The Strategic Utility of Land Power in an Australian Context

By The Cove May 16, 2019

This video is an open lecture delivered at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) by Professor Eliot Cohen, one of the world's leading experts on strategic studies. During the 30 minute presentation, Professor Cohen suggests that there is an enormous amount of combat that remains unchanged, but there are four large changes that have occurred which have implications for the future of land power:

  1. Pervasiveness of air power in modern land warfare. He reminds us that there are no current serving soldiers in militaries who truly appreciate what it is like to function in combat with a contested air space. He thinks we need to continuously remind ourselves how good we have it as we have been able to operate on the assumption of air superiority since the Korean War. He also asks us to consider whether or not this will continue to be the case.
  2. Ground warfare has been transformed by a steady set of injections of technology. There have been lots of incremental advances, but their effect is cumulative. It is suggested that ground combat is now very much about precision munition, being night-vision enabled, precision navigation, and advanced communication technologies (the majority of which are commercially available) in such volume that we have ended up with qualitative change.
  3. There has been a change in the relationship between quality and quantity in armies. He proposes that we have shifted to smaller numbers of volunteers who serve for a much longer period of time compared to previous generations. The actual fighting today, even in conscript armies, is almost always done by volunteer soldiers and officers. Additionally, there has been a change in the ethos of commanders in their approach to troops, which is only made possible by militaries that suffer relatively limited casualties. He believes we are yet to see the impact of combat stress on politicians and decision makers visiting hospitals and seeing the after affects of war that their decisions have led to.
  4. The movement of the domain of land warfare away from unpopulated areas has changed. Most ground combat is now going to occur in urban environments which is a huge change with large consequences.

Professor Cohen explains that the future of land warfare is certainly hybrid warfare. The combination of regular and irregular forces, low and high technology has meant that war is no longer declared or ended cleanly. He states we cannot rule out conventional wars or types of operation. The challenge is that we are likely to face a disparate set of threats and challenges in preparation for future conflict - so you cannot think of land power in an abstract way. He suggests that no army can cover all four areas listed above as there are not enough resources. The answer is in rediscovering the lost art of mobilisation (not in a WWI sense, but in our ability to suddenly grow new military formations rapidly). Rapid generation of impressive military power is not something we have taken seriously since the 1950s, and the challenge is that you can't ever really understand/anticipate exactly what you will need in the future. He lists two dangers for modern western forces:

  1. We are in danger from getting away from the basics of what war is about, especially by politicians and the senior military levels. Armies are fundamentally there to destroy 'things and people.' War remains a contest of wills, and that breaking the will of the 'other side' is what it comes down to. It's not just about being smarter than the opposition, it's about shattering their will and the raw determination it takes to achieve this.
  2. In resetting post war, there is a danger that routine issues take over and displace our thinking about war. It is a huge vulnerability that the military receives a lot of pressure back in barracks to focus on things that distract from their core mission.

Watch the video and share your thoughts with us about Professor Cohen's lecture, and whether or not you agree with the points he raises.



The Cove

The home of the Australian Profession of Arms.

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.

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