2021 Cove Competition - 5th place

Within Western warfighting institutions there is a push to know oneself first, before knowing the enemy. This is part of a gradual shift from the face-to-face battles of wars past to the abstract conflicts in evidence today.

Balancing the violent nature of militaries against the soft power approaches of 'winning hearts and minds' creates a complex dichotomy for mission success.

This presents a unique problem for military strategists and politicians alike in creating a future-ready defence force. Fighting across traditional and contemporary battlespaces demands time and endless resources to invest in training, maintaining and upgrading force capabilities.

Learning to lead in this environment has presented a host of tensions between the tried, tested and true – and the increasingly convoluted battlespace of today.

Executing soft and hard power in non-linear battlespaces requires reflexive thinking to examine the wider situation. Militaries must almost be able to know the future through the past; to understand when to pull the trigger and when to exercise restraint. This hot-footing is difficult to encapsulate into policy and doctrinal responses; leaving the responsibility with leaders on the ground to know not only their immediate situation and Rules of Engagement (ROE), but also the contemporary socio-legal expectations back home and abroad.

Historically, where warfare was understood as interstate conflict with clearly defined actors, the modern warfighter is now a participant in a complex, dynamic and ever-evolving environment. The battlefront is not marked by trenches and uniforms but by non-state actors funded by hostile powers ready to enact violence at any time across any space.

In this way, the traditional function of the military, as the 'strong arm' of a state, demands the legitimate exercise of violence in the pursuit or defence of national interests. This is constrained to some extent by international governing bodies and legal frameworks that dictate how warfare can be waged, with what means, and in whose best interest. This is fundamental to legitimising state violence, whilst also giving rise to the inherent vulnerability of democracies fighting non-linear wars. With investigations into retribution killings and accusations of war crimes undermining their ability to 'win hearts and minds', states that depend on the promotion of democracy as the way of peace are hampered by ongoing perceptions of breaches in humanitarian law and the Laws of Armed Conflict.

Fighting asymmetrical warfare necessitates upholding the strictest sense of law around ROE to maintain legitimacy – whilst combatting an enemy that flouts the rules. ROE is often exploited, with stories of children sighting AS forces to be targeted, or in participants laying down weapons after an engagement in pursuit of non-combatant status. Striking the balance is hard.

Fighting such battles demands having a finger on the pulse of the local consciousness at all times, knowing when to 'win hearts and minds' and when to execute the will of the state using violent means. However, developing ethical leaders who are adept at using soft power as reflexively as hard power demands more than an understanding of emotional intelligence and personality type. Leaders must be able to wear multiple hats simultaneously and be prepared to counter traditional hard power attitudes.

Training is necessarily constrained by time, cost and expected outputs; often becoming caught in feedback loops between identified training shortfalls and cadet expectations. As such, it is often necessary to reduce complex lessons into more easily understood moralisms ('ethical' dilemmas are not, by their very nature, considered 'hard training', but this does not discount their value). Ultimately, this fails to equip future leaders with the skills necessary to pursue ethical leadership and exercise moral courage. Cadets often retreat into the safety of the masses, adopting an attitude of 'collaborate to graduate' that creates a culture of personnel seeking to not rock the boat. This sets a dangerous precedent for a military that must, at its core, fight to uphold moral and ethical values.

Current training involves facilitating emotional intelligence and social reflexivity through fatigue-based exercises designed to test moral and ethical compasses, compounded by a concerted focus on physical performance. In this way, ethical shortfalls are discarded as 'learning opportunities' rather than necessarily important failures in the application of the Laws of Armed Conflict, ROE and soft-power skills. When the focus is on outputs (numbers graduated), rather than quality, the ADF ensures ranks are filled, but doesn't accurately account for the quality or suitability of personnel outside physical performance quotas.

Trainees must master the dichotomy of state sanctioned violence against relation building to achieve organisational goals. At home, the ADF presents as an 'upstanding' and virtuous model of democracy prepared to defend a 'morally correct' way of life. In this way, so long as the ADF remains dedicated to the execution of national interests’, trainees will be required to demonstrate a thorough understanding of ethical decision-making processes within increasingly contested environments. They must be able to exercise and uphold moral convictions to retain the legitimacy of soft power skills so that efforts abroad are not undermined by inconsistent policies.

While militaries solely dedicated to warfighting are afforded clearer ROE and boundaries, they are now too deeply embedded in the broad execution of state interests during times of conflict as well as peacetime. Whether relation building, strengthening regional stability, or in the pursuit of mission success through more violent, aggressive means – leaders must be able to present a cogent strategy and united front.

When learning to lead, trainees must be willing and able to adopt frameworks by which they view situations (through hard and soft power paradigms) and be able to employ both in a way that can support warfighting in line with international law. While the Royal Military College - Duntroon has made concerted efforts to improve the ethical frameworks and legal understandings of its future leaders, there must be a continuous push; not to stray away from hard power methodologies, but to encompass ethical situations beyond the tokenistic examples of the Trolley Problem. Our nation demands more of us, and our people expect nothing less from its leaders.