Ben Fitzgerald is Managing Director at Noetic Group. He is based in Washington, DC.
With an impending White Paper and associated questions about Australia's future capability needs, it is worth spending a few moments thinking about the capabilities of our potential adversaries. More specifically, it is worth considering this in the context of the type of deployments that Australia has actually been involved in recently and during the latter part of the twentieth century: coalition deployments against insurgent, rebel, guerrilla or otherwise 'irregular' adversaries.
Last year, the Office of the US Secretary of Defense sponsored a war game series in Washington, DC that looked at the future of urban combat against irregular adversaries. A number of interesting and useful findings were generated (a summary of the project and its findings has just been published in PRISM). A recurring theme during gameplay was the enemy's use of technology.
Much of the meaningful technological innovation for this type of warfare is occurring in the private sector, outside the influence of defence organisations. And defence capability acquisition and development processes mean that this same capability is often not available to friendly forces. While state based militaries will clearly maintain an overall technological advantage, the gap is closing, especially in the areas that matter most for our adversaries' concepts of operation.
A couple of quick examples can be seen in the war game's findings around 'adaptive capability development' and 'technology hugging'.
Adaptive capability development refers to a group's ability to acquire, re-purpose or build combat capability during the course of a conflict. While the war games took place in 2025, tangible examples of this ability can be seen in recent conflicts. These include the large scale production of improvised explosive devices in Iraq, the Tamil Tigers' ability to develop air power and submarines, the Libyan rebels' impressive workshops that have churned out a wide variety of DIY weapons (see video above), and Hezbollah's ongoing technology duel with Israel.
'Technology hugging' allows non-state actors to leverage public infrastructure that is difficult to disrupt for either technical or public interest reasons. The Taliban's recent use of GPS and Google maps to plan attacks and their use of Facebook for intelligence and targeting as well as the much discussed use of social media during the Arab Spring provide simple examples. The fact that combatants would have constant communication capability through radio, mobile phones, VoIP and email was such an implicit assumption in the war game that it didn't even rate a mention.
The Australian Army has been ahead of the curve in identifying trends and military concepts like those described above – the Army's Future Land Operating Concept provides an excellent basis for undertaking operations in the future. The key question, however, is whether Army will be given the opportunity to actually implement that concept in a meaningful manner. Strong concepts and excellent training will likely not be sufficient for dealing with technologically advanced, irregular adversaries.