I’ve spent the last year as the Chief of Staff of the Australian Amphibious Task Group, and I’m often asked the same question by young Army officers and soldiers that I work with: how amphibious should the Australian Army be in the future? This is a fair and valid question. Having decided that the Australian Defence Force will generate rotational amphibious forces instead of raising a dedicated ‘marine force’, the Australian Army is now taking on another important commitment in becoming amphibiously-competent. This has to be balanced against many other urgent needs, ranging from maintaining readiness for high-end Brigade warfighting through to active train / advise / assist missions.

My response to this question, probably annoyingly, is to ask another question. Can you describe, in one hundred words or less, what the Australian Army looks like in 2030? What is its purpose? What does it do best, and where is it designed to best operate? Who is in it, and where do they come from? Asking this tends to stimulate some serious discussion, albeit while somewhat dodging the initial issue.

You see, what these young officers and soldiers are really asking about is the ‘strategic script’ for the Australian Army of the future. The idea of using ‘scripts’ as a tool in future strategic thinking is an old one which is currently experiencing something of a renaissance. The concept is perhaps best outlined by Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman in his book Strategy: a History. In one of the final chapters Freedman explores the value of ‘considering strategy as a story about power told in the future tense from the perspective of a leading character’.[i] Strategy, he argues, is about the art of storytelling. The best strategists, like the best dramatists, are the ones who can build the most persuasive, the most desirable, and most believable visions of the future. As if writing prose or verse, the authors of strategic scripts guide their nations (and armies) through the narratives of their future history.

If you buy Freedman’s argument, the Australian Army of the future is best viewed as a character in the unfolding plot of the 21st century Australian military. When we ask questions like ‘how amphibious should we be’, what we are really trying to do is to script the dominant features of this character - just like we would do with a human figure in a book, play or movie. In my opinion there’s nothing wrong with humanising an organisation if it helps people understand it. The Army is, after all, made up of humans. So when we look at the Army of the future, what sort of character is it? Does it swim, fly or drive to the fight? Does it work best as a team or alone? Where is it most comfortable, and where does it struggle to operate? Is it small, wily and vicious … or larger, powerful but easy to predict? Perhaps most important of all, what motivates it to fight?  

A Challenge: A One Hundred Word Strategic Script for the Australian Army

I think this is a great exercise for soldiers and officers at all levels. It forces us to go beyond the often soulless world of policy and to get to the heart of our imaginations. So at the outset of 2019 I’d like to lay down a challenge to Army’s units and schools: in one hundred words or less, what is your strategic script for the Australian Army in 2030?

While there needs to be a few ground-rules for this, there shouldn’t be too many. The one hundred words is a strict limit. It forces you to be concise; to pick each defining characteristic carefully. The Army of your future story should at least be technologically feasible, using equipment that will or could be procured and brought into service in that timeframe (perhaps fewer directed energy laser weapons or teleportation machines...). It should be demographically and culturally limited to what the Australian populace is likely to consist of at the end of the next decade. Above all it should consist of a vision that, with the right effort and passion, you believe you could guide our institution into becoming.

The Australian Army's senior leadership is seeking to help us to define these future scripts. In August 2018, the Chief of Army released a futures statement entitled Accelerated Warfare. This short document, no more than two sides in length, is set up to ‘provide the start-state for how we think, equip, train, educate, organise and prepare for war’. It sets the context for the future environment in which our ‘scripts’ will need to fight. It describes a future geopolitical environment in our near region beset by constant competition, and marked by remarkable speed and dynamism of interaction between states. The threat is real and diverse: state and non-state, evolving and swarming, with physical and digital weapons that defy borders and geography. Technology is important, but insufficient alone; instead a technological edge must be underpinned by a joint warfighting philosophy. Networks and integration are central. According to Army’s futurists, a land force fighting in this environment of accelerated warfare must be able to create access, persist and be lethal in a joint fight. This is the environment in which your character must thrive: ideal framing for a creative competition.

So, to show just how divergent and creative you might be, I offer two very different characters below as a starter for ten:

‘The Army of 2030 is small, lean and highly lethal. Optimised for high-risk, high-gain expeditionary operations, it is 30,000 strong: a hyper-professional force drawn from the top 10% of Australians. It specialises in access, forming hardened physical and digital combined-arms networks called ‘clusters’ that deploy from sea or air to penetrate, influence and destroy with precision. It is admired for its ethics, but feared for its capabilities. Diverse and creative, it moves stealthily; owning the shadows. It teams with machines to dominate the environment. It is beyond joint, and works in perfect symphony with air, sea and space power. It deters.’

‘The Army of 2030 is a powerful, hulking force of 150,000 national-service men and women. A spine of 10,000 regulars control a body of trained, part-time paramilitary forces: one of five pillars of Australian national defence. Territorial Australia is its focus, the last line should sea and air power fail. Army is the spirit of Australian resilience - when nature destroys, it repairs; when enemies come, it resists. It democratises defence, making it local, tribal, cultural. Army scans and senses, looking for discords and frictions in and near Australia. It deploys … but only as a last resort. It secures.’

Would these characters be able to defend Australia’s national interests in a future conflict in our region? I’ll leave that to you to decide.  

Imagining an Army in Motion in an Accelerated Warfare environment

The Chief of Army has stated with conviction that we need to be an ‘Army in Motion’ if we are to succeed in an accelerated warfare environment. But to be successful in motion, we need to have a mental image of where we are going. Questions like ‘how amphibious do we need to be’ are great ones. They speak to the character of an Army that we might want to be, or indeed need to be, in the future. What the Army of 2030 looks like will be defined by you, the soldiers and officers of this great national institution. The revered warrior and historian Professor Richard Holmes once wrote about doctrine that it is ‘not what is taught or published, but what is believed’.[ii] The strategic script of the Army is the same. It will become what we believe it to be. We will decide whether it creeps or swims, sneaks or shouts. We will decide what philosophy it follows, and what drives it. Above all, we will decide whether Army is to be the hero in the future story of Australian strategy, or just a tragic supporting part. It’s time to get involved.