We welcome Major General Gus McLachlan (Ret’d.) AO, Director of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, who shares his thoughts in a two-part series on how to best approach force structure to gain a winning advantage. In part one, McLachlan covers how defence forces plan to win using one or more force design approaches: size, platforms, and people. In part two, he goes on to discuss the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) key advantage and, most importantly, the way forward.

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 paper 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.

Size

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[1], a commitment the Morrison Government maintained was on track in the FY 2019-20 budget update[2].

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

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.

People

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.

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.

[1] 2016 Defence White Paper, p. 177

[2] A safer Australia – Budget 2019-20 – Defence overview