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Op-Ed: Ensuring Australia’s platform superiority is backed by intellectual superiority

Much is made about Australias investment in next-generation warfighting capabilities, ranging from the Attack Class submarines and Boxer armoured vehicles to stealth F-35, however these platforms are only part of the equation. The ADF’s personnel are its greatest platform, and maximising their capability in an age of disruption is equally critical, explains Major General Mick Ryan AM.

Much is made about Australias investment in next-generation warfighting capabilities, ranging from the Attack Class submarines and Boxer armoured vehicles to stealth F-35, however these platforms are only part of the equation. The ADF’s personnel are its greatest platform, and maximising their capability in an age of disruption is equally critical, explains Major General Mick Ryan AM.

In a 2003 article, Chris Meyer and Ray Kurzweil wrote that “we’re entering an era of acceleration. The models underlying society at every level, which are largely based on a linear model of change, are going to have to be redefined”. 


These were prescient words, given all that has transpired in the nearly two decades since the interview. Roll forward 17 years, and this notion of accelerated change in the environment now underpins nearly every assessment of our security environment. 

These changes in the environment are driven by a range of factors, among them geopolitical disruption, technological developments, demographic shifts. 

The disruption we are seeing around us impacts at every level of human endeavour. And perhaps no endeavour is likely to be changed as significantly as that of governments seeking to achieve an enduring national security. 



Nations must seek every source of advantage. For a mid-size nation like Australia, recourse to mass will rarely deliver an advantage. Our geography, once enabling us to hunker down at the bottom of the world, no longer conveys significant defence advantages.

Despite the amazing equipment that continues to enter service in the Australian Defence Force, technology now only conveys transient advantages. We must turn to another source of advantage – an intellectual advantage – to leverage strength in other areas and adapt our concepts and organisations more frequently.

Fashioning this intellectual edge in our people guides my approach to commanding the Australian Defence College. This provides our core purpose and shapes our interactions and sharing of ideas with partners in Australia and overseas.

This intellectual edge manifests in two different, but interconnected, ways. The first aspect of an intellectual edge is individual professional mastery. For an individual, this is their capacity to be able to creatively out-think and out-plan potential adversaries. 

It results from challenging training, education, experience, and talent management, as well as a personal commitment to continuous self-learning over the course of one’s career. This individual intellectual edge also requires people to develop their capacity for relationship building across many different types of military, government and industry groups, as well as different nationalities. 

It is pointless to possess a finely-honed intellect if it cannot be applied to influence others through effective human interaction.

The second expression of the intellectual edge is institutional. While the intellectual edge in individual leaders and planners is vitally important, so too is a collective, institution-wide intellectual edge.

This comprises an organisation's capacity to effectively harness the disparate and diverse intellects of its individuals to solve complex institutions' problems in the short, medium, and long term. 

The challenges of future force design, operational concepts, achieving the right balance of violence and influence, logistic support, partnering with industry, and talent management must be the targets of this institutional intellectual edge.

How does the Australian Defence College support the ADF, and wider national security endeavour, in achieving this intellectual edge? There are three key areas: strategic leadership, educational reform, and technological transformation.

The Australian Defence College provides strategic leadership in transitioning our industrial age learning constructs to the information age. This includes the advocacy for learning across Defence, implementing our new Defence Enterprise Learning Strategy, co-ordinating the sharing of lessons about new approaches and technologies, and strategic engagement with our Australian university partners and military education allies overseas.

Reform in our training and education is a task that should never stop. 

The world keeps moving on; we need to remain across strategic change and continually adapt out curriculum and short course offerings to support Defence. But we have also implemented a career-long continuous learning approach for professional military education, which was endorsed by Defence senior leadership in 2018. 

This joint professional military education continuum, and its supporting curriculum and elite programs, includes important new initiatives to significantly enhance the technological literacy of our people. Preparing our people for human-machine teaming, applying algorithms in decision support and understanding the range of disruptive technologies in the military and beyond is vital.

We also support informal learning through learning hubs like The Forge, blogs and social media. This is against a background of constant change in the skillsets needed in Defence – we continually seek new and improved ways of more quickly retraining and re-educating our people to intellectually keep pace with this ‘era of accelerations’. 

Finally, we are leading a range of technological initiatives that leverages new learning technologies to allow more Defence people to access learning. Our people must be able to access the right learning, for the right purpose, at the right time and at the right place. 

An important element of this is our cloud-based Defence learning network – the Australian Defence Education Learning Environment (ADELE). This online learning network is used across Defence by over 90,000 users for a range of joint, Single Service and public service education and training requirements. 

It is robust and adaptable. It allowed us to rapidly adapt our programs this year and move to remote learning. We were also able to use this network as part of our COVID-19 online training packages. In the space of a few days, we were able to design and develop training, have it checked by medical experts, and then get it online for Defence personnel. 

To date, we have over 210,000 completions of these COVID-19 courses, and the training packages have been made available to the US, the UK, New Zealand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, Tonga and a range of other nations.

Building the intellectual capacity of our people, and generating an intellectual edge, is the critical mission of the Australian Defence College.  It is something we are passionate about, because we know from history it can make a profound difference in military operations as well as in building effective national strategies. 

As Williamson Murray has written, “War is an incredibly complex endeavour which is not only the most physically demanding of all the professions, but also the most demanding intellectually and morally. The cost of slovenly thinking at every level of war can translate into the deaths of innumerable men and women, most of whom deserve better from their leaders.” 

Our mission at the ADC is to ensure our nation, the ADF, and the wider national security enterprise are the beneficiaries of the best educated, enlightened, creative and values-based people that it is possible for us to develop for this most intellectually and morally demanding of professions.

Major General Mick Ryan graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1989 as a Combat Engineer. Early career highlights include: serving with the 6RAR Battalion Group in East Timor in 2000; in 2003, being the lead planner for development of the first ADF Network Centric Warfare Roadmap; and in 2005, serving as the Deputy J3 for the MultiNational Security Transition Command – Iraq, Baghdad.

MAJGEN Ryan commanded the 1st Combat Engineer Regiment from 2006 until 2007. He also commanded the 1st Reconstruction Task Force in southern Afghanistan from August 2006 to April 2007, and was awarded the Order of Australia for the command of this Task Force.

In 2008, he served on Army Headquarters, working primarily on the Adaptive Army strategic reform initiative. In 2009, he served as the Military Assistant to the Chief of Army. From 2010 - 2011, MAJGEN Ryan worked in the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell (PACC) on the US Joint Staff, as the Division Chief for Governance, Development and Engagement, and subsequently in a new Strategy and Policy Division.

MAJGEN Ryan has a Bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of New England and is a graduate of the Australian Defence Force School of Languages. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a graduate of the USMC School of Advanced Warfighting. In 2012, he graduated with distinction from the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, earning a Master’s in International Public Policy.

From October 2014 until February 2016, MAJGEN Ryan commanded the Darwin-based 1st Brigade, the Australian Army’s oldest and most operationally experienced combat formation. From February 2016 until October 2017, he led the education, training and doctrine efforts in Army as Director General Training and Doctrine. During this, he authored and implemented the Ryan review, a fundamental and future-oriented strategic review of Army’s approach to education, training, doctrine and lessons learned.

During this appointment, Army’s revised strategy for PME was developed and a broader roll-out of online PME delivery was implemented. Major General Ryan has deep experience the fields of strategy, interagency and joint operations, command and leadership as well as professional military education.

He possesses a long-standing interest in national and military strategy, military history, as well as organisational innovation and adaptation.

He is President of the Defence Entrepreneurs Forum (Australia), an undertaking to nurture innovation in the ADF’s junior leaders. He is a proud member of the Military Writers Guild. MAJGEN Ryan was appointed Commander, Australian Defence College in January 2018.

Op-Ed: Ensuring Australia’s platform superiority is backed by intellectual superiority
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