Future Operating Environment

Understanding Offensive Support: An Airman Responds

By Dougal Robertson March 13, 2020

In Future Fires | A New Approach to Understanding Offensive Support, LTCOL Greg Colton brings an interesting discussion to the table. How do we quantify an effect instead of a capability, and determine the true cost of providing this effect? In relation to the self-propelled howitzer, the phrase ‘providing the best bang for buck’ is apt.

But there are some assumptions worth challenging in his paper, especially in relation to offensive support.

The first is the notion of ‘effect’. Writing in 2008 General Mattis, then Commander US JFCOM, noted that "all operating environments are dynamic with an infinite number of variables; therefore it is not scientifically possible to predict the outcome of an action." He goes on: "… the term ‘effects-based’ is fundamentally flawed, has too many interpretations, and goes against the very nature of war...".

Greg Colton uses ‘effect’ to stand in for munitions effectiveness, and the equation he selects is clear in the assessment of munitions effectiveness: massed artillery fire against specific target sets. This is not so much effects as considered in ‘effects-based operations’, rather it is the measurable effect on an enemy of offensive support. Perhaps a more concise word to replace ‘effects’ in this context would be ‘effectiveness’. Effectiveness is based on measurable outcomes – as close to science as we can get in warfare. The RAAF uses observed assessments of munitions effectiveness in the weaponeering process – we know, for example, that 50% of weapons will impact in a given area (circular area probable, CEP) and that depending on the damage mechanism, the probability of destruction (firepower, mobility and kinetic) will be a given amount. These numbers are based on empirical evidence collected since at least 1945.

But then how do quantify a capability? There is a missing link: we can quantify what we do (effectiveness) and we can qualify how we do it objectively through planning and tactics. How can we turn this into something that is measurable in relation to the ‘political object’ of war; after all ‘the political view is the object, war is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception’.[i]

A proposed formulation is to look at what outcomes are provided for a supported commander, and by extension the Australian government. This can be expressed as:

Effectiveness (Weapon System) Application Outcome

Where Application refers to the operational planning and tactical employment of the weapon system, and Outcome refers to the expected end-state. As Mattis identified at JFCOM, using an effects-based approach can be deterministic because it views the effect as happening to an adversary, but then also conflates this with friendly action. For example, a planned effect may be ‘deny’, which could be conducted by a blocking force. The expectation is that the enemy will be denied. But this assumes the enemy complies and is forced to choose this outcome. Mattis was clear that war is not so simple. We may ‘deliver’ an effect, but the outcome of that effect will always be variable because it relies on human behaviour.

Outcomes allows us to work back from the desired end-state. In our simplistic example above, the outcome the commander desires is to prevent an enemy force gaining decisive terrain. Let’s call the result of this outcome ‘1’. We can then use the effectiveness assessments (the science) with an understanding of the application of our tactics and plan (the operational art) to ensure both add up to ‘1’. This may reveal that multiple weapon system types and flexible application is required to achieve an outcome. The comparative monetary values from Roberts’ paper could be nested within the Effectiveness calculation, as opposed to making a direct link between ‘value’ and outcome.

Clearly this is a gross simplification of a complex model, but the important point is that outcomes can be measurable, while ‘effects’ are intangible. There are simply too many variables in ‘effect’ (effect simply means the result of a cause or agent) for it to be measurable.

What would this look like in the real world?

Let’s use the example of self-propelled artillery. Being unable to predict the future, we want field guns to provide offensive support in a range of hypothetical scenarios. The 2016 Defence White Paper is vague about what offensive support could be used for; noting ‘[m]ore potent strike capabilities will provide flexibility for the ADF to rapidly respond to threats against Australia and provide military contributions to support regional security and coalition operations globally where our interests are engaged’.

This will likely require the ADF to provide a credible deterrent to resist coercive behaviour by hostile states. A credible conventional deterrent would exist within the extended nuclear deterrence provided by the US. Therefore the use of offensive support for deterrence will most likely be in scenarios of limited war short of full-scale conventional conflict.

One of the most valuable factors in the application of self-propelled artillery is its survivability. A highly mobile force could provide massed fires from shore, using Army’s decades of experience in counter-ISR. Self-propelled guns can operate relatively independently and, without the threat of counter-attack from infantry or armour, the ‘footprint’ of a battery could be small. This shore battery could be deployed to key locations throughout the archipelagic regions to Australia’s north, holding any hostile amphibious assault force at risk. If the effectiveness of the weapon system was extended, such as with the M777ER – providing a similar range to the US Army HIMARS – the shore battery could then hold most maritime chokepoints in Southeast Asia at risk. Combined with RAAF ISR and RAN anti-shipping weapons, a hostile naval task group could be forced or manoeuvred into a kill-box owned by the shore battery.

Assuming (and it’s a big assumption, work with me here) that the political object allows the means of using a third-nation’s territory for offensive fires this could look a lot like an ‘anti-access and area denial’ capability. What would the outcome then be for government? A clear analysis of the effectiveness of the weapon system, which Greg Colton has done strong job of assessing, and the application of offensive fires from land to sea without the inherent cost and risk of sailing a naval task group into the ‘danger zone’. The outcome could be resisting coercive or threatening behaviour through the application of a deterrence strategy.

If we want to survive in a complex and contested world, then applying novel and new uses for the military tools at hand will lead us to success. But what we must always keep in mind is the outcome – the political object – and how that ensures the safety and security of the Australian people.


[i]       Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1.



Dougal Robertson

Dougal Robertson is a Reserve Air Force Intelligence officer and graduate of the 2013 Fighter Intelligence Instructor Course. He has deployed to East Timor, Pakistan and the Middle East and served in tactical unit, headquarters and training commands. He holds an MA in Intelligence from Macquarie University and an MA in International Relations from UNSW and now works as a consultant for Defence industry.

​​​​​​​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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