At the Australian Strategic Policy Institute conference last month, Vice Chief of the Defence Force Vice Admiral David Johnston announced that Defence is undertaking a review into national mobilisation. This review is the first of its kind since the end of WWII. Not since that time has Australia had to marshal every element of national power to fight a war.

What struck me about his comment was that a) it’s been two generations since this has been done and b) what does mobilisation actually mean in the modern age?

We know what it looked like in times gone by. In fact, ADM named our awards to recognise collaboration between Defence and Defence Industry after him: Essington Lewis. Lewis was managing director of BHP from 1926 to 1938, but also lead the industrial effort in Australia during WWII.

Essington Lewis was appointed by the government on 21 May 1940 as Director General of Munitions, a role he held until the end of the war in 1945. He was instrumental in facilitating the rapid industrial progress made in Australia during the first years of the war. He flew around the nation herding cats to make sure Australia was in the best possible position to fight at home and abroad.

Prime Minister John Curtin increased Lewis's power by also appointing him director-general of the Department of Aircraft Production. In this capacity Lewis hastened the output of Beauforts to replace the outmoded Wirraways, and after the Japanese bombing of Darwin on 2 February 1942 he organized the production of the new Boomerangs.

The range of munitions produced by Lewis was astonishing in its variety and versatility. His factories made grenades, land-mines, ammunition of all types, .303 rifles, machine and sub-machine guns, including the Owen gun, and several types of heavy guns. Sophisticated optical aids were produced. Post-war critics condemned the ambitious manufacture of unused tanks and torpedoes, but Lewis planned for all contingencies. Much of Australia's industrial expansion after the war was based on wartime techniques that he introduced.

Lewis's method of management reflected his idiosyncrasies. His letters were stiffly formal and he avoided the telephone. What he insisted upon was talking to people and seeing the plants himself. It was noticeable that Lewis had more in common with a grimy labourer than a clean-shirted clerk. He knew the names of hundreds of working men.

Fast forward to 2019; could industry today be mobilised in this same way? Should it?

While governments of both colours have talked of sovereignty and self-reliance and enacted policies supporting these concepts, the reality is that Australia’s supply chain for Defence capability now rests in the hands of many a foreign owned company. One only has to look at ADM’s Top 40 Defence Contractors survey to see the critical mass of primes that have parent companies based overseas. Only a single company in the Top 10 is Australian - ASC, the lone government-owned company. Yet a third of the company under ASC Shipbuilding has been signed over to BAE Systems Australia for the life of the Hunter class frigate program.

Scratching the surface of capabilities that are relatively sovereign also provides some perspective on our relative fragility. How long would supplies last if overseas home markets are effectively cut off, busy fighting their own total war scenario? Who remembers not being able to get Oberon parts when the UK was busy in the Falklands?

Mobilisation of capabilities is not just black boxes, big sexy platforms and bullets. It’s also the cyber aspect, the wider national economy that encompasses power, health, finance and services industries. The weaponisation of social media is playing an increasingly large role in information operations (grab a copy of Peter W Singer’s new book #LikeWar to see just how much).

There’s a reason that Sudan has been without the Internet for over two weeks at the time of writing or that China’s Great Firewall is so effective. It’s hard to organise people on a good day, let alone without the utility that social media offers.

Professional pessimism aside, I am curious to see how Defence will define and develop what national mobilisation looks like in policy and practice.

This article first appeared in the July 2019 edition of ADM.

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