Operational Art

Time for a new approach to war? A case for adopting the Kill Chain concept.

By Thomas Basan January 2, 2020

Is it time for a new approach to war?

Each war represents an isolated case with its own unique character; one that requires an understanding of its own peculiar logic. While there is a temptation to apply ‘one-size-fits-all’ models and guides, critical thinking is the key to understanding and determining the forms and methods open to a threat force.[1] One of the main methods used by recent adversaries is targeted strikes at key points or against key systems[2] anywhere on the globe. Current thinking within the Army (and wider ADF) indicates that we are in an epoch of ‘accelerated warfare’ whereby a plethora of state and non-state entities act in cooperation, collaboration, competition and conflict, often simultaneously across and within domains[3], throughout an action space. The shear breadth of actions occurring, and the limited forces or systems available to professional forces[4], necessitates the need for precise actions that are focused, modulated and redirected to achieve the Australian Government’s objectives. Combining the emergent security epoch, pervasive surveillance, and the proliferation of precision navigation systems (which are capable of being fitted to almost any weapon or munition), offers the possibility of a shift to a ‘target treatment’ paradigm. Targets are prolific while engagement systems are sparse. Therefore, targeting is a better approach to deal with threats in the unique circumstances of the current military epoch.

Current doctrine

The ADF's current doctrinal approach to the use of military power does not suit the current epoch. ADDP-D states that the ADF’s approach to achieving the Government’s objectives is a combination of manoeuvre, interoperability, networking and decision support. Surprisingly, neither precise nor massed fires (kinetic or non-kinetic targeting) are referenced in the ADF’s approach to the range of threats within the Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic, Spiritual and Sporting (DIMESS[5]) conceptual framework. Environmental, operational and conceptual considerations emerging from the acceptance and analysis of accelerated warfare point to the need to shift to a targeting frame of reference.

In ADF doctrine, manoeuvre[6] is the core concept underpinning the application of force. Manoeuvre is focused on achieving precise application of decisive efforts against identified critical vulnerabilities. Critical vulnerabilities are those elements that are targetable and which if ‘damaged’ contribute to undermining the adversary's capacity to act. The overall idea is to expend the least effort for the most gain. Interoperability defines the extent of the integration and cooperation within ADF and non-ADF systems. Interoperability primarily deals with the interfaces between disparate physical, cognitive and machine systems to remove friction, while optimising resource consumption to achieve an objective. Decision superiority has almost taken centre stage within the world of capability development, with the current suite of personal, electronic and political networks aiming to increase certainty, predominantly through the development of a sophisticated national intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system. Yet a doctrinal link bringing all the elements together in an ADF ‘engagement or fires grid’ remains lacking. This is perhaps surprising, since the idea of network-centric warfare originated from at least 1996, when Admiral W. Owens introduced the concept of a 'system of systems' in a paper published by the Institute for National Security Studies[7], a concept which was reflected in the ADF's Force 2020 paper. Having the best situational awareness seems meaningless without engagements systems that can act on the resulting observations.

Targeting versus manoeuvre 

To action the stated approach, ADF doctrine (beginning at ADDP-D) contains two unsynchronised core concepts; one ‘manoeuvre’ and the other ‘fires’ (either kinetic or non-kinetic) - or more precisely ‘targeting’. Of the two concepts, manoeuvre is often very vaguely described and very often used as a synonym for ‘movement’. In comparison, ‘targeting’ provides a highly structured concept (targets, sensors, controllers, effectors) with precise language, rules, databases[8], processes and procedures. Targeting is also supported by specific targeting courses[9] and units[10]. Using a targeting frame provides a robust common lens or scaffold to view threats, actions and capability development. Targeting also provides a fractal view; regardless of force echelon, organisation or the type or level of the operation, action or activities occurring. But without an understanding of targets, targeting is ineffective.

The core idea of targeting is that any ‘entity’ can become a target, to be treated with kinetic or non-kinetic systems in accordance with the Laws of Armed Conflict[11], to compel the enemy's earliest surrender. ADDP 3.14 para 1.3 and 1.4 state: 'A target is an entity or object that can be subjected to an effect.' Doctrine goes on to state: 'The desired effect to be generated from taking action against a target is designed to contribute to an operation. A target is considered for actions such as capture, exploit, influence, neutralise or destroy. Targets may include a geographic area, an installation, a force, equipment, an individual, a group or an entire system. Targets relate to military objectives at all levels—strategic, operational and tactical. The importance of a target is determined by how the action against it supports achieving the commander’s objectives.’

ADDP 3.0 Campaigning and Operations contains 102 references to manoeuvre, 14 to targeting and three to fires, which indicates a doctrinal preference. Unfortunately, both manoeuvre and targeting are absorbed into the concept of ‘force application’ (ADDP 3.0 para 3.93-3.127). Though force application is a ‘subsuming concept’, its description contains little rigour, detail or description on how they are brought together. Force application essentially relies on the attributes of manoeuvre and targeting for its definition, body of knowledge and operating envelope. Doctrinally ‘targeting’ is relegated as a support schema or system (ADDP 3.0 para 5.84). Targeting and fires as ‘support’ is ingrained, especially in the Army where ‘fires’ or artillery are consigned to the ‘combat support’ function and illogically called ‘offensive support’[12], while ‘manoeuvre’ is claimed by infantry and armour in particular. For a long time our attention and effort has been focused on moving safely due to the complexity of navigation. But now with precise navigation systems we can shift to what ‘actions need to occur’ to compel an enemy to comply with our objectives.

Current approach to targeting

Targeting has been embraced by RAAF intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and combat/strike elements. Some RAN and Australian Army elements also use the joint/service targeting cycles. Within the joint arena, information operations has also embraced targeting. The application of kinetic and/or non-kinetic fires on a target is described in detail in ADDP 3.1, ADFP 3.1.1, ADDP 3.14, ADFP 3.14.1, and ADFP 3.14.2; and ADP 3.13, ADFP 3.13.1 and ADDP 3.13.2[13]. Additionally, fires and targeting doctrine is tightly coupled to, and reliant on, the Intelligence and Security Series of pamphlets.

Within the Army, the targeting system has traditionally been ‘owned’ by the fires elements. Initially this was mainly the preserve of the artillery, but increasingly mortars and combat aviation are embracing the concept. Historically, (at least since 1915/16), the fires system has run parallel to the manoeuvre system. The sophisticated fire systems of WW1 were developed to help the allies ‘break the stalemate’ in the west, while in the east, the central powers focused on the breakthrough. For the allies, a combination of accurate survey and target identification in both breadth and depth resulted in indirect and predicted fires matched to ‘bite and hold’ tactics. These tactics required close synchronisation of fires with the assault in order to subsequently defeat the inevitable central power's counterattacks. Meanwhile, the central powers, who initiated and perfected the development of sophisticated fire tactics, focused on creating a gap sufficient for deep manoeuvre to occur. In the east, the central powers were able to destroy Russia, while in the west they just missed collapsing the allies, before themselves collapsing from exhaustion.

Since WW2, and as a result of Australian operations, actions and activities in South East Asia, the Middle East and recently in South Asia, the art and material of the earlier fires system have atrophied. But with the emerging appreciation of the needs of the accelerated warfare epoch, the fire and manoeuvre balance has manifested as friction. This friction has occurred due to the target treatment options, which range from influence through capture to destruction. The range of actions essentially combine manoeuvre (eg capture) and fires (eg destruction) without the unifying approach to target treatment. In addition, the overlapping responsibilities of both the operations and effects coordination centres in our headquarters has also created friction. This arguably affects the speed and quality of decisions.[14]

In Afghanistan, our special forces (a manoeuvre element) embraced targeting, while the conventional forces had no need, since they were largely consigned to guarding bases which were rarely seriously threatened. Special forces incorporated targeting into their skillset through the adoption of the concept of a ‘kill chain’. The use of the kill chain methodology was required as our special forces increasingly work closely with US, European and other special forces. The kill chain concept proved to be ideal for identifying threats, tracking those threats down and destroying the individuals and/or cells in what are often described as ‘targeted strikes’; generally with minimal collateral damage. The idea of a kill chain (F2T2EA[15], F3EAD and its variants) as part of targeting originated in the USAF under the guidance of Air Force General J. Jumper[16] (in the late 1990s) as an outgrowth of time sensitive or dynamic targeting (themselves outgrowths from the full and long-winded targeting cycle, though some argue that the late 1980s Soviet concept of a reconnaissance-strike complex was the real precursor). As General Jumper saw it, the core of the targeting process is the application of kinetic and non-kinetic weapons against targets through a kill chain of sensors, controls and effectors, whose efficiency and effectiveness can be measured. And it logically follows that the efficiency and effectiveness of the kill chain provides a solid measure of a force’s preparedness to act on defined target sets. In some respects, the approach should sit comfortably within an Army that had much experience in small group ‘search, destroy and clear’ operations in Malaysia and Vietnam, where forces were focused on probable threats (targets) within their operating areas, rather than being everywhere.

Future doctrinal opportunities

While the concepts of targeting and kill chains are now widely known, they are neither deeply integrated in our organisational psyche or seen as a core or unifying idea that guides planning[17], preparedness, operations or development. The result in a missed opportunity to better align the ADF with the accelerated warfare epoch; an epoch which seems to require increasingly precise application of force on a target or target sets in highly modulated[18] operations, actions and activities within interleaving strategic cooperation, collaboration, competition and conflict phases. We’ve entered an era where kill chains are showing every sign of predominating in both the physical and electromagnetic realms. Conceptually, to make the most of our capabilities, targeting will need to be embraced as the single unifying concept, and that embrace should manifest in the centrality of the kill chain in force design, force development and preparedness assessment. A focus on the kill chain would naturally provide the evidence for the removal of wasteful and redundant elements, and the addition of the missing, neglected or un-favoured elements, to ensure that the kill chain is as compressed and potent as possible. Compression will require the need to achieve decision superiority through faster, higher quality and more precise decision making (Boyd cycling) and actions. A sophisticated, omnipresent and layered multi-spectral observation system will be essential to find and track targets. Additionally, a modulated logistics system, which has logistics velocity and delivery volume determined by the requirements of the system rather than as an afterthought, will ensure that the system is in balance and effectors optimised.

To realise the centrality of targeting as our unifying concept requires a conceptual embrace, doctrinal rewrites, comprehensive DIMESS target sets, and the need for the development of modulated targeting courses for all leaders, planners and developers. To support operations, plans must focus on the application of kinetic and non-kinetic kill chains against probable hard and soft targets to achieve the political objectives contained in planning guidance. Capability development will need to draw on extant plans and develop future plans[19] to optimise kill chains against target sets and evolve them over time for the ‘operators’ (at either joint force or operational commands) to execute. Analysis of both target sets and kill chain performance will provide a robust approach that expose ‘gaps and opportunity’ for correction through subsequent effort and investment, rather than the current parochial wish-list or by guessing. The current gaps and opportunities approach relies too heavily on perceived risk and not enough on accurate measures of performance against real threats. Risk would be better served by weighing up each kill chain’s investment, rather than use the extant, ad hoc sub-systems investment strategy. However, the most important immediate aspect requiring attention is the perfection of measures to optimise the kill chains; measures that strive to ensure they perform as intended. 'Ready now' or 'future ready' should therefore be driven by the performance assessment of complete kill chains against target sets identified in the appropriate operational plans or strategic warning problems.

Targeting in the age of accelerated warfare

Recently, the ADF has identified a shift in military epoch through the embrace of accelerated warfare. Historically, there has been greater emphasis on manoeuvre over targeting. To a large extent this has been because of the difficulty in movement management. Consideration of the epochal shift, and the advent of precision navigation technologies, allows the ADF to shift to a ‘target treatment’ paradigm which better matches the unique circumstances of the current military epoch. The initial shift to embrace targeting as the unifying concept is possible, without radical change, through the refinement of the extant targeting doctrine, training packages and equipment sets. However, targeting know-how has to be adjusted to rank and trade, and then embedded in all force elements[20]. Combining the adoption and promulgation of the concept with capability development efforts that fill gaps and take opportunities to optimise the kill chains could generate powerful tools for the Australian Government. With the kill chains in place, preparedness and development staff can identify and apply performance measures that compress the kill chain, ensure the speed and quality of our decisions and actions, and provide the logistic velocity that increase the first strike damage probability, while reducing the need for restrike against a chosen target. Subsequent learning and feedback can be used to further help optimise the system with the ultimate aim of securing an advantage over the adversary.


Howard, M., & Paret, P., 1976/84, (translation), Clausewitz, C., von, Vom Kriege, Dummlers Verlag, Berlin, 1832 Princeton University Press.

Owens, William A. (February 1996). "The Emerging U.S. System-of-Systems". Strategic Forum. Institute for National Strategic Studies.


ADDP-D Foundation of Australian Military Doctrine

ADDP 06.4 Laws of Armed Conflict

ADDP 3.0 Campaigning and Operations (AL1 2013

ADDP 3.1 Joint Fires 2018

ADFP 3.1.1 Joint Fires and Effects Procedures 2018

ADDP 3.14 Targeting 2018

ADFP 3.14.1 Targeting Assessment Procedures 2018

ADFP 3.14.2 Targeting Procedures 2018

ADP 3.13 Information Activities 2013

ADFP 3.13.1 Information Operations Procedures 2018

ADDP 3.13.2 Military Public Affairs

Australian Contingency Context Scenarios (ACCS)


Australian Defence Glossary, Exact match, LWD 3-3-1; ADG accessed 30/10/2019 10:52AM


Department of Defence, Force 2020, 2002

Department of Defence, Army, Infantry Plan 2028, Royal Australian Infantry Corps Foundation Document 2019


Mike Benitez (May 17, 2017). It’s About Time: The Pressing Need to Evolve The Kill Chain, https://warontherocks.com/2017/05/its-about-time-the-pressing-need-to-evolve-the-kill-chain/ accessed 30/09/2019 10:52AM


www.clausewitz.com/readings/Cquotations.htm, accessed 01/11/2019, 2:41PM


Major Stephen Wagener and Dan Cassidy were instrumental in the development of this paper. Without their encouragement, thoughts and critique, this paper would not have been written.

End Notes

[1] Howard, M., & Paret, P., 1976/84, (translation), Clausewitz, C., von, Vom Kriege, Dummlers Verlag, Berlin, 1832 Princeton University Press. “No one starts a war--or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so--without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” (Makes a similar statement in Book 1, Chapter 1) www.clausewitz.com/readings/Cquotations.htm, accessed 01/11/2019, 2:41PM

[2] Globally, spiritual targets have also be struck by internal and external protagonists, as part of their spiritual or ideological struggle against primarily Christian states.

[3] Domains are usually described in physical terms, this epoch in being fought in Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic, Spiritual and Sporting spaces.

[4] Professional forces are many government’s tool of choice for declared operations, activities and actions. Professionals are often augmented with ‘cheap’ proxies (militias, mercenaries etc) rather that calling for the mobilisation of reservists.

[5] Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic, Spiritual and Sporting. Spirituality is a new battle ground, given the rise in atheism and paganism. While Sport is a global phenomenon which has at times been seen as a surrogate for war. Consequently, the traditional DIME model needs expansion.

[6] Employment of forces on the battlefield through movement in combination with fire, or fire potential, to achieve a position of advantage in respect to the adversary in order to accomplish the mission. Australian Defence Glossary, Exact match, LWD 3-3-1; ADG accessed 30/10/2019 10:52AM

[7] Owens, William A. (February 1996). "The Emerging U.S. System-of-Systems". Strategic Forum. Institute for National Strategic Studies.

[8] Modified Integrated Database hold regional target sets and key targeting information which is regularly updated.

[9] Targeting courses are regularly run by the ADFWC, Williamtown.

[10] Targeting units include for example: RAAF 460 Sqn, commando elements and JTAC FE. Even artillery could be thought of as a targeting unit.

[11] ADDP 06.4 Laws of Armed Conflict. Military force is applied to legitimate targets (combatants, equipment and installations) based on necessity, avoidance of unnecessary suffering and proportionality to compel an opponent’s submission at the soonest moment through partial or total destruction, capture or neutralisation.

[12] No one knows where the ‘defensive support system’ is.

[13] I have deliberately left information operations manual off the list.

[14] Anecdotal evidence from umpires, observers and practitioners.

[15] Find, Fix, Track, Target, Exploit, Assess (F2T2EA) is one of the most used models.

[16] Mike Benitez (May 17, 2017). It’s About Time: The Pressing Need to Evolve The Kill Chain, https://warontherocks.com/2017/05/its-about-time-the-pressing-need-to-evolve-the-kill-chain/ accessed 30/09/2019 10:52AM

[17] Shifting to a targeting frame

[18] Highly modulated in terms of DIMES

[19] The Australian Contingency Context Scenarios (ACCS) should be developed with sufficient fidelity that by epoch they can be turned over to operational commands as the latest plans. Plans which will be used to measure preparedness.

[20] Infantry Plan 2028, Royal Australian Infantry Corps Foundation Document 2019, p 21



Thomas Basan

Major Thomas BASAN enlisted in January 1980. As a soldier and NCO, MAJ BASAN served in 2/4 RAR and SASR. On commissioning, MAJ BASAN commanded paratroopers in 3 RAR at platoon, specialist platoon and company. MAJ BASAN is a graduate of ACSC and ATSOC and has a master’s in systems engineering. In later years, MAJ BASAN served in Future Land Warfare, AHQ; Land Development Branch and the Australian Defence Test and Evaluation Organisation, CDG; Brigade Major, 13 Brigade and Preparedness, AHQ. He is currently employed within Land Capability Development, AHQ.

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 author’s reference to targeting in Afghanistan and specifically the grossly inaccurate statement on the role of conventional forces cannot go unchallenged. As CO 7 RAR BG (MRTF-1) in the period Oct 08 to Jun 09, I can personally attest that the ANA mentoring mission involved much more than the author’s false assertion. This extends to the employment of targeting methodologies that are inherent in our doctrine and by extension employed in this mission by our and subsequent Battle Groups. To suggest otherwise is not just wrong - it is deeply offensive to the officers and soldiers I had the privilege to serve with and the memory of those who died in the conduct of this mission.

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