I am an operational leader who finished a 37-year career in Defence in 2018. It wasn’t clear early in my career – when Vietnam War-era radios provided the spine of our tactical communications – that the arc of my time working in that sector coincided with the greatest leap forward of information technology in human history.
As somebody who learned to be a leader during that transformation, a level of adaptability and curiosity was required to engage with a constantly changing environment. As the rate of change accelerated and digital “disruptors” crossed from the civil sector into ours, the challenge for both generalist and technical leaders was how to pick the winners from a range of exciting, but often expensive, technologies that emerged in the last decade and a half.
Since leaving the military, my work in the research and innovation sectors has confirmed my view that leading digital transformation in organisations is not just the preserve of the Chief Information Officer or Chief Technology Officer.
The senior leader should articulate the “why” of technology in the organisation and identify the investment priorities. They must understand enough of the technological challenges their organisation will face as it transforms or responds to technical disruption.
The aim of this article r is to offer my perspective of the technology needs and investment priorities of Defence – with an emphasis on the Army – from the foxhole of one technically informed former leader.
To do so, it is important to give context to the challenges facing the Defence Department, without trying to create grand strategists in one paper, such that readers from industry and research organisations can tailor their approach and solutions to Defence’s needs.
Planning to win
Defence – more than any arm of government – knows it is in a competition: it competes against the Defence organisations and infrastructure of other countries, and battles internally with other government organisations for funding and resources. While well resourced, the Defence apparatus in Australia is not as large or as well-funded as many of our potential adversaries.
That difference is only going to increase in coming years, regardless of who is governing.
Defence leaders must maximise the impact of every dollar, planning how to win in all contests in which the ADF might be deployed. Nations establish their position and status by exercising a range of elements of national power. Similarly, defence forces plan to win using one or more force design approaches.
Countries with big populations and big economies often rely on size to be the most decisive factor in military victory. During a briefing I gave to a visiting Chinese general while I was the Forces Commander in the Australian Army, I focused on the quality of our Defence Force people and equipment. With a smile, he told me that size has a quality all of its own. In an era of ‘come as you are’ conflict, Australia’s professional military will always be small when compared with the major and emerging powers in our region. We will not win with simple mass, but we can and do achieve virtual mass through collaboration and alliances.
Professor Hugh White, in his recent book How to Defend Australia provocatively, forecasted the demise of American supremacy in our region. White reasonably projected that the cost of Australia seeking to achieve independent strategic weight as being in the order of 3.5% of gross domestic product (GDP).
The 2016 Defence White Paper established a goal of 2% of GDP to be achieved by Financial Year (FY) 2020-21, a commitment the Morrison Government maintained was on track in the FY 2019-20 budget update.1
The difference between 2% and 3.5% of GDP is significant. Consequently, Australia very carefully cultivates strategic partnerships that broaden our capability to create virtual mass. The strategy pursued by a succession of Australian governments (including the Morrison Government) since the signature of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951, seeks to achieve virtual mass through an alliance with the United States (US).
However, despite the rhetoric of the ‘Pacific Pivot,’ more recent US engagement in the Pacific has been uneven.
Australia now seeks to achieve increased strategic weight through partner engagement, confidence-building and capacity building with our neighbours.
In our region, in the contest of influence with a re-emerging China, this creation of virtual mass has become a high priority for the ADF. It has both operational and technological lines of effort.
Since we will never have a size advantage in a major conflict, even in our region, creating virtual mass remains essential.
Platform and technological superiority are getting harder and harder to achieve. The microprocessor revolution has democratised access to technology. The levelling of the platform superiority landscape has been further accelerated by intellectual property theft and cyber penetration, and by the new wealth of emerging economies.
Commentators such as retired general and now Senator Jim Molan, already assert we have a small, exotic ADF with insufficient depth and resilience.
As such, Australia will likely need to be judicious about where and when to try and pursue platform and technology advantage.
The 2016 Defence White Paper and its associated Force Structure Review (FSR) – for which I was a steering group member and so am probably biased – made a good plan to create and maintain an appropriately weighted force. What emerged in the reasonable cost estimation that supported the White Paper deliberation was that we simply cannot achieve platform advantage in every area and that hard, strategic choices are necessary.
Air Marshal Geoff Brown, when Chief of Air Force, used to explain an air force is like a poker hand. You can bluff up to a point; but when called upon to show your cards, being second-best counts for nothing. Over a succession of Defence policy papers, governments wisely chose to build a good poker hand for Australia’s air force. We are on track to have one of the best small air forces in the world.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) will provide the nucleus of the fifth generation ADF as a network of sensors and shooters.
Our Army and Navy must join this joint sensor and shooter network.
The FSR also identified the submarine as the core of our national ability to provide a complex challenge to potential adversaries. Submarines have the ability to stealthily patrol the approaches to Australia and operate further away from home to disrupt maritime chokepoints through which regional countries move resources and goods.
A large, capable submarine fleet remains an excellent investment.
However, I leave open the discussion about the evolving nature of undersea warfare in the decades ahead. Advances in space-based sensors and developments in robotics and autonomy will make it highly likely the nature of undersea warfare will drive fundamental changes in the design of submarines and supporting systems over the life of the current Collins-replacement project.
In my former Service, the force structure described in the 2016 Defence White Paper finishes the vision articulated by Chiefs of Army Peter Leahy, to ‘Harden and Network’ the Army, and David Morrison to reorganise the Army to be better balanced under Plan Beersheba.
However, gaining platform advantage for our Army is increasingly difficult in an environment in which countries are capable of proliferating large numbers of reasonably capable land combat systems at relatively affordable prices.
All modernising armies have access to new fighting vehicles and attack helicopters, and most have masses of artillery and rockets that far outweigh even the Morrison government’s surprise announcement, in the lead-up to the 2019 election, that it would acquire 30 self-propelled Korean-made howitzers for the Army. Acquisition of new armoured vehicles that can protect our soldiers has commenced with the selection of the Boxer Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle, which I am confident is the best vehicle of its type in the world.
I expect the current Chief of Army will have to work hard to preserve the number of vehicles to be acquired in subsequent phases of the armoured vehicle programs. It is just as important, however, that he should ensure our Army continues to evolve into a force able to reach into the other warfighting domains.
Despite the comments of my friend the visiting Chinese general, the final – and arguably most important – factor in military success is the performance of people.
Put simply our Navy, Army, and Air Force recruit and train very good people. Our leaders have deep operational experience, and our people are usually empowered to use their training and initiative to seize and exploit opportunities. However, we have seen a reduction in our human performance advantage.
I am going to provocatively draw upon an adage from Sun Tzu to explain a decade of equalisation in major conflict competition and project what our potential adversaries might have been saying: ‘While your enemy is doing the wrong thing never interrupt them.’ Advanced Western militaries have been focused on narrow counterinsurgencies in the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia, and North Africa.
During almost two decades of counterinsurgency warfare, billions of dollars were spent training, campaigning and equipping advanced Western forces for a very narrow band of the conflict spectrum.
In Australia, submarine-hunting aircraft were diverted to overland intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, major warships turned to drug interdiction, and land forces engaged a tough, ruthless but technologically limited enemy.
All the while, our rivals studied us closely, developed asymmetric counters to our advantages and caught up almost a decade of training and technological advantage.
Winning is getting harder.
The 2016 Defence White Paper provides very specific policy direction that the ADF will seek to achieve advantage through a combination of human performance and decision-making superiority. The White Paper defines decision-making superiority as “knowing more about a situation and knowing it sooner than an adversary does so that our forces have an advantage in planning and conducting operations”2
The best way to understand what Defence planners meant when they described it this way is to understand why it is important. If we cannot achieve a general mass overmatch because of our small size—and in many cases platform parity—then we must seek to achieve advantage by finding precise local overmatch. We must apply our small force in exactly the right place and time.
We achieve this by accessing and interpreting intelligence and surveillance data, much of which comes to us from our major alliance partner. This is an inconvenient truth for those who think it is time we go it alone. We cycle this information through a high-tempo, digitized decision-making process, and pass digital data to the people and systems that must prosecute our advantage.
Perhaps I make that sound too easy.
Many elements of this process are already in place.
We have plenty of surveillance data and we have incredible people who are able to respond very rapidly to clear instructions.
However, we have not completed the network of sensors, data storage, analytic tools, headquarters processes and near-real-time cross-domain data transfer to maximise our potential advantage.
There is a range of projects described in the Integrated Investment Program that seek to remediate these remaining gaps to enhance our decision-making superiority.
I believe the most important of these is project Air 6500 which is intended to provide a new digital communications spine that better enables the precise direction of our air combat assets.
Importantly, it will also have the ability to link joint platforms like the air warfare destroyers and the new land-based medium-range air defence capability in a true sensor and shooter network.
When operational this network will start to create the advantage our White Paper authors forecast.
I suggest it might be renamed “Joint Project 6500”, and perhaps developed as an ADF main effort.
Networked decision-making superiority is not an easy process.
Our systems are procured at different times, making generational commonality difficult.
We buy from different suppliers who each have proprietary barriers to integration and we often buy from diverse countries, each with different access rules or limitations.
In my time as Head of Army Modernisation, we had a tank from the United States, Franco-German helicopters, and an Israeli land-combat network carried over an extended range communications network on US radios and satellite systems.
Having been honest with you about the challenges we face, it is important we give ourselves credit where it is due. On Exercise Talisman Sabre 2017 the ADF command and control node called Headquarters 1st Division achieved levels of integrated joint command and control superior to even our most advanced peer armies and allies.
A commander who can “see” the location and status of our forces in the five domains (sea, land, air, space and cyber) is well advanced in a contest for decision-making superiority. If the same commander can see some or all of the enemy disposition and status, and perhaps have insights into intentions and plans, then our small force can be applied incredibly effectively.
The 2016 Defence White Paper seeks to advance us along this path as quickly as we can afford and as the technology allows.
Defending our advantage
Defending or maintaining this advantage is essential. Australia is transparent about the way in which we plan to win. Decision-making superiority is described as a central tenet in the 2016 Defence White Paper, and so is the centrality of the US alliance. It is logical then that these strengths will form the basis of intelligence collection and analysis by potential competitors in order to enable future disruption.
The contest for decision-making superiority is underway; the positioning of a Chinese signals-intelligence collection vessel to monitor Exercise Talisman Sabre 19 should not be a surprise to anyone. The nature of our networks, the frequencies and bands in which we communicate, our encryption technology, and the extent to which we rely on space-based navigation and communications satellites form part of our competitors’ collection priorities.
The ADF has the responsibility to defend its own networks and network-facing systems.
This includes things like the deployable Internet of Things such as the Army combat system or battle management system. It also includes the increasing range of software-defined platforms and systems like the ARH Tiger and the MRH90. These advanced fly-by-wire aircraft can be as easily grounded by malware introduced into mission systems as by missile fire.
The threat to the disruption of our decision-making superiority advantage has required an urgent inclusion of basic cyber-hygiene in all echelons of training, as well as the creation of dedicated cyber teams within major HQs and the establishment of defensive cyber units.
I will not go into the size of these organisations, but in a small Army they represent a significant shift from analogue-era combat and combat support functions to cyber, electronic warfare and digital intelligence functions. They are being trained to a high standard, but they are small and the competition for skilled workforce in the cyber domain is fierce.
How long we can keep our highly-trained soldiers, airmen and women, and sailors in our emerging cyber force using traditional remuneration and retention tools remain to be seen. When I was in uniform, I challenged my fellow leaders about the need for new ways of creating and preserving this workforce. I am happy to report positive movement on some of these challenges but less so on others.
The Army has moved quickly to identify a new field of reserve service in which someone with cybersecurity skills in the civilian environment might become a reserve soldier and spend some time each year practicing and developing their skills in the deployable military environment.
The Army continues to look for industry partners willing to share their people—and benefit from the experience and confidence that comes from working in a highly-contested military cyber domain. And for those at the leading edge of this skill set perhaps you might get to legally apply skills that you may otherwise just have to wonder about.
The challenges ahead
Let me now conclude by describing some of the challenges faced by Defence in realizing its 2016 Defence White Paper technology strategy.
Alliances and Partnerships don’t just happen
Alliances and partnerships do not just happen—they are negotiated and renegotiated, consolidated and challenged. Technical integration between nations is a complex mix of proprietary and technology barriers and security and access differences. The Afghan Mission Network during my tenure in International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was a Frankenstein’s monster of cobbled-together systems in which security was risk-managed to ensure access by partner nations. Competition or conflict with more capable adversaries than the Taliban will require far more sophisticated systems.
A future mission partner environment must enable national information security while allowing the sharing of mission-classified material with a wide coalition of partners. It will require connection of different generations of technology provided by different manufacturers. Some less advanced partners may need to have assisted access through the provision of equipment and training.
Regional partner capacity-building in the human performance domain (training and education) is important but in state-on-state conflict between sophisticated nations, technical capacity integration is almost as important.
I would like to think Australia is capable of leading the generation of a regional sensor and shooter network in which radars in regional partner nations can pass target data to a supporting Australian fires platform. Any adversary seeking to manoeuvre in the approaches to northern Australia would face virtual mass and significantly increased complexity.
But can we protect these networks?
I am going to pose more questions than answers.
National cyber capacity remains a challenge in the face of the increasing volume of cyber-crime, intelligence gathering, and security threats. The role of Australian Signals Directorate is likely to continue to evolve as a whole-of-nation capability, so how does the ADF grow to fill any vacated space?
Manning and Snowden exposed the risk of over reliance on US systems and technology. Are we doing enough advanced research to grow our own capability?
The Defence Science and Technology Group is immensely capable but small. We must partner with advanced research organisations like universities but the cyber penetration of the Australian National Universityand the recent controversy about potential transfer of sensitive knowledge to foreign students studying advanced degrees at the University of New South Wales, illustrate the work to be done to harness this capacity.
Can the development of our mission partner environment keep pace with the developments in alliances and partner networks?
The challenge of how to integrate the cheap and highly effective technology from Huawei into 5G networks has divided the previously bullet-proof “Five Eyes” partnership. I am left wondering if this deeply rooted set of relationships cannot be preserved how likely is it that a broader technical coalition is possible?
Pursuit of exquisite platform superiority is expensive. The Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft is evidence that Australia can have and produce world-leading technology advantages. It is also an important study in how difficult and expensive this effort can be.
We have committed to building a fleet of 12 advanced submarines and acquiring 72 Joint Strike Fighters.
How many other exquisite platforms can we afford?
Decision-making superiority, as part of a partner and alliance system, remains the best receipt for our national security.
Let’s get on with building and protecting this system.
Gus McLachlan commenced his career at the Royal Military College, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1985. He completed his 37-year career with the Australian Army, retiring as a Major General in December 2018. On leaving the military, Gus McLachlan was appointed Adjunct Professor at Monash University where he advises on Defence research.
He is a Director of the Williams Foundation, a National Security ‘Think Tank’ and is on the board of US and Australian Defence technology companies.
McLachlan has been responsible for generating Australian Defence capability in cyberspace, electronic warfare and command and control systems. He completed two years as Head of Army Modernisation, during which time he worked closely with industry to commence a major recapitalisation of Army equipment and to network the systems of the Army.
Gus McLachlan’s military career concluded after he led Land Forces Command where he was responsible for 35,000 women and men of the Army. He led a major structural transformation of the command to field new cyber and electronic warfare capacity.
In January of 2020, he commenced his current role as Head of People for Boral Australia. Gus was made an Officer in the Order or Australia (AO) for his contribution to Army Modernisation.
The featured photo: Major General Gus McLachlan, AO salutes the FORCOMD elements during his farewell parade held at Victoria Barracks, Sydney.
This article was published by Central Blue in two parts.
The first part was published on February 23, 2020.
The second part was published on March 2, 2020.
- 2016 Defence White Paper, p. 177; A safer Australia – Budget 2019-20 – Defence overview
- 2016 Defence White Paper, p. 86.