Making ‘self-reliance’ meaningful – preparing the military to operate alone

By David Beaumont.

The concept of ‘self-reliance’ has resurged in over the last few years.  I use the term ‘concept’ with meaning to separate ‘self-reliance’ from strategic doctrine. It truly is an abstract term and can mean a lot of different things to different commentators. On one hand it harks back to the Australian strategic policy of the post-Vietnam War years, but it has also been raised in recent debates about the limits of the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) capability, or even the nations defence industrial capacity.  This narrow focus of this article is on the materiel aspects of ‘self-reliance’, and provides a starting point for a conversation that the ADF must have.

Discussions about self-reliance or military interoperability, like many other conversations among defence planners, infrequently begin with a conversation on supplies, maintenance and repair, or other logistics functions or capabilities. Often these conversations end when the scale of the logistics problem is revealed. Interest in ‘war-stocks’ has grown with commentators showing scepticism of the capacity of globalised supply chains to deliver. The ability of a military to conduct operations independently of another’s aid is intrinsically linked to the capacity to prepare, move, supply and support that force. But it would be a mistake to think that the ADF can go into a future large-scale conflict, especially one that tests the upper limits of its capabilities, without the support of others.

Australia’s military logistics is intertwined with the strategic fortunes of its coalition partners. Much of the ADF’s weapons, ammunition and components are acquired from other nations. We’re increasingly witnessing major capability programs producing weaponry in partnership with others. Interoperability  is exceptionally important for Australia and its allies to function with flexibility. It builds resilience within a coalition by creating new options for sustaining forces, and contributes to deterring potential aggressors who might otherwise act against an isolated nation. Naturally, even more effort should be applied towards improving interoperability.

It is, of course, prudent to be as self-reliant as practicable. The Second World War proved, even in a coalition conflict there will be times the ADF will need to ‘go it alone’ and sustain itself as our allies resources are drawn elsewhere. We should expect the same in the future. Uncertain times – where threats can manifest themselves quickly and from unforeseen quarters – require the military to be as prepared as possible to react at short notice. Waiting for a friend to provide the necessary supplies to deploy may be impossible. 

It is therefore important for planners and policy makers to understand, right now,  what the limits to self-reliance are. How else can good strategic decisions be made if the limits of the ADF’s combat effectiveness and sustainability are misunderstood?

Part of the problem with the contemporary discussion on national self-reliance is that it has been dominated by monumental problems; problems that are beyond the ability of most to influence. National fuel supplies, prioritised sovereign defence industries and national manufacturing capacity, economic resilience in an era of globalisation; these contemporary, popularised, topics give us pause to consider major national security concerns in a time of increasing strategic competition. They have been topics of interest to Australian governments and strategists for decades, beyond the period in which self-reliance was ensconced in the strategic doctrine of the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, and to the interwar period where lessons from the First World War reminded them to be prepared for national mobilisation.

The ADF, its partners in academic, industry and government, are at a point where they can afford to be specific. Commentators should help to reduce problems to the point that are actionable by the groups that can devote time and effort to resolving the problems of self-reliance. Importantly, this discussion must tread into the deep, dark, recesses of Defence modernisation with questions asked as to how long our impressive new capabilities, from the RAAF’s F-35 to the Army’s Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle, can endure on the battlefield of the future when our friends are far away. This article will briefly touch upon some areas which the professionally interested will have to tread.

Logistics has long been regarded as a crucial component of military capability, and the supply and support given to armed forces a major constituent of operational success. Logistics constraints and strengths can shape strategy, determine the form and means of operations, and if given nothing more than a passing glance by military commanders and civilian planners, will prevent combat forces from ever achieving their full potential in the air, and on the sea and land.

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As we seek to answer the question, ‘what can we achieve on our own?’, a really difficult question to answer, solutions to our logistics problems and concerns must be front and centre. A suborned view of logistics in this discussion about self-reliance is way out of step with the strategic reality facing the ADF. In engaging with this reality we might see that logistics is, in fact, a strategic capability in its own right.

What are the big logistics challenges to confirming our limits and freedoms of action in terms of self-reliance then? I’ve already mentioned some of the primary national security and strategic concerns above. Without necessarily delving too deep into national security infrastructure, what is arguably more important are the political and policy levers which set in motion the national endeavours that ultimately manifest in military logistics.

In recent years we’ve seen defence industry policy renewed alongside strategic policy, we’ve seen the Services develop close and valuable ties with industry partners, and we’ve seen a commitment to sovereign defence industries. Only time will tell whether this will be enough in a time of significant crisis. It may be a time to seriously question what full or partial industrial mobilisation might entail for the nation – or more importantly how to actually do it. Many years ago the Minister for Defence held a ‘War Book’ which set the ground rules for the process of mobilisation at the highest national levels; while a War Book or a revised approach to national security apparatus might be worth considering, this should not stop the military from developing its own plans if it must ‘go it alone’. In fact, it is it’s job.

A productive first step may be found in the understanding of exactly how long the ADF can sustain itself for certain contingencies based upon the resources it has at hand now. At the military strategic level, the ADF’s capacity for ‘self-reliance’ will be measured in the time it can sustain operations without replenishment from other quarters. If it lacks the warstocks or support capabilities to sustain its materiel, the capacity of the global supply chain to support the operational requirements will be crucial. There are some commodities essential for our way of war that we can’t produce nationally such as precision weapons and ammunition.

The problem for Defence is that it is very difficult to determine how self-reliant the ADF might be while global supply-chains are opaque and Australia lacks the levers and economic scale to advantageously intervene in global markets. It may be that in a time of crisis traditional boundaries such as intellectual property rights will need to be challenged, industry capacity seconded to defence interests, and projects redirected in new directions at very short notice (see here). At the very least ADF and industry should discuss how industry ‘scales’ in parallel with any adjustment in the roles, tasks and size of the fielded force.

It’s impossible to talk about coordinating this activity without commenting on the nature of strategic logistics control in the Defence organisation. Because the problems are large, the ways in which concerns on self-reliance will be addressed will invariably be pan-organisational in nature. Commander Joint Logistics Command might be the CDF’s ‘strategic J4’ or key logistics commander, but he or she must partner with the Capability, Acquisition and Sustainment Group, Estate and Infrastructure Group, the Services and others within what’s called the ‘Defence Logistics Enterprise’. Further into the military organisation, there are operational commands and those headquarters responsibility for preparing force (what might be called ‘force-generation’). Then there are a range of other units and users of resources.

Each organisation naturally has a different perspective as to what ‘self-reliance’ means, and there is always a risk that Defence will have difficulty identifying where its preparedness risks and opportunities truly lie in this context. Quite clearly the analysis of what the ADF’s ‘logistics limits’ are requires a coherent effort with solutions achieved through mutually supporting activities conducted across the organisation.

In the 1990’s, the ADF developed a prescriptive ‘Defence Strategic Logistics Planning Guide’ – a ‘Chiefs of Service Committee’ level document – that provided explicit guidance to each organisation contributing to national defence. This guide was based upon the ‘Chief of Defence Force’s Operational Readiness Document (CORD)’ that stipulated the scenarios the ADF should prepare for, and hinted at what resources would be required.  Perhaps a similar guide, issued at the highest level,  before embarking on any future analysis.

The strategic level challenges to self-reliance might fundamentally shape whether the ADF could perform in the way intended, but we can’t forget the challenges to operational self-reliance either. The most significant operational-level challenge to self-reliance, I argue, is with respect to strategic mobility. The ADF regularly seeks operational-level support in terms of intelligence and a wide range of capabilities that a military of our size simply could not realistically produce.

Perhaps there will be a time in which very long-distance fires will overcome the geography between Australian and an adversary, but until they do to a level that satisfies the desired military outcome strategic mobility capabilities will be continue to be critical to the ADF. Until then, the ADF’s strategic mobility will be critical to achieving a persistent response (whether that be on land or at sea) to an offshore threat.

Lift aircraft, helicopters, watercraft are all necessary if the ADF operates anywhere within Australia’s immediate region. Most of our partners declare their own paucity in strategic mobility capacity which suggests that even if our future conflicts are shared, we might still need to invest heavily in order to meet our own requirements.

On top of the mobility capabilities themselves, the aircraft and the ships and the contracted support we can muster from the nation, we cannot forget the ‘small’ enablers that support a deployed force. In our recent campaigns in the Middle-east, we have been heavily dependent upon our coalition partners for the subsistence of our forces. There is a real risk that our operational habits may have created an environment which gives false expectations of the logistics risk resident within the ADF, especially when it comes to conducting operations without coalition support.

As the Services look to their future force structure, it will serve them well to scrutinise not only those capabilities essential for basic standards of life, but the wide spread of logistics capabilities are essential complements to their major platforms. These include over-the-shore logistics capabilities for amphibious operations, expeditionary base capabilities as well those elements of the force that receive, integrate and onforward soldiers, sailors and airmen and women into the operational area. These will enable the ADF to sustain forces that are working with neighbours, create force posture options, and give the ADF the flexibility to manoeuvre to where its forces are required.

You don’t have to deeply analyse Defence logistics to understand that self-reliance is underpinned by the ADF’s – if not the nations – capacity to sustain and support its operations. The comments here are certainly not revelatory, nor are the allusions to the limits of ADF’s capability particularly surprising. For the ADF to be effective in a major war there is still a way to go yet, irrespective of whether it deploys within a coalition or not.

There is every chance that even if the ADF does deploy as part of a coalition, it will still be necessary for it to have a capacity to support itself. It is understandably important that we have a conversation about the limits to self-reliance in the current time of peace and think deeply about establishing the policy infrastructure and organisational arrangements that will enable us to make good judgements on what the ADF can or can’t do alone. Without doing so we risk logistics capability being reveals as a constraint on ADF operations, not a source of opportunity and the well from which the joint force draws its strength to fight.


This article is an expansion of an article originally published at ‘The Central Blue’ in 2019.

 

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