’re really talking about is what will be portrayed by stakeholders as arbitrary sovereign access to resources.

“80% of any mobilisation problem is commercial, the other 20% is planning. And time spent planning the Phases and C2 of a distant, opaque mobilisation problem is largely wasted”

Stop talking, start doing

The good news is that you don’t need to agree the 'Why' and 'When' of a government stepping in to control an asset at the same time as the 'What' and 'How'.

When Australia seeks to create a framework for Why we might mobilise or When it should occur, we give away key information about the edges of our grey zone. If we just talk What assets government could seek to access and How it would commercially operate, we just improve our chances of pulling it off when actually required.

The What and How is relatively instinctive:

  • Government may want sovereign access to Woolworths supply chain.
  • Government may want sovereign access to NSW Fire and Emergency Services people and property.
  • Government may want sovereign access to spectrum.
  • Government may want sovereign access to the intellectual property of Telstra.
  • Government may want sovereign access to all actuarial mathematics 3rd year students.
  • Government may want sovereign access to ANZ Bank super-computing services.

Good readers will add to this list. It can be as long as we like – our job is to prioritise and establish a commercial arrangement with those who control these assets in the event government steps in to take control for a yet to be determined task and period.

These are commercial conversations – exactly what contracts do. Put in place an MoU or more detailed contract explaining the What and How of each of these asks. This is solid preparation. Sure, it may not be needed but it will be a very useful accelerator in the event sovereign access is required.

Accessing all of these assets – if demanded at the same time – could be called mobilisation. But the greyness of our future conflict triggers, and the complexity of our national stakeholder base means we should not plan to mobilise. We should have a framework for Sovereign Access. At times and places and in response to triggers we feel no need to declare or define. These are effectively step-in arrangements (a commercially mature concept frequently deployed in industry) empowering the Commonwealth to gradually or dramatically access what it needs, when it needs it.

So let’s stop making this hard with emotive language.

Make a list, check it twice

Let’s collect up a list of all the assets government might access in times of approaching emergency, assets it doesn’t directly control. Let’s categorise and characterise them and define how access will be activated (and returned) in times of need.

Let’s be unclear on triggers (because we won’t know them), be unclear on duration (ditto), be unclear on price (see above), BUT very clear on mechanisms, hand-over, return arrangements, and residual responsibilities. Shareholders will care about these details; careful consideration of them prior to sovereign access will calm investor nerves – that will be important. We may not know Why or When we’ll require Sovereign Access, but we will want to have What and How very clearly pre-agreed as time will be of the essence.

And the categories might be unusual.

Data will be a category. Spectrum. Know-how. System protocols. Core software. Medical methods. It’s tempting to think the ADF will just want trucks, fuel, people and bullets. Frankly, I suspect these will be the least important asset categories when Sovereign Access is – in the crucible of crisis – sought by government.

And it won’t be a conversation with just BHP and Coles. We’ll need to navigate complex international shareholdings, ITAR, property law, insurances – getting the What and How arranged will take effort and time. Better to make that investment early.

Crystal balling C2

The other benefit of focusing on the What and How is that the Who, or more particularly, the ‘Who is in charge’ isn’t distracting us either. In theory anyone could be in charge.

Our adversaries will be very pleased if they see us spending years defining multiple command and control arrangements between parts of the ADF, police, scientists and stakeholders. If it’s a meteor you’re in charge, if it’s a maritime invasion force, I am. Abstract C2 should occur in a time-bounded gamified way, and then only inform the principles applied when we actually need Sovereign Access.

In a way, this article is about deterring us from doing what we like doing (planning) in order to do what we must do (act). To misquote General George C Marshall: Armies arrive unprepared for the war they are about to fight. If that’s a truism, perhaps we can help reduce the steepness of our learning curve through well prepared Sovereign Access.



Mike Kalms

Mike is a 30-year member of the part-time ADF. In 2021 he commands the 8th Brigade where full and part time, women and men, come to train, learn and grow. Concurrently, he’s with KPMG.There he has supported the 2016 White Paper as a member of the Minister’s 6-person expert panel, worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Defence on industry policy and a revitalised approach to sovereignty, supported various state government’s defence industry strategy, and aided business and universities to build defence-relevant capabilities.

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 and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


Mike, is mobilisation a “thing’ at the moment? To have captured the attention of that razor sharp intellect of yours? Because I thought it was a dirty word in defence, had been so for 30 years – for the very reason you discuss – it is planning for something no one wants to actually do, or own. But thank you for taking the time to raise it. There is much in your post that is critically relevant in both a HADR and conventional war sense. We cannot hope to achieve any mass or op longevity without significant commercial and community support. Look at the UK and the Falklands war – a small scale affair, but still requiring something like 60 ships taken up from commercial trade – including a number of truly national icons such as the QE2 luxury liner. And how many small unique capabilities does the ADF have ‘one, for the use of’? Commercial supplementation will be vital. However… say ‘when it comes to a complex conceptual planning for low probability politicised future events – no nation or organisation is good at getting this done.’ Really? Is this not why we have hundreds of staff in various HQ? For as your quoted General Marshall’s most successful protégé (Ike) said, ‘the plan is nothing, planning is everything’. Other organisations plan for just these events. Having said that, do we really do planning as a tool for decision making these days? I suggest that we are perhaps more concerned with the creation of product for visual effect and as a demonstration of effort in case something goes wrong. I am not sure we really do effective post h-hour planning, for fear of templating (and with the many Monday morning quarterbacks, this might be understandable). This has implication in terms of, as you say – “Stop talking, start doing”. Much easier to crash action into a planning cycle and hope the problem is over before execution, than start doing and test and adjust along the way. And indeed, all too often a ‘plan’ is really a thin veil to prompt “years defining multiple command and control arrangements” and changing organisational structures in that mad dash for individual notice and advancement in a HQ. So let us both plan, AND act…..

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