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A lean, mean fighting machine: Expanding the size, capability and role of the ADF (Part 1)

Two paradigm-shifting conversations are currently taking place, one in several capitals both around the world and in Australia’s backyard and a second in the halls of power in Canberra – realising that more of the same when it comes to force structure, manpower and capability development for the ADF could serve to leave the nation woefully underprepared. 

History has been defined by the ambitions and conflagrations of “great powers”. Great powers typically combine a range of characteristics that set them apart from lower-tier middle and minor powers, including a complementary balance of “hard” and “soft” power dynamics, such as military and economic strength and diplomatic and cultural influence. 

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Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flash points of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century – blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and industrial potential, the nation has been able to embrace vastly different approaches to the nation’s strategic role and responsibilities. 

The nation’s history of strategic policy has evolved a great deal since the end of the Second World War – where the nation was once directly engaged in regional strategic and security affairs, actively deterring aggression and hostility in Malaya during the Konfrontasi and communist aggression in Korea and Vietnam as part of the “Forward Defence” policy.

However, growing domestic political changes following Vietnam saw a dramatic shift in the nation’s defence policy, and the rise of the “Defence of Australia” doctrine. 

This shift towards focusing on the direct defence of the Australian mainland dramatically altered the nation’s approach to intervention in subsequent regional security matters.

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These included Australia’s intervention in East Timor and later, to a lesser extent in the Solomon Islands and Fiji during the early to mid-2000s – each of these missions were further followed by humanitarian and disaster relief deployments throughout the region, each stretching the Australian Defence Force’s capacity to juggle multiple concurrent operations. 

Modern warfare has rapidly evolved over the last three decades, from high-tempo, manoeuvre-based operations that leveraged the combined capabilities of air, sea, land and space forces to direct troops, equipment and firepower around the battlefield during the first Gulf War, to low-intensity humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in southern Europe and the south Pacific, and the eventual rise of asymmetrical, guerilla conflicts in the mountains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq.

Now, the rise of China as a peer or near-peer competitor, driven by its unprecedented military build-up, namely the development of key power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial and strategic nuclear forces, combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region is serving to shake-up Australia’s way of thinking.

For the first time since the introduction of the Defence of Australia doctrine, growing consensus is developing amongst Australias strategic community in response to the growing power of China, that Australia needs to rethink its approach to politics, diplomacy and defence on the matter. 

In recent months and days, and for the first time since the introduction of the Defence of Australia doctrine, there is increasing debate about what a Plan B for Australia might look like, in the face of both an increasingly assertive China and unpredictable United States.

This has been perfectly encapsulated by ASPI senior analyst Dr Malcolm Davis, who told Defence Connect: “We need to burden share to a much greater degree than before, and accept that we can no longer base our defence planning on the assumption that in a major military crisis or a period leading up to a future war, the US will automatically be there for us.

“In fact, if we want to avoid that major military crisis, we have to do more than adopt a purely defensive/denial posture, and be postured well forward to counterbalance a rising China or to be able to assist the US and other key allies, notably Japan, to respond to challenges. We can’t be free-riders.”

So what does this look like? What should it look like? These are timely questions, particularly as conversations surrounding a Defence Force Posture Review continue to gather steam.

It is critical to identify that Defence Connect would never dictate what it believes should be done and is presenting topics to further stimulate debate. In this piece, we take a closer look at what could be introduced should the nation embrace the paradigm shift towards a true “armed forces” structure. 

Diversifying Army’s structure to meet the changing environment

The introduction of “Accelerated Warfare” builds on the reorganisation and modernisation efforts outlined in Plan Beersheba, which sought to establish the Australian Army as an integrated, combined arms force, which Major General (Ret'd) Gus McLachlan, retired Commander Forces Command, described:

“In Plan Beersheba we have the spine, the backbone of our 21st century, combined arms force, but it isn’t the future. That is where Accelerated Warfare comes into play, it aims to make Army an adaptable and capable force.”

This focus on the capability, particularly the expeditionary capability of Army, is supported by Dr Malcolm Davis of ASPI, who told Defence Connect, “I feel that the ADF needs responsive and effective power projection, air and naval, and boosting Army’s strategic mobility and amphibious capability.

“It is better to build our force structure to project power forward, deep into maritime south-east Asia and beyond, and also have forward military presence in the Indian Ocean and the south Pacific.”

Recognising this, what does the future Army look like? How large is it, how is it organised and what capabilities does it need to maintain its qualitative edge over potential adversaries? 

Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) and Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTF): The US Marine Corps and its globally deployed MEUs and MAGTFs provide the US with an unrivalled rapid response to contingencies ranging from humanitarian disaster relief and counterinsurgency to sea control and high-intensity power projection combat operations against a peer competitor.

Both the MEU and MAGTF concepts utilise US Navy LHDs and landing platform docks (LPD) supported by surface combatants to rapidly deploy integrated, “combined arms” forces, including amphibious landing, infantry, artillery, armour, combat engineers, both rotary and fixed-wing air support (both lift and attack), logistics, medical and supply chain services.  

As a combined arms force, both the MEU and MAGTF models incorporate four key elements, including: 

  • Command Element (CE): Providing command and control, including management and planning for manpower, intelligence, reconnaissance, operations and training, and logistics functions.
  • Ground Combat Element (GCE): Composed primarily of infantry units, the GCE also includes reconnaissance (scout/sniper units); forward air controller; nuclear, biological and chemical defence; communications; logistics support and service; artillery; armour (including amphibious armoured vehicles and armoured reconnaissance); and combat engineer capabilities. 
  • Aviation Combat Element (ACE): Contributes to the air power component, including fixed wing aircraft (ranging from strike to air lift and aerial refuelling), helicopters (both attack and airlift), tiltrotor (airlift) and UAV capabilities. 
  • Logistics Combat Element (LCE): Provides the majority of combat service support including heavy motor transport, ground supply, heavy engineer support, ground equipment maintenance, and advanced medical and dental support roles. 

Three such units – overhauling the amphibious brigades Australia currently uses, which are comprised of approximately 3,500 service personnel, distributed on the East (Townsville), West (Freemantle) and Northern (Darwin) coasts and supported by a reinforced sea-lift and naval power projection capability – would provide the nation with the capacity to rapidly respond to a range of contingencies ranging from humanitarian and disaster relief, through to police actions, regional stabilisation and larger, high-intensity combat operations. 

Brigade Combat Team (BCT): Complementing the capabilities of Australia’s amphibious force would be the introduction of a larger, heavier Army organisation akin to the US Army BCT – which can be highly specialised and consist of one combat arms branch manoeuvre brigade, support and fire units. 

BCT are typically made up of between 4,400 and 5,000 soldiers, with specialised infantry, mechanised infantry and light armoured reconnaissance, armoured units, divisional artillery, air, medical, logistics and command and control support.

The specialised focus of BCTs provides a diverse QRF capable of meeting any number of contingencies, without limiting the overall combat strength of the Army, by deploying a proportional, tailored, brigade size combined arms force to global hotspots, within 96 hours, as opposed to a division-sized force at 120 hours.

BCTs serve as the basis of the US forward-deployed conventional, ground-based, power projection and deterrence forces in continental Europe, with a series of modernisation programs to enhance the combat lethality and deployability of key platforms to combat continued Russian aggression in eastern Europe. 

Such forces are usually combined within the overall command structure of a larger divisional force and in line with promoting greater interoperability with major regional and global allies, namely the United States, would require a similar model for Australia to embrace – such units would also require a larger number of BCTs to accommodate a “rule of three” readiness, training and re-equipping and rest and recuperation cycle. 

Having six such formations, organised into two divisions would provide Australia’s political and defence leaders with two readily deployable high-intensity combat focused forces employing similar doctrine, command and control and operational tempos to that of Australias major allies – enabling greater Australian presence at key locations like Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam and in the South Pacific.   

Your thoughts

The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.

Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.

For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.

Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation. 

In the next part of this multi-part series, Defence Connect will contribute to the ongoing debate around Australia’s force structure and long-term acquisition programs and paradigm shift from a “defence force” towards a true “armed force”, discussing potential force structures for the Royal Australian Navy with follow-on closer looks at the Royal Australian Air Force and Special Operations Command, as its own branch of the ADF based on 150,000 personnel. 

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of increasing the budget, manpower and capabilities available to the ADF in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A lean, mean fighting machine: Expanding the size, capability and role of the ADF (Part 1)
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