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.
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.