Army is still experiencing its highest operational tempo in decades, with operations in multiple overseas theatres and the recent spate of natural disasters at home keeping soldiers more than occupied. Chief of Army Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie spoke to ADM Editor Katherine Ziesing about some of the issues his organisation is facing on both the project and people fronts.
ADM: How is the Army travelling at present, and in particular how is it coping with the demands of simultaneous deployments in the Middle East, East Timor and smaller theatres like Solomon Islands?
Gillespie: The Army is travelling exceptionally well at the present time. I couldn’t be more delighted with it as an organisation; its people are proving everything that I’ve been saying about them in the media and what’s really important at the present time is it’s out in the public view; everybody can see that what I’m saying is true. We have great people who are doing a fantastic job.
I think that our ability to react so quickly to floods in South Queensland, cyclones in North Queensland and continue to support operations around the world, and still have something cocked and loaded if our government needs us to do more; it speaks volumes for the organisation. So I think it’s in very good shape.
ADM: How far has the threat in Afghanistan changed, or evolved, over the years, and how has the Army adapted to these changes?
Gillespie: Afghanistan has always been about the population and what we’ve been trying to do over the last few years is to convince the population that there is a way ahead that’s better than the life that they had under a Taliban regime where all of those things led to the 2001 terrorist incidents, women being barred from education, people being killed. There is that future for Afghanistan or there is the one that we’re offering you, and I think that what we’ve been doing over time is working really hard.
First of all militarily, and then more recently across a whole range of governance issues – politics, police, education and rural reform, reconstruction; all of those sorts of things are showing people that actually the government of Afghanistan is worth the investment rather than the way that you had it previously.
That constant change has been about small, progressive steps forward in each of those areas that I mentioned – the education, rural development, reconstruction – and so that’s changing and the role of the soldiers and their ability to get closer and closer to the population and show them that we’re serious about a different way of life has been a feature of the battle space.
ADM: How do you frame your Rules of Engagement in such a complicated landscape?
Gillespie: Rules of Engagement are designed to do two things. It’s really to protect our troops and to protect the population amongst which they operate, and they’re pretty robust. We make changes from time to time but you wouldn’t call the changes over 10 years truly profound in that area because I think the basic principle for the ADF is that we operate very much within the rule of the law, international and military law.
If that’s your starting premise then you’ve got a pretty good basis for writing your Rules of Engagement at the start and every now and then you find an issue that hasn’t been specifically addressed in our Rules of Engagement and we debate what should happen there and then with the CDF and the Government we agree to small changes. I don’t think it’s difficult if at the start of the process you’re a professional law abiding organisation.
ADM: Given the withdrawal of the Dutch last year, are there any plans to deploy the Tiger ARH into Afghanistan?
Gillespie: No, there are no plans to deploy Tiger at the present stage. Our soldiers have good coalition support from that sort of platform over there at the present stage. We’re still introducing Tiger into service; it’s not an operationally fielded capability yet. We’re making progress there but right now, there are no plans to deploy Tiger.
ADM: How would you describe the process of introducing Tiger into service?
Gillespie: It hasn’t gone as smoothly or as quickly as I would have liked. We’re on record as saying that, but the reality of it is that the end product is now clearly in sight and we’re going to have an awesome capability and the frustrations that we have right now are really about increasing the rate of effort so that we’ve got more of them available for more periods of time; a couple of last little minute technical issues that we’ve got to work out but we’re nearly there and it’s going to be a pretty awesome platform.
I would also say that we introduced it to the Army as a whole on Exercise Hamel late last year and for the very first time troops of all persuasions – engineers, tankies, artillery men – actually saw the Tiger in our battle space and started to have some understanding about what it does and what it can do to assist troops on the ground.
I think the very strong view when we left that exercise was that we had brought a major new capability into the battle space and so I’m very excited about it.
ADM: In terms of the balanced force that Army is pursuing, would you be leaning more towards further ISR capabilities or firepower capabilities?
Gillespie: Well the balance, of course, by definition is both of those things. It’s the perfect balance between all of those capabilities that we’ve got to have and the resources that we have available to us and I think one of the things that we’re doing in balancing at the present time, particularly in the ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) space is that we’ve always had a whole bunch of capabilities but they’ve been single non-networked capabilities.
What we’ve been doing with the raising of the Sixth Brigade is bringing together what had been disparate army units over time into a unified command and networking them. What we’ve found is that we’ve got a lot more horsepower in that regard than potentially we knew that we had.
What we now have is a nice balance with the raising of the Sixth Brigade. We’ve got two regular manoeuvre brigades and we’re able to support those manoeuvre brigades with an aviation brigade for mobility and soon with Tiger, firepower and all the surveillance capabilities that come with the Tiger as well. Remember, it’s not only a gun ship but it’s a very sophisticated surveillance platform.
We’re bringing all of those things together with an aviation brigade and then we’ve got a combat service support brigade which provides logistics support and tailors it for our manoeuvre brigades and now we’ve got, if you like, a combat support with a very heavy ISTAR focussed brigade in the Sixth Brigade.
What our manoeuvre brigade commanders are seeing now more and more is very tailored, very well networked capabilities coming to support them on their activities, be that at home or abroad.
ADM: Speaking of those future opportunities and challenges, how is the Army rising to the challenge of the Canberra-class LHDs?
Gillespie: The first thing I’d say is the level of excitement we’ve got about the arrival of the capability. Chief of Navy and I have been working very much hand in glove for the introduction of these ships. I think the difference that we see is that in the past with the LPAs and Tobruk, we’ve seen them as a form of transport and Army sort of engages with Navy at the time of the need for transportation and we rehearse a little bit together, but by and large it’s we get on the ships, they transport us and we get off the ships and away they go.
With the LHDs we see it very differently. We see the LHD not as a transport ship but as the heart of a capability and that capability is only realised when every time that ship puts to sea it has elements of the Army and the other services if necessary embarked on it.
It’s a floating capability that the government can use and it doesn’t matter whether it’s doing a Navy ship visit program to an exotic part of the world, it will have basically the elements of a combat team afloat so that if there’s a disaster somewhere, if the government wants to quickly deploy it it’s not a matter of bringing it back across the world and then loading it up, we’re ready to go.
ADM: Given the issues that HMA Ships Manoora and Kanimbla have faced recently, how will Army transition their training in terms of the ADAS (Amphibious Deployment and Sustainment) capability? How will that be addressed?
Gillespie: We’re working those issues right now. One of these things about the balance of the Army going forward, it’s obvious to me that if you look at the infantry, it’s going to be really difficult to try and maintain capabilities that you’d call mechanised, motorised, light infantry, parachute and amphibious; we’re too small to do all of those sorts of things.
So we’re looking at changing the balance of how we do those things, how we equip our people, because the reality of it is, that we take mechanised battalions, we get them to a certain level and then we re-role them for the jobs that the government’s been giving us for the last decade. Then they go off and then they come back and then we start to mechanise them again.
We’re looking very seriously at Army structures and how it manages those sorts of things over the next decade, and as I said, we’ll engage Government with that very shortly on a plan for the future. There’s no doubt that the amphibious capability – if it is to be a capability and not just a ship – will require us to have troops dedicated to it.
Now whether or not we have an amphibious force dedicated or we have our standard brigades and battalions associated with a ship for six months at a time, they’re the sorts of issues that we’re working through at the present time. We’re looking very hard at the experiences of the Americans and the British who maintain marine forces to try and work out what’s best for Australia.
But as I said at the start, the CN and I are very much aligned that these aren’t ships, they’re the heart of a capability and each time they’re put to sea that’s what they’ll be, a combination. He doesn’t like me saying it but, it’s Navy sailing Army ships.
ADM: How is planning progressing for the self-propelled element of Land 17?
Gillespie: Government is very keen; it’s part of the White Paper sort of process and a promise they’ve made in there. It’s not been easy in an industry sense but we’re making progress and I’m pretty comfortable with the options that are open to us and the recommendations that we’ll make to the Government in the not too distant future are all positive in that sense. There’s been some debate about the quality of platforms.
I like to hearken it to the Rolls Royce argument. In terms of capability, one of the things that I’m working really hard on in Army at the present time is to try and convince our workforce that it’s not the quality of the capability that’s important; it’s the quality of the people that operate it. And what I’m trying to say to some of our people in the development world and others is that perfectly good equipment in the hands of our workforce ends up being a Rolls Royce solution.
You don’t have to start with the Rolls Royce in the first place to get that. In terms of affordability and taking the defence dollar and spending it most wisely so that I can maximise on the capabilities that we can buy for our dollar, it’s important that our people understand that they are the Rolls Royce part of our capability. It’s them, it’s their education, it’s their teamwork, it’s their intellect, and it’s their adaptability that is at the heart of our capabilities.
If I give them a piece of equipment that’s simply good, they will turn that piece of equipment and the overall capability into something great. I don’t have to buy them the top of the line premium piece of kit to achieve that.
Now that’s a pretty hard sell to them but if you look at Australian military history, the thing that makes us who we are is not the size of the military, it’s not the kit that we have, it’s the people. That’s what I’m working really hard on, a cultural sense for them to understand.
So when you’re talking about big platforms and the costs between one version and the other where the difference is $300 million, you’ve got to ask yourself in combination with our workforce and those capabilities, is it worth the premium of the really high end one or is the perfectly good system there? And they’re the sorts of things that we’ve been working through in the SP world.
ADM: Speaking of that value for money in terms of taxpayer dollars, I understand that Army’s contribution to the Strategic Reform Program (SRP) is about $4 billion. What is Army doing on the ground right now to achieve those savings?
Gillespie: It’s a bit closer to $3 billion than $4 billion but it’s a lot of money in the process and I’ve got to say that in our first year of the SRP we easily found our targets, and we’ll do that next year. But it gets harder and harder as you go further into the decade.
We’ve been doing a number of things. Deputy Chief of the Army (DCA) and the DMO, the project officers, we meet on a monthly basis now and we do a series of what we call ‘deep dives’. That means we take a look at each fleet that we maintain for Army and we question the size of the fleet, why we have it, whether or not we use it, and whether or not we could do it better, and out of those deep dives so far we’ve made some significant savings and efficiencies because we’ve looked at ourselves really hard.
We’ve applied that principle: are we spending the taxpayer’s dollar wisely? Have we got more capability than we can maintain in some areas? And we’ve recognised some significant savings. Now they’re really hard work; I mean DCA is very robust in the way that he approaches those sorts of things.
We’ve had some efficiency exercises done in two aviation regiments. Basically caused by the aviators themselves rather than me demanding that they happen. They’ve looked at the way they do their business and maintenance and we’ve found a lot of spaces where we can make significant enhancements there.
Last year we had a thing called the Chief of Army’s Challenge where I went to the Army as a whole, right to the very lowest levels of the organisation and said ‘Look, there are many places where we can find savings and efficiencies in our organisation; there are many places that we do dumb bureaucratic things rather than spend the taxpayer’s dollar wisely.’ What I want is from the very lowest levels of the organisation for you to consider this, then back brief that to commanding officers, to brigade commanders, to forces commander, etcetera. Late last year those officers all back briefed me on the initiatives that they were going to take forward, and I’m really pleased that we’ve done that.
It’s not a top-down approach; we’ve gone and asked the workforce because they’re the people who can see on a day-to-day basis where some of these things happen and we’ve incorporated them up the chain. So with that sort of approach and with people not resisting the need for us to become more cost effective using the taxpayer’s dollars more wisely, meeting the aim of the government’s intent of making the savings that we’ve got so it can be reinvested in our program for Force 2030 over time, I’m starting to become very confident that in Army the right culture’s there.
People are realising we’re not doing this just for spin or it’s a short term issue that’s going to go away; we’re starting to see really good signs and the more I see that the more I’m confident that we’ll make our $3 billion plus savings over the decade. I think we’re doing particularly well.