Sporting Metaphors and Defense Strategic Thinking

By Trav Hallen

The contest of ideas needed to drive Australian military concepts and capabilities into the future can take many forms. Unfortunately, most debate occurs in small groups, is cloistered away in hard-to-find directories, and, when it is available in open forums, can take the form of jargon-laden officialese, or be laced with academic/strategic shibboleths. This does not need to be the case.

In this post, Central Blue editor Trav Hallen highlights the diversity of sources and styles that can be used to move the military debate one mark at a time.

The single hardest challenge for the editors of The Central Blue is generating the quality and quantity of content that will spark and engage the interest of Australian military professionals. Over the past few years, I believe we have established a reputation as the go-to air power blog in Australia. This is because we have been successful in publishing a diversity of articles covering a range of topics from differing perspectives. But the reality is submissions are drying up.

The question is why?

The diminishing number of submissions stands in stark contrast to the growing interest in and promotion of professional military education in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Efforts to improve education within the ADF have led directly to improvements in the quality and quantity of debate within and across the three services. There is no better evidence of this than the number of serving Australian military officers that are published internationally in books onmilitary ethics,air power, andstrategy.

We are creating better thinkers, strategists, staff officers, and operational artists; however, the majority of us are blind to their insights, arguments, and challenges as they are not engaging in the public forums that maximise their exposure.

Instead, while there is undoubtedly a significant increase in the quality and quantity to staff work that is being moved around the offices of Russell for the edification of the few, the broader professional community remain largely ignorant of the intellectual investments powering the ADF forward.

Every staff paper, speech, and brief that remains buried in network folders represents a lost opportunity to inspire the intellect, stimulate the curiosity, and gain the insight of an increasingly engaged professional military community. To be sure, not every brief can nor should be made available to a broad audience.

But the necessities of security should not obscure the possibilities of wider engagement. Indeed, this broader engagement may actually be an important dimension of the staff process. As current Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies, stated in his interview with the editors of The Central Blue:

I need Air Force people to engage in these discussions because the ideas on how we are going to execute the Air Force Strategy and position our Air Force to meet the challenges of the future can come from anywhere and anyone. Moreover, the strongest ideas are those that have been most thoroughly tested – and public discussion is the most competitive arena for ideas.

The main aim of this post is to provide an example of staff work that may have remained resigned the oblivion of a database were it not for the existence of The Central Blue as an outlet. Additionally, it highlights that engagement in the so-called‘contest of ideas’ need not be in the form of stuffy, academic prose or form. In fact, debate, discussion, and interest can be generated just as effectively through a light-hearted take on contemporary issues as with a more serious article.

What follows is a modified version of a speech I gave as the Master of Ceremonies at the 2019 Royal Australian Air Force Washington Ball. In attendance at the Ball were civilians, public servants, industry representatives, and Australian, American, and foreign military personnel from the rank Airman First Class through to four-star General. The aim of the speech was to draw attention to how different cultures can provide ways to view similar problems. More specifically, it took the American military predilection for the use of sporting metaphors to describe military concepts and provided an Australian spin. It is presented here to hopefully continue the debate that started that evening: Are Australian sporting metaphors a useful tool for creating ‘human-inspired dilemmas’ for our future adversaries?

Australian contributions to creating human-inspired dilemmas for future adversaries

Militaries in both the United States and Australia have identified that they can no longer hope to maintain a competitive edge over potential adversaries through technological solutions alone. Future success will not depend solely on who has the most advanced system, but rather on who can use their available capabilities to create the most effective and insurmountable strategic, operational, and tactical dilemmas for their opponent. Australia has been proactive and forward-leaning in ensuring that it can lead and contribute to the type of allied and coalition efforts that can win in future operations by cognitively overwhelming a future adversary. We Australians have, however, also been guilty of placing a heavy emphasis on the military systems themselves.

I would like to propose that we can take on a greater share of the allied burden by developing and implementing new and novel ways to confuse and cognitively overwhelm any potential adversaries.

It is a proposal that was inspired by a talk given by the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force (USAF), General David Goldfein at theBrookings Institution earlier this year.

In that talk, General Goldfein spoke of the F-35 as the ‘quarterback’ of the joint force.

That got me thinking: One way in which we Australians can share the burden for the future fight is by providing the United States access to Australian sporting metaphors to describe their military and strategic concepts.

You see the problem at the moment is that the United States military has become dependant on the widespread use of American sports metaphors to explain military concepts.

But these metaphors are so well understood that any potential adversary is left in no doubt as to what the United States is thinking or planning to do.

For example, if a USAF general were to say that the United States was going to ‘throw the adversaries a curveball’. Said adversary would know to expect the unexpected. If, however, the same general were to say in a public forum that she planned to ‘bowl the adversary ayorker’, I’m quite confident the adversary would have absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about, and as such, they would not know what to expect. Advantage the United States.

This type of proposal has the obvious drawback that it would not work if the United States were to go to war against the British,which is not unheard of.

So in the spirit of carrying our weight in assisting the alliance in sowing confusion among our future foes, I offer you some initial thoughts on Australian sporting metaphors that the United States may choose to use, or not, sometime in the future.

Instead of saying we need to stop responding to an adversary in a conventional way, and instead need to create new and challenging dilemmas for them, we could say: ‘We have to stop playing them with a straight bat. What we need to do is bowl them some googlies, full-tosses, yorkers, and grubbers. That should put them on a sticky wicket’.

To highlight how confusing this would be for any potential non-cricket playing adversary, the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary defines a googly as: ‘An off-break with a leg-break action.’The adversary has no hope.

From Netball:

Instead of talking of areas or capabilities where an adversary is weak or vulnerable, we can instead refer to specific capabilities as being theirWing Defence. To quote Australian comedianTommy Little:

Wing Defence is easily the most unco position on the court. If you’ve got a [player] that can’t catch, chuck [them] in Wing Defence. If you’re one short, just play without Wing Defence, we won’t notice.

And finally, Australian Rules Football:

Let us be honest, the modern and future battlespace will not resemble the conduct of an American Football game, with its specialised teams brought on to and off the field in an orderly manner to play their discrete plays. Rather, it will more likely reflect the pandemonium of an Australian Rules game, where the action is constant and what occurs off the ball is as important as what occurs on the ball.

We need a range of players that are adaptable and can operate across the full field of conflict. From our own back pocket, and back through the corridor or around the flanks into the forward pockets. We cannot afford to play end-to-end footy, we need to be disciplined, seeking uncontested possession, taking speckies, and shooting from outside the 50. And most importantly, as we close into the end game, we need to guard against the Colliwobbles.


As you can see, Australia has a wide variety of sporting metaphors that may be useful for the United States to start confusing their adversaries.

We would happily share these with our allies; however, our netball and cricket metaphors are currently Commonwealth-Eyes Only, and Aussie Rules is strictly NOFORN.

This is something that we can work on addressing.

What I hope this post highlighted, in a light-hearted way, is that different cultural lenses provide new ways to view, describe, and understand the challenges of modern and future conflict.

As military professionals, we need to guard against lapsing into default options to understand and describe the possibilities of future operations. Instead, we need to open the aperture and challenge conventional wisdom with new ideas for new realities.

Wing Commander Trav Hallen is a serving Australian Defence Force officer as well as a co-editor for The Central Blue. The views expressed, particularly on Wing Defence, are his alone and do not reflect the opinion of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Department of Defence, the Australian Government, or any official Australian sporting body.

This was first published by Central Blue on April 28, 2019.