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Technology is changing the way the army fights and integrates: MAJGEN McLachlan

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While Navy and Air Force are enjoying high-profile coverage of new platforms like F-35 and the Hobart Class, Army has been quietly plugging away, focusing on integrating new technology and esprit de corps to ensure the Army has the edge over adversaries to win on the battlefields of the 21st century. 

Major General Gus McLachlan, Commander Forces Command has helped to shape the ever-evolving nature of the Army, the doctrine and technology now transforming Australia's Army and its role as part of the 'joint force' concept of the ADF. 

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Following a diverse career of 36 years with the Army and rotations through the 1st Armoured Regiment, the US Marine Corps prestigious Warfighting Laboratory and Australia's contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) supporting the reconstruction of Afghanistan, MAJGEN McLachlan has overseen the evolution of the Army from a traditional analogue force into the rapidly evolving, combined arms, hardened, digital and network-driven fighting force for the 21st century. 

In the latest edition of On Point, MAJGEN McLachlan discusses the implications of the digital transformation of the Army, the transition from Plan Beersheba to Accelerated Warfare and the implications for the Army's culture, doctrine and ability to fight and win on the battlefields of the future. 

Phil Tarrant: G'day, everyone. Thanks for joining us on the Defence Connect podcast today. I've been looking forward to this podcast for a while. In the studio we have Major General Gus McLachlan.

He's going to have a chat with us about the future of the Army, and hopefully we're going to get a bit of an inside word on how doctrine is evolving within the Army, how the Army is going to be working with its counterparts across the air and the sea domain, and just generally how the ADF is equipping itself for the future. And you just need to read any paper these days around the threat environment that exists at the moment for Australia.

It's a changing geopolitical space within our part of the world, and I'm happy to say that in my read of it and discussing with people right across the services, it is a big focus right now on how are we going to combat this threat. I'd like to welcome onto the podcast Major General Gus McLachlan. Gus, how are you going?    

You've been in uniform for a number of decades now, and the culture of the Army from an external perspective, looking in, has changed and evolved probably just in your tenure. But if you think back 100 years to the Army today, is it fundamentally the same spirit, the same can-do attitude, the same dedication to service that existed 100 years ago to what it does today?

MAJGEN McLachlan: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.   

Yeah. And that's what we want to retain. You want to pick the best bits of that. That young people of today, I think, grow in stature when they join us. They connect to something that's 100 years old. But on the other hand, you've got to represent the society that you're in, and young people need to be led differently. The Millennial generation want to know more about the background to a task. We find that they're inspired when they get the context and given the opportunity to add their creativity and their opportunity.

So you bring the best of those Anzac traditions of mateship, working for each other, fighting for the person alongside you, but you have to keep innovating and develop modern leadership practices.

The workforce of today is led differently to when I joined. I remember getting off the plane at Canberra, Sergeant Major about two centimeters from my face explaining exactly what was going to happen to me in graphic detail. I don't think we would approach a current intake at the Royal Military College quite the same way.

Phil Tarrant: Well, things do change, and I think the Army today will change the Army tomorrow, and we'll try and have a look at that today. And importantly, the role the defence industry plays in that evolution.

We're shifting now into an Army and an ADF which is driven by technology, and I think the job you had prior to the one you have right now of Forces Command, you were leading the charge on the modernisation of the Army and the digitalisation of the Army.

How are we going with that? Is it we're never going to get there? We're always going to be working at it? Or do you think you've made some pretty important steps?

MAJGEN McLachlan: Yes, to both questions. So we will never get there. There's no destination. Just as in our civilian lives, if you like, the rate of change in the personal processing devices that we carry around, we call them telephones, but they're actually far more than that. The rate of change in that environment is enormously rapid and so it will always be in ours. But on the other hand, we have made some really big strides.

I think we have... In fact, I don't think. I know we have the backbone and the spine of our digitised systems right now. Our performance on our big exercise Hamel this year, we saw a leap ahead in our digital performance.

Some of that came on the spine recently introduced of our new Boeing extended range capability. I think some of the best satellite UHF and network management tools available in the world. That's given us a stability and a confidence in the movement of our data packets overlaid on top of our battle management system.

So that was important, though. We've been asking a lot of our workforce. We've been saying for a number of years, "Persevere. This stuff is good and it's going to make a difference."

To their great credit, our young leaders did persevere. It didn't always work, but they hung in there because they knew this was a really important process for us. But I think this year we saw that system delivering really high levels of reliability. So we've made a really significant jump.

The future now is to create that so called internet of things, that connected deployed land combat system, so that new systems can be acquired and plug into that relatively seamlessly. And then the big question for us is then how do we plug into the joint environment and leverage the huge power of the F-35, the AEW&C (airborne early warning and control), and the air warfare destroyer?

Phil Tarrant: So where we sit right now, there's been a bit of a doctoral shift or evolution within the Army. Plan Beersheba to Accelerated Warfare, and it's a reasonably new concept.

An Army in motion. Can you just fill us in on exactly the shift away from Beersheba to where we are today? What the purpose of that is; what the objectives are; and, it's a big question, how are we going to make this happen?  

MAJGEN McLachlan: Yeah, so Beersheba was a really important body of work General David Morrison started when General Angus Campbell took over as Chief. He made it clear that it was not his intention to launch another big idea.

We needed to execute Beersheba and make sure we could deliver it, and we did that. We declared, if you like, Beersheba up and running in 2017. It was neatly coincided with the commemorations in Beersheba, but that was not an artificial orchestration.

What that meant was we've now got a well balanced, combined arms team that has that network spine. So going back to the hardened networked Army described by General Peter Leahy, delivered really through Beersheba, we now have all the elements of our combined arms team spread evenly across Army.

We've got increased combat weight, but more importantly we've now got protection around our soldiers, and we have this developing and now pretty robust digital spine. Being completely honest, that caught us up really to the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

That's not anything that takes us into the future. So General Rick Burr, our new Chief, his challenge, and as he's starting to articulate it, is to say, "OK, Beersheba is the platform to take us into the future. We're future ready, if you like, but now we've got to work out what's next," and so he's introduced two terms. One describing an Army in motion.

Now that might sound a little bit buzzy, but actually into the workforce it's resonating in the sense that change is normal. Starting to get this idea, just as in a civilian business environment, if you don't anticipate disruption then you're the New York Taxi Company with Uber cutting your business model to pieces. So his message to the Army is change is normal.

Let's try and make ourselves more agile and our systems. Now, I can come back to that. That's not always easy. We have entrenched training models and employment frameworks and so on that are briefed through the Defence Force remuneration tribunal and the link to pay and so on and so on.

So there's some work to do to realise that idea, but I think the mindset is important to say there's no destination. There's no, "We're the best Army in the world. Let's celebrate."

It is, "Let's keep abreast of our adversary." The Accelerated Warfare, I think, is starting off with describing this world that he wants us to be a more agile and adaptable Army, and still a work in progress to define what that is and I think we'll see that over the course of the early part of General Burr's tenure.

Phil Tarrant: I've done a bit of reading on this and always looked a bit of a shortcut to try and aggregate a whole bunch of information and synthesise it really easy. And some of the stuff I pulled out of the documents that I read through, it was really about the operating environment and how we respond to the Army as a nation.

The next stage is equipping, it's training, it's educating, organising and preparing for war, which I thought was really good across.

I guess, the factors coming into it were the geopolitical factors, the changing threat environment, which I touched on originally. There's disruptive technologies, and I know you've spoken about this before, and this democratisation of technology.

So a lot of the advantages that we had previously with adversaries don't exist anymore. And this domain integration, so bringing it all together.

I think the concept is good. Something I pulled out is that there was this expectation or anticipation that Army leaders would be integrators. So they're going to have this big picture thinking.

So it's drawing out a lot of this stuff from corporate world, corporate Australia, corporate leadership into an application within the Army. Your job, Forces Command, how does this all fit within application of this? Because you're looking after a lot of troops who were out there on the frontline.

MAJGEN McLachlan: Great summary, by the way. So one of the first things that we had to realise, and this comes back to this notion of an Army in motion, the traditional really stove-piped hierarchical command and control methods that armies often default back to, you have to blow that apart. And someone like General Burr's matrixed to his DNA.

He's a special forces background. He's used to leveraging air, sea, different methods of insertion. So taking that culture across Army and saying, "Let's be less concerned by the strict hierarchies and let's generate agility by having more people talking to each other."

Now that sounds reasonably simple, and of course every big company in this city of Sydney is trying to achieve the same thing. How do you break down those silos and break down those stove pipes?

So the first thing for us is creating a leadership environment where it's OK, in fact it's expected, that you're talking to everybody. We've seen a really important growth in the joint communication.

So my early career, I could have told you on one hand the number of officers from Navy or Air Force that I would have engaged with. We're seeing a really fundamental change come through. Firstly, this is the ad for generations.

They've now trained together, grown up together, have relationships. They've also done deployments together. So when you've sat on the ground in Helmand or in Oruzgan and there's been Air Force and Navy people around you, some of those old petty differences have gone away. So important environment where people are collaborating.

I'll give you a really good example of just how that's manifesting. So on Exercise Hamel last year, we always had this view that Hamel was our big Army exercise, but we had this saying that if we build it, they will come. If you build a rich quality training environment and provide an opportunity for the other services to come, they will.

Phil Tarrant: This cultural shift when we look towards the future of the Army and this connectivity with the other services, and I guess a collective fighting force is critical moving forward.

Everyone and everything has critics. So if you look at this ambitious plan of the Army to drive it forward and prepare, there's an industry component, and we'll touch on that.

But do you think the leadership, this mid-level, junior level officers coming through the ranks, have that change in thought that can help drive this change? Or is there something that's going to hold them back? 

MAJGEN McLachlan: I reckon our young leaders are just ripping for it. We're seeing a really vibrant group now, but discussing, looking at Defence Connect, looking at other blogs. We've got a really vibrant exchange going across a number of global platforms.

So we're seeing an exciting level of engagement and professional buy-in. I think we've got a fantastic group of senior leaders who are pretty good at seeing the future, but also in empowering the workforce to have a say.

The use of podcasts, the communication with our workforce. We've leaned far further into social media than perhaps any other service here. But we can't be complacent. There is a traditional core of our workforce that are little bit uncomfortable with change, and we need to keep explaining and communicating to them the why, and making sure that those changes can be made.

Just a simple example, if you're the custodian of a training management framework, and you know we grow the best ... I'm a tanker. You know we grow up the best tank soldiers in the world.

Well anyone who then wants to change that training management framework, but aren't you risking this amazing training that we have? So you've got to explain it. You've got to say a little bit less of that, but the addition of digital command and control to create agility. That exchange is worthwhile. So we can't be complacent that this is just automatic.

Big organisations that have some conservative roots back to that 100-year tradition thing we talked at the start. But I think in the broad bottom up, top down, we're seeing a real appetite to be this Army in motion that General Burr's describing.

Phil Tarrant: And how do you balance your headspace between deploying and utilising the equipment you have today with the needs of what you need to deliver versus what's next?

Digitisation, big data, robotics, all this type of stuff. Do you segment them out and you look at them differently and you apply your thought to them independently, or is that a combined process?

MAJGEN McLachlan: Yeah, it's a really important question and a big challenge. So you've gotta train with what you have to an extent, that you can't appear to your workforce that you're always dreaming or anticipating what's coming. And perhaps on that digitisation space for Army, we really asked a lot of our workforce

Because I think we had a vision of where this digital connected Army could be in terms of increasing our tempo of decision making, being more precise with the application of our force.

If you don't have enough mesh out there and your data is getting blocked and not moving it through, you've got this workforce who are looking at you saying, "Well I think you're in La La Land, senior leader." So what we have to do is be able to articulate a coherent pathway to the future. 

Now, I do challenge people to be more curious and more demanding of the future, and I think particularly for us as senior leaders, it's not enough to subcontract out this notion of big data analytics is a huge issue.

We've got sensors now in the ADF that can hoover up imagery, data and so on.

If you can't analyse that and present it for an intelligence analyst to use, to present to a commander, then there's very little point in having it. So you've got to build a bridge from where you are now. You've got to be able to visualise the future.

And again, I think as an ADF, we are now better at that combined thing. Fight with what you got, be curious about where you might want to get to, but build a meaningful pathway to get there, because otherwise this highly intelligent workforce of ours will see through us.

The full podcast with Forces Commander, Major General Gus McLachlan, is available here

Technology is changing the way the army fights and integrates: MAJGEN McLachlan
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