The Way Ahead for the ADF: Mastering the Art of Warfare

By Robbin Laird

John Conway was the moderator for the recent Williams Foundation seminar on the integrated networked force. Recently, I was able to discuss his thoughts on the seminar as well as his perspective on the upcoming September 2022 seminar as well.

In my own work on the strategic transition, indeed in many ways a strategic shock, from the Middle Eastern land wars to engage in warfare with 21st century authoritarian powers, I have emphasized to two integrated elements in shaping a way ahead. On the one hand, with regard to the warfighting piece, the need to distribute the force for survivability is combined with the requirement to integrate the force to get the kind of combat and crisis management effect necessary to prevail in a crisis. On the other hand, there is no point in having such a capability if the civil side of government has limited crisis management skills. It is about the use of military power in the context of successful mastery of the art of crisis management.

In my discussion with Conway, he made a similar argument, but in his terms, it is the requirement to be able to master the art of warfare, not just simply having governments fund advanced warfighting skill sets.

This is how he put it: “We have demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq that we are good at warfighting, but we are not so good at warfare. And I think we have a generation of generals and politicians who only know war fighting. They don’t understand that there is a significant difference between warfighting and warfare.”

If we indeed focus on the art of warfare, the key focus is upon how to get the crisis management effect we need; not simply engaging in ongoing warfighting and positioning for warfighting. And this means in turn, that the focus for the ADF or its allies is not simply providing balanced funding for the joint force, but prioritizing investments and training to shape a force with the most lethal effect and with most useful impact on advancing the art of warfare for the liberal democracies.

In this sense, the role of airpower is notably important for the ADF or its allies. And the reason for this is the capability of airpower to operate flexibly, rapidly and decisively. This is how Conway put it: “Force packaging is a key element in the way ahead in the art of warfare. We’ve got to start thinking about sophisticated force packaging options, which are going to exploit the kill webs that you talk about. And then the land, or let’s call it the surface because it’s not just land, it’s land and sea. The surface is important because it’s about basing. Whether it’s a ship, whether it’s a carrier, on on land it’s an airfield. We need basing and logistics for this next war. And that’s not a narrative that lots of people want to hear.”

Conway felt that the March seminar provided an opportunity for both the ADF and international speakers to do a stock taking with regard to where the ADF and its allies are with regard to force development and evolution. He underscored the following: “When we introduced the fifth-generation narrative it was in a world different from now. We were operating in the Middle East from sanctuary bases. We are now in a situation where we need to focus on the survivability of our bases and platforms, and to find ways to generate lethality despite such challenges. And this perspective clearly came through during the seminar.”

He argued that integration for the sake of integration, in terms of the joint force, was not the correct focus. “We need integration, but we need to be thinking about the hard power options for the defense force. Long-range strike is a key element of where we need to go and that capability may or may not be fully integrated; but delivering the effect is critical to the art of warfare in the current and evolving context. And that is a key focus for the next seminar which will be upon enhanced lethality for the ADF. We understand that we’re going to have to integrate because we’re a relatively small force. Integration is not an end in itself; it’s the means to an end. What we’re actually talking about now is outcomes, which are linked to clear political objectives.”

As the ADF moves forward, Conway discussed the “triangle of tradeoffs” for development of the force, namely, lethality, survivability and affordability. It is not about investing in balanced force development for its own sake; rather investments need to be directed to those elements of the ADF which can deliver lethality and survivability at the most affordable cost.

In such a context, advanced training is critical and as such will provide a key focus for discussion in the September seminar. As he put it: “Within a limited budget, you’ve now got to think really, really hard about survivability. And you’ve got to think really hard about preparedness and that links to the training piece that we’ll get to in the next seminar.

“And we’ve now got an adversary, who is making us spend more and more money on survivability. We’d rather spend money on lethality, but they’re making us spend money on survivability because they’re becoming increasingly sophisticated, because it’s coming harder and harder to survive. And this is driving up the cost of survivability. But one way of mitigating that risk is getting your training systems right. And being able to fight the best fight with what you’ve got and invest in warfare rather than just war fighting.”

John Conway

John is the owner and Managing Director of Felix, an independent company providing specialist capability development, operational analysis, and creative services to Defence since 2017.

He was previously a business development and strategy executive with Raytheon Australia specialising in air combat integration, electronic warfare, advanced weapons systems, test and training ranges, and integrated air and missile defence.

John retired from the Royal Air Force as a Group Captain in 2010 having served 24 years in a number flying, staff and senior command roles. His operational experience on F4 Phantom and Tornado F3 aircraft included Cold War Europe, the South Atlantic, the Balkans, and the Middle East.

He commanded the United Kingdom’s largest Permanent Joint Operating Base at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus between 2005 and 2008 enabling the airbridge into Iraq and Afghanistan, and supporting strategic ISR operations in the eastern Mediterranean. He attended the United States Marine Corps Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course and the Australian Advanced Command and Staff Course.

For two recent books which we published which focus on advanced training, see the following: