Thursday, September 20, 2012


My bad. I'm afraid I thought I'd posted this week but hadn't. 

This column was prompted by the Williams Foundation Seminar at the Australian War Memorial last Thursday. I'm sorry I wasn't able to credit the Foundation in the piece that appeared in the Canberra Times. 

The column itself had to be filed effectively five days before it was published because of new requirements to ensure it gets on the Fairfax website. This is extremely unfortunate and explains why it did not even mention the biggest story in Defence this week  - the shifting of the Secretary, Duncan Lewis, to become Ambassador to Brussels . . . 


New technologies can make a dramatic difference to the way we do things. It wasn’t long ago, for example, that a Special Forces unit operating behind enemy lines had to lay up while the signaller encrypted a message before sending it. As soon as it was dispatched the patrol would rapidly move on, otherwise enemy direction-finding equipment would plot their position.

Before the Iraq War we purchased new equipment that uses a new way of transmitting. Variable Message Format scrambles the words and sends them out in a sudden burst. It’s almost impossible to track and, better still, can’t be deciphered except by those using the same equipment with the same settings. There was only one problem. The Air Force and Army both bought their VMF sets from the same company . . . but at different times. The newer set wasn’t ‘backwards compatible’ with the older equipment. The result? Despite all their shmick new equipment the SAS couldn’t communicate with the jets flying above, so they had to go back to doing it the old way – using voice.

The point of this story isn’t just to elicit the usual tabloid reaction of outrage. Nothing this column says could hope to encapsulate the combined fury of the soldier on the ground and the pilot in the air once they worked out they couldn’t communicate with each other. No, the important thing is to understand ‘how’ and ‘why’ it happened, because that’s the way to stop similar failures occurring in future. The buzzword here is “jointery”. What it means is the military’s got to stop thinking like three single services and begin acting together. That’s not easy.

We still perceive the navy, army and airforce as unique. After all, they operate in different environments; air, land and sea. From a military perspective, however, it’s the effect that counts. Nearly two hundred years ago Napoleon failed to implement the principles of joint warfare at Waterloo. That’s why he lost. In the late afternoon his cavalry charged the steady British squares. If he’d brought up artillery to blast them as they stood in their serried lines, they might have lost their nerve. But Napoleon didn’t and the British held. The joint effect of artillery and cavalry would have been greater than either could have hoped to accomplish alone and it’s the same today.

A favourite scenario of current military planners is the notion we’ll engage in amphibious operations. You know, storming ashore across the beaches while flights of helicopters whirr overhead and the fleet sits offshore. There will always be a few problems with this image, even once our Air Warfare Destroyers do finally arrive, but the most significant one is that it ignores the skies above. The idea that we could ever indulge in opposed landings without control of the air is farcical. Airpower’s a sine qua non. But in the Pitch Black exercises earlier this year the RAAF tried to work out how many aircraft it would need to maintain (temporary) air superiority over the sort of distance required by our geography. The answer was horrific. One operation would have ended up requiring (notionally) 30 Joint Strike Fighters, eight F-18’s (and another six ‘Growlers’), five P-8’s (sorry about the jargon, but it means something to someone), and another 16 aircraft and drones. Modern war is intensive; it consumes equipment. But once refuelling and maintenance was included the air commander suddenly realised that he couldn’t afford to loose any of his aircraft – he just didn’t have enough.

Interestingly, one of the vital force multipliers he depended on came from the real-time intelligence information provided by forward-deployed SAS teams. The Airforce couldn’t do it by themselves. They needed the army just as much as maintenance crew, which leads back to the issue of joint operations.

The sprawling base at Tarin Khot provides a classic example of the way we’re fighting now. It sometimes seems as if the person next to you is as likely to be a naval lieutenant commander or defence intelligence civilian as a soldier. Jointery is a lived experience on the front line . . . until posted back to Australia. Back home it’s the three service chiefs that rule the roost. Joint operations are left to the Vice Chief. But if you don’t control promotions or big wads of money (and he doesn’t), you don’t really control anything.

There’s one area where there’s a desperate, immediate, need for oversight, and that’s equipment purchasing. The respective chiefs are in charge of making sure that the gear that’s introduced to their service works, but there’s no oversight of ‘joint’ projects. This can lead to debacles. One example is the electro-magnetic spectrum jammer that prevents insurgents remotely detonating IED’s (improvised explosive devices) while our vehicles are travelling along dusty tracks in Uruzgan. It works brilliantly. The only problem is that it also prevents the vehicles radios from working. This means it must be turned off to transmit messages. In other words it nullifies all communications: the crew commanders have to hold up flags if they want to send messages to each other. Perhaps this was what would have happened anyway, no matter who was in charge of the project. Nevertheless if the Vice Chief was actually responsible for overseeing these equipment programs at least there’s a chance that the worst of the blunders could be avoided and failing that at least we’d know who to blame. It wouldn’t hurt to try.

On the old battlefield it might have made sense to keep different units separate, but that’s not the case today. Jointery – which is really just an extension of combined arms – is vital. The battlespace of the future won’t be confined to the old domains of land, air and sea. There’s the electro-magnetic spectrum and space for a start. However the most significant development is that it’s no longer possible to quarantine anything, any more. It’s a pity our structures and procedures haven’t caught up yet. 

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