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.

Decision-making superiority

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”[1]. 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.

Australian Army Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters. [Image Credit: Department of Defence]

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.

Sovereign Capability

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 University and 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 of Australia (AO) for his contribution to Army Modernisation.

[1] 2016 Defence White Paper, p. 86