Land Warfare Conference 2007

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By Gregor Ferguson

‘Pervasive, Persistent, Proportionate’ – The theme of this year’s Land Warfare Conference, which focuses on the land force and urban warfare, reflects the uncomfortable reality challenging ADF force planners now and in the future.

The British Army’s Parachute Regiment, when challenged to justify its continuing existence, declared itself ‘a Regiment for all reasons’. And it set out to prove that assertion, from arctic Norway to southern Iraq, from Northern Ireland to Sierra Leone.

No less daunting a challenge faces the Australian Army and this year’s Land Warfare Conference, to be held in Adelaide on 22 to 26 October, highlights just one corner of the physical battlespace which it must dominate.

Urban Warfare is a frightening business: the physical risks are high because a determined enemy enjoys camouflage and concealment and can achieve significant effects with relatively little effort.

Plus, the moral and political risks are even higher – as a former Parachute Regiment officer, General Sir Rupert Smith, said, wars are increasingly fought among the people.

The moral and political consequences – not to mention the humanitarian toll – of a disproportionate or poorly-directed physical response to a threat or direct attack are clear for all to see.

From Londonderry to Baghdad western Armies have had to learn, re-learn and refine the skills, which deliver security (and eventually some sort of victory, or at least an adequate resolution) without surrendering the moral high ground to terrorists of the most cynical kind.

Steep learning curve
The Australian Army, to its credit, has watched and learned from the experiences of others. This year’s Land Warfare Conference addresses some of the technical detail emerging from these ‘master classes’ and discusses the toolsets modern Armies require to be effective in counter-insurgency operations against smart, technically proficient adversaries: the hardening and networking of platforms and individual soldiers; strategies and tactics for urban, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations; enabling technologies for detection and surveillance; back-office force multipliers; and the rapid insertion of technology.

From the higher-level strategic level to the relatively mundane level of power supplies for soldiers’ sensors and communications equipment, these are issues which the Chief of Army, LTGEN Peter Leahy, has addressed repeatedly at previous LWCs and at other forums.

One of the issues Leahy and his staff are grappling with is the difficulty of framing a vision for a transformed land force, and then implementing it, when that force is operating at its highest tempo and on its lowest manpower levels, since the Vietnam War.

Addressing the topic of ‘Transformation While at War’ he told the US Marine Corps staff college in May this year the topic seems to suggest there’s some inherent tension between conducting operation on the one hand and undertaking force transformation on the other – there seems to be a default view that transformation is normally, and best, undertaken in peacetime.

Working together
“Operations and transformation do go together and I think are mutually supporting,” he said. “Right now I am seeing the Australian Army transform at a speed and at a scope I had not previously thought possible.”

“I would also like to… emphasise that by ‘transformation’ I do not mean to endorse the now discredited notion that it is possible to redefine warfare through technological innovation to render close combat by skilled combined arms teams irrelevant or superfluous.”

Transformation of the Australian Army is being effected through two concurrent projects, the Hardened and Networked Army (HNA) and the Enhanced Land Force (ELF).

“The cumulative vision of the HNA and ELF represents our assessment of the nature of the joint close battle in the first decade of the 21st century,” Leahy told the US Marine Corps Staff College.

The end state, he added, is “a medium weight force in which the individual soldier is a node in the network with a shared operational picture currently only the preserve of our Special Forces soldiers.

“It is an ambitious goal although under then pressure of current operations, the generous support of our government and the speed of development, especially in the USMC and the US Army, I am already absorbing capabilities that I had originally expected to bring online in about 2012.”

While the ultimate professional benchmark for a modern army is the ability to carry out intensive, conventional combat operations, Leahy believes, it seems likely that most armies will be confronted in the foreseeable future “by hybrid wars and non-state enemies, whether militias, terrorist groups or trans-national criminals.

"This would once have had no implications for our force structures, but the impact of globalization has been such that small teams of irregular enemies can now deliver lethal kinetic effects, previously within the exclusive province of conventional armed forces. Moreover,” he added, “they are networked through the proliferation of cheap, secure communications.”

History lesson
The first pointers towards this new environment, which includes civilians and an intrusive and pervasive media presence, came as early as the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993.

Junior soldiers will be taking snap decisions of strategic importance under stressful conditions under the eye of the media (which counts today as another dimension of the modern battlespace).

“This will have enormous implications for us through every aspect of recruitment, training, education and retention,” Leahy told his US Marine Corps audience.

This was a point Leahy returned to in his opening address to the Pacific Armies Management Seminar in Sydney in August this year.

Speaking to an senior audience drawn from no less than 29 Asia-Pacific land forces, Leahy said, “All of our nation states face complex challenges from non-state actors and phenomena, which our conventional military, para-military and security forces were not specifically conceived and organised to meet.

“My Army adopts the view that by training our soldiers for traditional, conventional warfare we develop the skills and resilience that permit us to do other tasks such as humanitarian assistance, stabilisation and reconstruction operations or peace-keeping tasks. We adhere to the view that this is still the best employment of our training time and money, but that view is being challenged by the complexity of current military tasks."

The human factor
“Our people need to be flexible and adaptable in ways that none of us could have imagined when we began our careers over the past 20 to 30 years.”

Leahy concluded with a message which will probably find echoes at LWC 2007: “Land Forces, more than so than naval or air forces, rely on the human factor to achieve their effects. Our war is among the population and we have to be able to deal with complex and constantly changing environment. No matter how much technology changes, we all rely on highly trained people to do their duty in difficult circumstances.”

Copyright Australian Defence Magazine, October 2007

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