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

By David Beaumont.

This article concludes the discussion started here.

Things will go wrong in competition, conflict, and full-scale war. Winning will be about resilience, recovery and response as much as it is about being prepared for well-informed, but sadly speculative, conflict scenarios that planners may have contemplated in advanced. ‘Adaptiveness’ will be a necessity at the outset of a conflict, but the idea should not be a compensator for self-induced, lazy, policies and procedures designed to suit a more convenient peacetime routine. Well trained and adaptable people involved in national defence will be crucial to success, but they cannot be a crutch to allow organisations to limp through the first stages of any conflict. Resilience must be resourced in advance, staff organisations designed to be flexible, plans and policies prepared, and concepts for bringing the military and other organisations necessary in national defence to their full potential tested. Together these factors become the shock absorbers for the response which accounts for the ‘things going wrong’, and act as a springboard for what follows.

Those responsible for preparedness planning, not just within the joint force that is the ADF, but across Government should recognise that capability is only one part of the preparedness equation. Preparedness is about timing and understanding what can be done when; it is about reconciling forecasting and immediate needs with usually long-term processes for generating military capability. Belligerents in war don’t wait for capability lifecycles to manifest and operational concepts to mature. They look for opportunities to cause the most havoc at the expense of the other.  What truly matters in preparedness is the latent capacity available at any one time to give the force the ability to resist to shock, face losses, and use what remains in a response that counters the strategic advantage held by an aggressor. Moreover, winning requires fortitude, mental acuity, courage, and a leadership attitude based upon problem solving, endurance, hopefulness, and opportunity seeking. These traits enable decision makers the capacity to look beyond the first salvos of war while amid chaos, redirecting the means available to eventually turn the tide of war to the positive.  However, there are other important factors the ADF might consider.

Firstly, the ADF must continue to work towards greater organisational flexibility so that it can adapt rapidly to strategic shocks. With ‘Mobilisation Reviews’ and Service reforms to preparedness systems underway, it is clear that planners across the ADF are attuned to the need.[1] However, before placing too much dependence on flexible organisational designs and the ADF’s already robust approach to command and control, the ADF should seek to accurately understand what it can and can’t do within various plausible time horizons. As renowned Australian strategist Desmond Ball wrote, ‘it is not the force-in-being or the current order-of-battle that is relevant, but the mobilised force with which the adversary would have to contend.’[2] As described throughout this article, capability should not be equated to readiness.[3] Capability programs should be sequenced with force posture changes and aligned to preparedness systems. This creates a situation where decision makers can identify points of preparedness risk and potential vulnerabilities over time. Furthermore, this means that when surprise comes, ADF planners understand which parts of the force can act and when. The idea of ‘scalability’ as recently seen in some Service strategic doctrine must enter the day-to-day conversation of the ADF’s preparedness and operational planners. Scalability reflects the ability of the ADF to adjust its size and shape outside of the ‘heartbeat’ of its force development and capability acquisition programs.

Secondly, the ADF should seek to create depth in its capabilities and create capacity and sustainability rather than simply acquiring the best technology that can be bought. This will both enable it to better handle the inevitable losses of a conflict and deliver scale such that the ADF is more able to respond across multiple areas of vulnerability. Noone really knows exactly what combination of capabilities are needed in advance of war. But it is not realistic – at least not yet – for the Defence budget to grow to accommodate every plausible permutation of ships, aircraft and soldiers. Instead, it is important that the ADF renews its concepts to leverage resources from elsewhere – potentially the national support base or form alliance partners – in order to develop processes that will allow the ADF regain capacity after a significant strategic shock. This is not only about acquiring more materiel, ‘war-stocks’ and growing the size and scale of the ADF for that capacity; it is about efficiently managing resources such that they are available at the time and place of need. Capability depth will likely reflect the strength of civil-military relationships, as much as it does materiel.

Thirdly, all in the ADF must become aware that the force-in-being is not an end state in of itself. The ADF of today is unlikely to be the force that will reconstitute, recover and respond out of the initial stages of any conflict. It will be even less capable of remaining the same if substantial damage is done to the ADF in the initial engagements of the war. Outside of smaller contingencies, the ADF can, without foreign assistance, initially only provide ‘holding forces’ to provide an immediate response and defend the most vital resources.  It in the largest conflicts and worse scenarios, the ADF exists to create time for the winning force to mobilise. The time for which the ADF must be prepared to ‘hold’ in a high-intensity conflict could be considerable given the time it takes to activate industry to higher levels of production, and for the nation to bring more resources to bear. Calculations undertaken in the 1970’s suggested that it would take no less than two and a half years to expand an Army, for example, from 50000 regular and reserves to a multi-divisional force capable of continental defence of 150000.[4] Quite clearly this means that everything the ADF has already achieved in the context of a ‘total workforce’ approach to its operations is far short of what is required in war.   


To worry only about preparing for that moment at which conflict is initiated or a crisis begins creates risks that could lead to strategic failure. Preparedness planners, whether in the military or without, must look beyond this moment and into the possibilities of the war which follows. Australia’s next war will not be won by an ADF in its ‘prime’, but one that has been scarred and beaten down yet recovers to claim victory. It is important that the ADF be psychologically and materially prepared for the surprise and shock of the beginning of war.

Debris of an organisation aimed to provide a vision of preparing for war. While war may appear unlikely that does not excuse us misrepresenting it as something easy to prepare for.  If the the future outlined in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update rings true, it is important that the ADF’s planners consider casualties, losses and destruction inflicted on the ADF in the early stages of a future war as they design the responses, if not the capabilities, that the ADF possesses.

Capability solutions and extra resources are not sufficient to ensure that the ADF can win the next war. Planners at all levels, from combat units to strategic headquarters, must also consider the arrangements and attitudes that will enable and ensure a considered and effective response to a crisis. It is fortunate that the ADF is has more operating and planning experience than likely adversaries and has planning underway in response to the threats recent strategic policy advice highlights. Nevertheless, the challenges are vast and consequential.  Crucially, if planners do not grasp that the next war may not be short, the ADF will waste the precious preparation time that it currently has.  It could build resilience, depth and expansion capacity.  Without these, in the next war, the ADF will surely fail.

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] Rubinsztein-Dunlop, S., ‘Defence has imagined future war and Australia is not prepared’ from ABC News, 15 May 20,, [accessed 25 Sep 20]

[2] Ball, D., Problems of mobilisation in defence of Australia, Phoenix Defence Publications, Australia, 1979, Preface

[3] Betts, R., Military readiness: concepts, choices, consequences, Brookings, USA, 1995, p 37

[4] Ball, D., ‘The Australian Defence Force and Mobilisation’ from Ball, D., Problems of mobilisation in defence of Australia, Phoenix Defence Publications, Australia, 1979, pp 12-13

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