The debris of an organisation – thinking about how the ADF recovers from the first losses of war: Part One

‘In war, mistakes are normal; errors are usual, information is seldom complete, often accurate, and frequently misleading. Success is won, not by personnel and materiel in prime condition, but by the debris of an organisation worn by the strain of campaign and shaken by the shock of battle. The objective is attained, in war, under conditions which often impose extreme disadvantages. It is in the light of these facts that the commander expects to shape his course during the supervision of the planned action.’[1]

                From Sound Military Decision, United States Naval College, 1942

Wars are usually longer than expected and are rarely fought in accordance with the plans made by military planners at their outset. Australian experiences in the Middle-east over nearly two decades remind us that war shapes itself around ever-changing contexts. The ‘new dawn’ of ‘grey-zone’ conflict, a reflection of the age-old reality that nations consistently seek to preserve strategic interests and prosperity with resources they have, reminds us that competition is not confined to a staccato of disparate actions. Success in competition requires resilience, persistence, presence and sustainability. This truism applies to conflict. The fighting in war occurs in ebbs and flows as adversaries play advantages and disadvantages until victory is assured. However, in an affliction common to Western preparations for future war, there is tendency for planners to limit their imagination to the first salvos.[2] This creates the situation where the really difficult part of war is not prepared for – how a military organisation likely left in dysfunction and ruin at war’s outset – recovers, reconstitutes and responds. It is rare that these planners, considering the capability needs that will make the ADF successful in its operations, think as to exactly how the ‘debris of an organisation’ can succeed.

This central purpose of this paper is to challenge the reader, as a heuristic, to consider how the ADF should prepare for the consequences of the first phases of intense conflict.[3] It is a paper that talks to the ideas of resilience, response and recovery; ideas that do not normally feature in preparedness plans and operational concepts. The first part of this paper applies examples to articulate concepts and ideas relevant to understanding the reality of war.  From this point, the paper applies informed assumptions to paint a picture of how a contemporary, nominally conventional, conflict might unfold. The paper then concludes with several basic principles that could be employed to guide future preparedness and contingency plans.

What a war might look like – an assumption-based depiction of a future war

Competition, including conflict and warfare, is about the control of circumstances to give an advantage – potentially an irrevocable advantage – in the context of strategic requirements. Preparedness and operational plans, however, often start with an ending in mind and are accompanied by a confident assertion that they are enough to get to the desired end-state. Though planning is useful, as the adage suggests, plans can be written such that they become virtual ‘straw-men’ arguments where assumptions and facts result in an outcome that is, in reality, possible only in someones imagination. Such plans fail to capture the dynamics of competition and conflict, and adjustments become necessary to exploit successes and recover from destruction or inevitable failures. War is not a finely tuned balance of cause and effect, but a consequence of actions in a system that is ever changing. It is necessary for us in the ADF to prepare for the confluence of events that inevitable occur over a longer term than we envisage. Historian Cathal Nolan’s The Allure of Battle is a testament to the truism that ‘[w]inning the day of battle is not enough. You have to win the campaign, then the year, then the decade.’[4]

The ADF, if called upon to respond to a significant attack upon Australian interests, must be prepared for a situation in which its plans are found wanting, its capabilities caught in moments of relative ‘unpreparedness’, and its force posture offset by an enemy’s own strategic mobility and firepower. It is safe to say that Australia is not a revisionist power, employing aggressive military activities to address its strategic requirements. This means that if it is involved in conflict, even war, it will likely not have the time to prepare itself as best as we often assume it might. One study of twentieth-century conflicts since 1939 found that the average time between the ‘first indication of war and the firing of the first shots has been 14.3 months’, with smaller-scale contingencies around 10.6 months and that there ‘is a 50% probability that conflict can occur in less than four months.’[5] These timings show how quickly conflict can occur, and the folly of the assumption often reflected in Defence planning that Australian will have ten years of warning time before major conflict.[6]

There is every chance that a twenty-first century conflict will occur faster, with the first signs of conflict buried in geopolitical tensions already at play. The ADF, like Australia, will likely be surprised by the attack, or surprised by the speed at which peace gives way to war. Furthermore, and because adversaries naturally target weaknesses, in the initial phases of any conflict the ADF would likely be facing weapons and dangers that offset whatever strengths may be hastily generated by the joint force. The systems employed by the joint force will be targeted using weapons purpose built for the task, upsetting the processes of command and control that we think are our pathway to victory in a new age of war. Agility will be denied. Strengths will be bypassed, or even prove vulnerabilities, to an adversary that has chosen the time of opportunity to strike.

So, history repeatedly reminds us that militaries usually go to war ‘unprepared’. It also reminds us that militaries often go to war disorganised, having to adapt rapidly to circumstances well beyond the expected. Martin van Creveld, writing about logistics, saw that ‘…. most armies appear to have prepared their campaigns as best they can on an ad hoc basis, making great, if uncoordinated, efforts to gather the largest possible number of tactical vehicles, trucks of all descriptions, railway troops etc., while giving little, if any, thought to the ‘ideal’ combination that would have carried them the furthest.’[7] The ADF’s experiences in East Timor during Operation Stabilise in 1999 hold true to this view; in this operation – a peacekeeping operation – disorganisation resulted in tremendous inefficiencies and near-exhaustion of the operational ADF.[8] So it is not only the effects of the enemy that the ADF need be prepared for, but also the failures baked into organisational structures which remain hidden until the moment of crisis.

We need only look at the events of late 2019 and 2020 and the confluence of bushfires, pandemics, and geostrategic tensions to show how organisations and other groups respond to the foreseen but unanticipated. The idea of ‘national resilience’ – not a new idea by any means – was revisited as fires denied the population basic services and a pandemic denied the population toilet paper.[9] Complex supply interdependencies, combined with stock minimisation in the name of efficiency, amplified the impact of localised catastrophe. Trust in societal systems, trust in supply and trust in leadership declined in these events as individuals feared for their livelihoods if not lives. As Robin Dunbar wrote in ‘The Mandarin’ recently, human behaviour during the COVID-19 crisis highlighted ‘a strong tendency to prioritise the short term at the expense of the future.’[10] The evident absence of coherent plans for action over the length of the crisis exacerbated uncertainty.

The events of 2020 are a euphemism for the impact of the initial phases of future war, where surprise may conspire with inadequate planning to sow confusion, compromise plans, and results the loss of resources and lives. The reliance of the ADF on familiar command process and organisational behaviours that provide comfortable peace-time routine will be shaken by the need for frenetic activity and ad hoc changes as forces mobilise. War will come across multiple domains simultaneously, with the ADF responding to direct attack, while potentially involved in a range of non-military civil defence responses as national infrastructure becomes a site for conflict.  Supply-chains will be interdicted and used as a point of leverage, denying the capacity of the ADF to scale as effectively as it might. Exquisite capabilities could be revealed as inhibitors to capacity-building for a joint force that somehow must create additional combat force mass in the short term.

Eventually whole-of-nation activity will be brought to bear as all elements of national power work more effectively with one another. The nation will bind diplomatic, informational, military, economic and other activities to strategic effect. Similarly, the ADF will bind a joint effort, gaining momentum, into coherent operations across all domains of war. Coalition partners will be increasingly involved, share resources, and develop war plans to achieve the next strategic objectives. Combat intensity might drop as the contest stabilises, the effects of surprise dissipate, forces focus upon repair and reconstitution instead of the offense, equipment is unavailable and lines of communication are interdicted. Adversaries may attempt to de-escalate, especially if nuclear and strategic weapons could be used, but competition to control the strategic environment and retain strategic mobility in all domains is likely to continue.

An ADF that endures will be quite different to the one that started the war. The characteristics of any war, whether it be small-scale localised operations or a fight for national survival, will shape the capabilities and capacities required by the joint force. ‘Seed’ capabilities – those which exist in relatively small numbers in a peacetime force to preserve skills and an emergency capability such as the Army’s tanks or certain combat aircraft and ships – will form the basis upon which a larger ADF will expand from. It is more likely than not that the ADF, reacting to a wartime adversary, will evolve to be fundamentally different to the one that is conceptualised in current capability development programs. Shaping factors will include war-time economic conditions and choices that the Australian Government, enacting domestic policies and working in partnerships with other Departments, has made.  A host of variously complicated and complex issues will impact how national power manifests into military outcomes. The ADF will have had to expand its training capacity, logistics, and invest in new capabilities to create strategic advantages. This will likely be achieved in partnership with allies, each of which may also be suffering the adverse consequences of the initial engagements of the war.

These scenario parameters offer a different focus for envisaging the next conflict that Australia faces. While they merely offer a heuristic employed to test and tease out ideas, they do help to remind us that there is much more to war than we tend to consider in concepts and preparedness planning. Furthermore, it also illustrates that preparedness is not just about readiness, but also the resilience and the capacity of the ADF to recover after a conflict-induced catastrophe. If, as the 2020 Defence Strategic Update suggests, that the likelihood of conflict is increasing in an ‘disorderly’ and ‘dangerous’ geostrategic climate, it is prudent that the ADF comprehensively reflects upon the purpose of preparedness, and what it might truly deliver the ADF during a conflict.[11] The question remains, however, how might the ADF best prepare itself?

Part two will be published shortly.

This article was originally published in the compendium of papers ‘Designing the future: thinking about joint operations’ by the Australian Army’s Future Land Warfare Branch. The compendium includes a wide range of interesting essays written by those responsible for conceptualising the Australian Army’s future.


[1] Author unknown, Sound military decision, US Naval College, USA, 1942, p 198 from Eccles, H., Logistics in the national defense, The Stackpole Company, USA, 1959

[2] Babbage, R., ‘Ten questionable assumptions about future war in the Indo-Pacific’, from Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1.,

[3] A heuristic is an approach to problem-solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect or ration, but is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal or approximation. See ‘Heuristic’ at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heuristic, [accessed 27 Sep 2020]

[4] Nolan, C., The Allure of Battle, Oxford University Press, UK, 2019, p 4

[5] Speedy, I.M. ‘The Trident of Neptune’, Defence Force Journal, 1978, pp 7-16 cited in Ball, D., Problems of mobilisation in defence of Australia, Phoenix Defence Publications, Australia, 1979, p 13

[6] Department of Defence, 2020 Defence Strategic Update, Commonwealth of Australia, Australia, 2020, p14

[7] Van Creveld, M., Supplying War, 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2004, p236

[8] Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), 2002, Management of Australian Defence Force deployments to East Timor, Audit Report No. 38, Department of Defence, Australia, para 4.130, p 87

[9] Beaumont, D. J. ‘Toilet paper and total war the psychology of shortages and what it means for resilience’ from Logistics in War, 8 March 2020, https://logisticsinwar.com/2020/03/08/toilet-paper-and-total-war-the-psychology-of-shortages-and-what-it-means-for-resilience/ [accessed 23 Sep 20]

[10] Dunbar, R., ‘Is humanity doomed because we can’t plan for the long term – three experts discuss’ from The Mandarin,6 August 2020, https://www.themandarin.com.au/136798-is-humanity-doomed-because-we-cant-plan-for-the-long-term-three-experts-discuss/ [accessed 19 Sep 20]

[11] Morrison, S. The Hon., Address – launch of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, 1 July 2020, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/address-launch-2020-defence-strategic-update, [accessed 28 Sep 20]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s