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Man v machine: Future of war not all drones and AI, soldiers still matter

Opinion: While much of the focus across the world’s militaries emphasises autonomous and uncrewed systems as a means of adding much-needed mass and to shore up dropping recruitment numbers, people power still remains critical to warfighting, explains Dr Alan Dupont AO, CEO of Sydney-based Cognoscenti Group.

Opinion: While much of the focus across the world’s militaries emphasises autonomous and uncrewed systems as a means of adding much-needed mass and to shore up dropping recruitment numbers, people power still remains critical to warfighting, explains Dr Alan Dupont AO, CEO of Sydney-based Cognoscenti Group.

The Gaza conflict is teetering on the brink of a messy and bloody climax. Israel’s decision to seize the border crossing into the southern city of Rafah, the last redoubt of Hamas, seems like a familiar chapter in the grim annals of war – soldiers slugging it out in grinding, destructive battles that kill thousands of innocent civilians and destroy whole cities.

Yet a surprising number of decision-makers and military experts believe wars are being “revolutionised” by technology, reducing the need for boots on the ground as
machines take over in proxy, sanitised contests.


Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt says “the future of war will be dictated and waged by drones”. Military analyst TX Hammes is convinced that drones, artificial intelligence and the rapid adaptation of commercial technologies in Ukraine and Gaza are creating a genuine military revolution. Exhibit A is last month’s massive but scripted Iranian drone and missile strikes on Israel that resulted in no deaths.

Similar claims were made after the 1991 Gulf War and the initial phases of America’s “shock and awe” campaign in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

This led some to predict that the elusive holy grail of decisive, casualty-sparse battles was within reach. Prominent strategist Francis Hoffman said this revolution would change the fundamental nature of combat as Western technology penetrated, and lifted, the fog of war.

These hopes proved illusory. So will those of today’s uber optimists. Wars will remain dirty, bloody, unpredictable and chaotic. Technological improvements may temporarily tip the balance of a conflict in favour of an early adopter. But they do not change war’s fundamentals because the other side learns and adapts.

And there is little sign that casualty rates are going down.

Russia suffered an estimated 146,820 combat casualties in the first year of its invasion of Ukraine, which is not unusually high by historical standards. According to Kyiv, more than 10,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since the war began and another 20,000 injured. These casualty figures are comparable to wars of the past.

Most have been inflicted by old-fashioned artillery shells, not by drones or hi-tech missiles. Historian and foreign policy analyst Stephen Biddle estimates that about 85 per cent of Russian combat casualties have been caused by Ukraine’s artillery.

Far from representing a revolution in military affairs, the war in Ukraine is beginning to resemble World War I with its concentrations of infantry, defensive fortifications, static lines and heavy use of artillery and tanks. Russia is slowly pulverising Ukraine’s defensive positions with enormous firepower aided by an overwhelming superiority in troop numbers.

These are human soldiers, not droids. Armies still matter. They provide the bulk of a nation’s combat power and are needed to take and hold ground. Missiles and
drones can’t do that. Neither can navies and air forces. You can’t bomb populations into submission. But like an orchestra searching for an optimal harmony of its

contributing instruments, the key to success on the battlefield lies in effectively integrating all elements of combat power in “combined arms manoeuvre”.

Russia took a third of Ukraine using combined arms manoeuvres before Ukraine successfully pushed back in a counteroffensive using similar tactics. However, both
the breakthroughs and the stalemates in Ukraine, Biddle wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, have “occurred in the face of new weapons and equipment. Conversely,
older legacy systems such as tanks played prominent roles in both the offensive successes and failures. These variations are hard to square with any technologically
determined new epoch in war.”

Although a different kind of conflict, Gaza confirms Biddle’s conclusions. Hamas has pursued an asymmetric strategy by embedding its fighters among the civilian
population and deep beneath the ground in an extensive tunnel system that runs the length and breadth of the Gaza Strip. This has forced Israel to reduce parts of
Gaza to a moonscape.

Urban warfare, with its heavy toll of civilians and massive destruction of infrastructure, is an inescapable reality.

Hi-tech machines in the form of drones, precision-guided munitions and pervasive surveillance systems turbocharged by artificial intelligence undoubtedly have
helped the Israel Defence Forces to counter Hamas. But the IDF also has had to use dumb bombs, tanks, bulldozers and infantry to take out Hamas positions, occupy ground and destroy the labyrinth of tunnels dubbed the “Gaza metro”.

The resulting civilian casualties have ignited a firestorm of protest, not only in the Arab world but also among Western elites who should know better – that high
civilian casualties are a direct consequence of Hamas’s willingness to sacrifice its own people for political and propaganda purposes by exploiting our casualty aversion.

Contemporary warfare cannot be sanitised. Manipulation of casualty rates is an intrinsic part of information warfare as prosecuted by Hamas, Russia and their fellow travellers.

A prominent example is the casualty claims by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health regularly cited in Western media. The Ministry of Health claims to have documented more than 33,000 Palestinian fatalities. But if the IDF has decimated 20 of the 24 battalions comprising the original Hamas force of 30,000, a large proportion of these Palestinian deaths are clearly Hamas fighters.

Although there have been significant civilian casualties, the claim that 70 per cent have been women and children is unlikely and has been contested by several authoritative studies. Years will pass before the true casualty figures for the Gaza conflict will be known. And even then they can only be estimates.

These lessons should have been headlined in Defence Minister Richard Marles’s foreword to the recently released National Defence Strategy because they provide
invaluable insights into the wars the Australian Defence Force will have to fight.

But the sharp reduction in the army’s new infantry fighting vehicles from 450 to 129 seriously jeopardises the ability of our soldiers to do their job. IFVs provide essential firepower and protected mobility. They are central to an army’s ability to prosecute core tasks across a range of scenarios including urban warfare.

The 2009 defence white paper ruled out deployments to conflicts that could draw the ADF into urban warfare for fear of unsustainable casualties. Thousands of years of armed conflict should have taught us that no army gets to choose the wars it will fight or where it will fight.

The Gaza and Ukraine conflicts suggest that future wars largely will be fought for control of cities and towns. Australians live in one of the most densely populated, urbanised regions. The ADF cannot simply opt out of urban warfare. It must have the capability to defeat irregular and regular forces who choose to fight where
people live.

Another common misperception is that Gaza and Ukraine have little or no relevance for us. It’s often asserted that because Australia is an island continent situated in a vast expanse of ocean, our defence force should be heavily weighted towards the navy.

But maritime strategy is not purely a naval preserve for the simple reason that our oceanic neighbourhood is dotted with numerous islands and archipelagos where people live, critical battles must be fought, and humanitarian and disaster relief operations carried out.

Eminent naval historian John Hattendorf writes that a true maritime strategy includes “the protection of offshore islands”. Many of the naval conflicts in both world wars were associated with operations against the shore. Land forces have always been integral to maritime strategy as the bloody, American island-hopping campaigns of the Pacific war should remind us.

Many commentators and armchair strategists don’t understand this reality.

Fortunately, they don’t include the authors of last year’s Defence Strategic Review.

They recommended: “Army must be optimised for littoral operations in our northern land and maritime spaces and provide a long-range strike capability.”

Littoral comes from the Latin littoralis, meaning “of or belonging to the seashore”, which is the crucial transitional zone from the sea to the land where military
operations are usually decisive. Whoever controls the littoral likely wins the war.

That requires boots on the ground and the means to get them there.

The army’s capacity to conduct amphibious operations in Southeast Asia and the small islands of the southwest Pacific has long been a neglected area of capability.

The National Defence Strategy and accompanying Integrated Investment Program go some way to addressing this problem by providing $7bn to $10bn for “littoral manoeuvre vessels” and $5bn to $7bn for “related facilities”.

This should result in a modernised, amphibious fleet of 18 medium and eight heavy landing craft built in Australia and distributed across three units between 2026 and 2037. One will be based in Darwin and the other two in southeastern and northern Queensland.

Both the US and Japan are also upgrading their amphibious fleets, recognising the urgent need to counter China’s overwhelming preponderance of maritime power in the Western Pacific.

This offers a rare opportunity for allied cost-sharing around the design, build, support and maintenance of the emerging fleets, and provides insights into how
Australia’s maritime strategy will be operationalised.

Although the strategy is enemy agnostic, it’s clear that our newly “focused force” is really China focused. The People’s Liberation Army has spent 20 years planning to nullify the air and naval power of the US and allies such as Australia. But it has paid far less attention to countering lethal, highly mobile ground forces operating from the constraining island chain that runs from Japan to Australia.

China’s naval dominance can be contested by agile, survivable, small units of soldiers using missiles designed to take out ships at favourable ratios. Ukraine has destroyed a third of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet asymmetrically using land-based drones and missiles, underlining the effectiveness of this strategy for a country with a
relatively small army and minuscule navy.

The trick is to occupy strategically important territory before the enemy gets there. Incumbency is the key. It’s much easier to hold a position or make it difficult for an opponent to lodge there, rather than having to attack an entrenched enemy. We must be able to dominate maritime choke points from the land.

What has been missing from the ADF’s armoury to enable this maritime strategy are the ships to take our troops to likely trouble spots and the long-range firepower to deter and defeat an invading force.

We already have the large ships to lift more than 1000 troops with their supporting heavy equipment. The air force can provide protection out to 1000km from the
mainland and more with air-to-air refuelling. But we don’t have the means to get troops ashore quickly and safely or independently transport them between islands in heavy seas at significant distances from Australia. The new amphibious fleet will go a long way to redressing this deficiency.

This means the army will become more like the US Marine Corps, although lighter and fewer in number. The USMC is the world’s premier amphibious fighting force and the likely spearhead of any US military intervention in the Western Pacific.

What we lack is experience in amphibious operations. This can be rectified by stepped up training with the vastly more experienced marines and the newly
created amphibious units of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force.

But the best training, strategy and equipment won’t translate into an effective fighting force without motivated people. The shrinking ADF is a serious problem, along with the pitifully small increase in defence funding of $5.7bn across the next four years, an insignificant 0.1 per cent of GDP that reflects poorly on the Albanese government’s commitment to defence.

The government has acknowledged that the ADF is 4400 personnel below strength. But it hasn’t revealed how dire the shortfall is. Nor has it provided an explanation for the repeated failure to meet recruitment targets.

Senior officials privately describe defence capabilities as “on life support” and “below minimum viable capability”.

Recruiting Pacific Islanders or Kiwis isn’t going to close this yawning gap or provide the additional 18,500 recruits to the full-time defence workforce the former Coalition government wanted by 2040.

This is a multifaceted problem that must be solved primarily by recruiting Australians. Some of the underlying recruitment issues are ephemeral and common
to business and industry. They include the still robust economy, low unemployment and the declining trust in institutions particularly by Generation Z (ages 12 to 27), the current seed bed for military recruitment.

The litany of bad news coming out of Defence across the past decade, from expensive acquisition fiascos to command failures and the poor treatment of veterans, hasn’t helped. This has weakened morale internally and made parents question whether they want their sons and daughters serving in an ADF that doesn’t appear to value its people.

A more insidious and challenging obstacle is the pernicious anti-defence sentiment that has taken root in our society. Fuelled by the hard left and allied progressives, the police and military increasingly are seen as instruments of an oppressor class.

We haven’t had calls to defund the police or military yet. But some believe that defence spending is wasted money. If they had their way, the Greens would reduce
the ADF to a constabulary force by cancelling defence contracts and cutting defence spending to 1.5 per cent of GDP, a fatuous position that largely has escaped
the attention of the media.

The economic cycle eventually will turn, easing pressures on defence recruitment. Changing entrenched attitudes is a more difficult problem, particularly the apathy, verging on antipathy, towards the ADF among many of our elites.

Governments of both political persuasions have failed to articulate persuasively what we stand for as a country and what it is we are defending. The answer is that we are unashamedly pro-democracies and the rule of law. And we want to remain a sovereign, independent middle power.

Young Australians will fight for these ideals if they see that governments are genuinely invested in a robust defence force.

Alan Dupont is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, and a professor of International Security at the University of New South Wales. Alan is also the chief executive of geopolitical risk consultancy The Cognoscenti Group.

Editor’s note: This piece was published in The Weekend Australian and was republished with the author’s approval.

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