Lowy Institute

Debate: The ADF in public debate

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The views expressed here, based on this working paper, are the author's and do not reflect those of the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Periodically the US military is host to a robust, heated, and sometimes painful debate on the future character of war. These debates are conducted in the open, using both internal and external forums, and involve serving and retired personnel interacting with outside experts. Existing orthodoxies are not beyond challenge. Recently the focus of discussion was on whether the US Army should be orientated to wage counterinsurgency or conventional campaigns. Lately the US military has begun to consider the Air-Sea Battle concept.

By contrast, the most striking thing about the debate on the future of war in Australia is its near total absence. The ADF, it appears, is notably cautious about debating openly either its own future or the future of war. For an organisation that prides itself on its professionalism, this is surprising. Two obvious questions present themselves: why is this the case, and why is it vital to end the silence?
With regard to the first question, the members of the ADF are constrained by factors that make it nearly impossible to conduct a debate in the style of the US military. These factors can be summarised as bureaucratic, cultural and operational.

All three factors are important but the most pernicious is the bureaucratic one. The Department of Defence hierarchy has implemented policies which mean that only the soon-to-be-retired officer dares speak openly on any issue of importance to the profession of arms. Defence Instructions state the limits of external engagement, making it clear to the ranks that they are to remain on message, or even better, say nothing. The situation appears to be getting worse rather than better as Defence oversight has, if anything, intensified. 

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The organisation's tendency to focus on the tactical level of war is a further hindrance to a wide and free ranging debate on the changing character of war. As a niche force provider the ADF has seen little need to think deeply on strategy or the operational art, instead following the lead of its great power protector. While this has had practical benefits it does mean that the ADF tends not to consider the art of war from an Australian perspective.

Lastly, the ADF shares a wider societal preference that favours doers over thinkers. Those members who perceive nuances and shades or gray, who try to understand the complexities of a problem before attempting to solve it, or who display a willingness to challenge orthodoxies, are less well esteemed by the organisation than those who just get on with the job.

If the ADF is ever to gain the ability to debate the future of war it will need to overcome each of these limiting factors. Undoubtedly, this will be a difficult task. Yet it is a vital one. If the Australian military is to become a true thinking organisation, one that is capable of interpreting and adapting to the changing character of war, its members must be allowed to openly and robustly debate the future, and challenge the present. The nation deserves no less.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia


Lieutenant General David Morrison (pictured) is Chief of the Australian Army.

I am a strong supporter of discussion and debate on a wide range of issues, including the future nature of warfare; however I disagree with the thesis put forward by Dr Albert Palazzo in the latest Land Warfare Studies Centre Working Paper (ed. note: Dr Palazzo blogged about his paper on The Interpreter). There has been no stifling of debate on issues by any member in Defence or Government.  The very production of such a paper affirms that contentions can be openly aired and debated within our Army and our Defence Force.

I have made a number of public speeches since becoming Chief of Army and there has been no 'clearance' process that I have used in framing my comments, nor any direction provided to me. In fact, the amount of freedom available to me, and Army, has been heartening.

There is some necessary bureaucracy surrounding the coordination of public comment from within the Department, but this should not be misconstrued as direction or the stifling of comment – it has more to do with ensuring the Department (and Government) knows what public comment is being expressed and that it is correct.

I am all for a genuine contest of ideas on a wide range of topics and believe that any organisation that does not challenge itself will never become world class. We should be careful, however, not to base our debates on false premises.


Josh Farquhar writes:

The Chief of Army's response to Dr Palazzo's insightful and constructive comments on the lack of ADF involvement in public debate does not address Dr Palazzo's most critical point: why have senior ADF officers been so notably absent in the public debate?

Of the three factors proposed by Dr Palazzo ('bureaucratic, cultural and operational') as limiting ADF involvement, Lieutenant General Morrison effectively comments only on the first, and he merely states that Dr Palazzo is wrong without providing any substantial counter-argument. Dr Palazzo mostly points to internal disincentives and restrictions on public comment from within the ADF. He makes only limited suggestion of fault lying with government, but instead refers specifically to the 'Defence hierarchy'. It is somewhat redundant for Lieutenant General Morrison to offer that his own public comments have not been subject to clearance processes, when he is one of a handful of people at the very top of this hierarchy that Dr Palazzo suggests is at fault. 

By any reasonable measure, public contribution to strategic debate in Australia by serving military officers has been virtually non-existent. Engagement is rare even from retired senior officers, with a few notable exceptions. Important strategic issues need to be addressed, and experienced military officers should have significant value to add to the public discourse. Their limited involvement impedes the quality of debate and leaves it unbalanced. Lieutenant General Morrison's comments reinforce Dr Palazzo's question more than answer it. Why is the ADF voice missing?

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If we accept the Chief of Army's assertion that debate is not stifled from within the ADF, then there must be some other explanation for the lack of  involvement by military officers. The explanations left to choose from are not encouraging – either ADF officers are inclined to remain disengaged, or they do not have the capacity to offer valuable strategic input. If either possibility is true, then the ADF may be carrying far more significant problems than mere censorship. It may be that what Dr Palazzo generously refers to as an internal cultural preference for 'doers over thinkers' could also be described as a combination of anti-intellectualism, institutional arrogance, and lack of strategic perspective within the ADF.

While the Chief of Army claims that there is no overt censorship burdening ADF officers, he does not comment on how organisational culture might be stifling debate. In a small military where opportunities for senior officer career progression are very limited, cultural norms are extremely powerful in controlling behaviour. Serving officers might not engage publicly because it is simply not the done thing. However, it is encouraging to hear that Lieutenant General Morrison is heartened by the amount of freedom available to him to comment publicly on military matters. It will be further encouraging to see him inspire his officers to do the same.


To consider whether Josh Farquhar is right when he says it is difficult for serving military officers to enter into professional military debate, it is worth analysing the ADF's rules on writing and speaking publicly. This is covered in the Defence Instruction (General) Admin 08-1, Public comment and dissemination of official information by Defence personnel. This 5 year-old document (positively ancient in this information age) notes that although Defence encourages public engagement, 'all public engagement is to be carefully managed'.

There are three reasons current policy is stifling professional debate. Firstly, the process by which Defence 'carefully manages' public comment involves overly centralised clearance of speeches, books, and essays written by Defence personnel.

The process can be lengthy and discouraging. In 2011 a senior naval officer gave a private address to a Lowy Institute naval conference. His speech was brilliant, informative, entertaining and not the least bit controversial. We asked him to submit it for clearance so that we could publish it. Six months later he was still waiting for clearance, and for all I know he may still be waiting.

The second problem is the definition of what information does and does not need to be officially cleared for release. DI (G) Admin 08-1 defines 'official information' as information an officer acquires through the course of being in the military, and which is either 'likely to be sensitive to policy, strategic or operational security issues' or 'may reasonably be foreseen to be prejudicial to Defence's reputation'.

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This is an extremely broad definition, and given how cautious Defence has traditionally been to media coverage, it is likely that almost any public discussion could be viewed as sensitive to policy or strategic issues. Combine this with a culture in which, as Josh rightly identifies, there is little reward for articulating an idea in public, and it is possible to understand why so few Defence personnel make public comments.

The third point is that the ADF's regulations on public comment are much more stifling than those of our allies. The US Air Force offers detailed rules of engagement to its personnel to encourage them to blog. US Army public affairs policy details twenty categories of official information that require clearance (ie. opsec, electronic warfare, casualty information, significant military operations), rather than just 'anything likely to be sensitive'.

In fact, US military policy states that 'senior commanders and staff officers are expected to discuss military matters within their purview with news media representatives'. The regulations explicitly state that military students 'and think tank-type organisation members may publish articles without the standard review and clearance process. This is in the interest of academic freedom and the advancement of national defence-related concepts and to stimulate debate on strategic Army issues'.

The reality is that Australian generals have less freedom for professional public debate than Chinese generals. And as Albert Palazzo rightly pointed out, this is having an tangible impact on the ADF's effectiveness as a fighting force.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.


Hugh Smith, a former lecturer at RMC Duntroon and ADFA, writes:

Al Palazzo's article on why ADF voices are largely absent from strategic debate in this country is important. It draws attention to a major weakness in the public discussion of Australian defence and security and indicates a marked contrast with the freedom of expression enjoyed by military personnel in the US and to some extent the UK. The Chief of Army's response is also important for what it reveals about certain ingrained attitudes toward open debate of controversial issues.

My one criticism of the Palazzo paper is that – perhaps unavoidably – it ignores the elephant in the room, namely the political factor. Thanks to the adversarial nature of Australian politics, defence ministers are reluctant to see serving officers express any views that are even slightly critical of or divergent from prevailing policy. They will be seized upon by the Opposition – and probably the media – as evidence of the 'failure' of government policy or of 'discontent' in the ranks. Senior members of the ADF understand this; and they understand that ministers will not be happy if they express controversial views in public or permit subordinates to express such opinions.

Nothing is put in words so that any policy of censorship can be denied. But anyone who has had a long association with the ADF, as I have since 1971 as a UNSW academic at RMC Duntroon and ADFA, will be familiar with the phenomenon.

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The response by the Chief of Army, General Morrison, uses a phrase that is highly revealing. He is willing to see military personnel publicise their views provided that 'the Department (and Government) knows what public comment is being expressed and that it is correct'. But why does Government need to know in advance every statement that every officer might make to the media? The reason is obvious and the consequences clear.

General Morrison then insists that public comment should be 'correct'. What this means is not just that factual mistakes should be avoided but that controversial views must be suppressed. Yet debate about important issues does not deal in 'correct' and 'incorrect' views. Certainly, some facts may be correct or incorrect – such as how many submarines the ADF has – but why we need submarines, the sort of roles they should perform, whether 6 or 12 would be adequate, the appropriate level of spending on such platforms and so on are issues on which there is no 'correct' or 'incorrect' view.

In any serious dialogue about major defence issues, divergent views are inevitable and desirable. And such views need to be expressed and debated by those who have thought seriously about them – including, but not limited to, military personnel. Something as broad and uncertain as the future of war – which Al Palazzo's article focused on – is above all one in which a wide range of informed views should be heard.

The suggestion that the ADF may not have the 'intellectual horsepower' (Sir Arthur Tange's phrase) to discuss major defence and security issues is one I would discount, in part again from personal experience. After UNSW introduced the Master of Defence Studies at ADFA in 1987 a large number of middle-level ADF officers enrolled part-time in a range of courses. This was a long-awaited opportunity for them to study and learn and they proved an outstanding group. I taught two courses – one on ethics, law and war, and one on armed forces and society. The level of debate in class was high and discussion animated with divergent views on most matters. Colleagues teaching other masters courses were similarly impressed.

One of the points made by Dr Anthony Bergin and myself in a recent study of professional military education (ASPI Special Report no. 48, August 2012) was that there is no real opportunity for ADF personnel to publicly demonstrate their intelligence and expertise – in contrast to every other profession. We suggested the ADF create a journal with a high degree of editorial independence that would be a forum for debate about major defence issues. Contributions would come from all quarters but well-argued critical articles from ADF personnel would be particularly welcomed. My suggestion is that it should be launched by the Minister for Defence.

This may be too much to expect but there is a precedent, albeit limited. A few years ago an enlightened Commandant at ADFA designated a part of the campus bounded by the library, bookshop, coffee shop and IT centre as a 'non-saluting area' where all could meet in a more or less non-hierarchical fashion. Perhaps a professional military journal could become another 'non-saluting area'.


Wing Commander Brian Dirou, DFC (Retired) responds to a debate we hosted in August of last year:

Post-ADF formation in 1974, there was a mass exodus of personnel with embedded traditional military ethos and combat experience. Very counter-productive age/rank related mandatory retirement also fostered a detrimental loss of operating level experience, from Lieutenant Colonel equivalent downwards. Combat experience from WW2 onwards now rests principally within the retired military community and only Iraq and Afghanistan involvements since could reasonably be considered significant operational experience for some segments of the ADF.

It is not uncommon for those who had credible combat experience to say they disagreed with reports compiled by their commanders regarding operational activities. Unfortunately, much official military history is predicated on such reporting with a dearth of first-hand accounts from the operating level. It is fair to say that not all those who have climbed to the top ranks would have their views supported by the retired military community at large.

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Creation of a journal for defence discussion has been mooted by some, but that would only foster the usual scholarly approach to defence debate with pretty narrow distribution largely involving those virtually professionally involved in that field. The majority of the retired military community will mostly steer away from formal writing and any dialogue that they perceive might be tempered somewhat by political correctness; but they will be more inclined to make frank worthy contributions to freer debates in blog-style forums. Such mediums of course need to be appropriately moderated, although necessarily be somewhat less restrictive than the process adopted by this fine institution at present.

The Lowy Institute is a breath of fresh air providing quality debate lacking in other forums; but it could serve the nation even better by adopting a less scholarly process for dialogue to attract participation from all levels of the retired military community, wherein there remains an invaluable reservoir of combat experience for which there is no substitute.