By Sasha Uzunov
copyright 2008

The Australian Army’s new Chief, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, has recently called for a dramatic change in the way our army fights in a modern and complicated world. This is long overdue, but we will have to wait and see if that ever materialises or just gets buried away in some report.

General Gillespie has acknowledged the need to peel away the layers of headquarters and bureaucracy that hinder the chain of command’s ability to direct soldiers in battle. This makes excellent sense.

For the record, General Gillespie is held in high esteem by many.

The Chief of the army has also acknowledged that the “enemy” the Taliban has cleverly adapted the use of modern technology such as the internet to wage war. However, his claim that “our operations will often be less about killing the enemy than about making them irrelevant to the population,” is pie in the sky stuff unless we make some dramatic changes in our Army.

I do not believe that the Generals or politicians would be prepared to do that.

Let me explain, General Gillespie has acknowledged that soldiers will have more to do on the battlefield overseas.

That is they will have to undertake humanitarian assistance, nation building, and so on. We will need to have flexible soldiers. But where will these flexible soldiers come from? Army training can only do so much.

You have a 19 year old who enlists in the Army and his life experience is limited and yet he maybe required going to Afghanistan and assisting in that country’s restructuring. Or a 20 year old who is commissioned as an officer lead men into battle.

The current professional army does not allow for flexibility. I am not talking about changing the traditional chain of command structure or hierarchy. No army can function as a democracy, unfortunately. It is the nature of the beast.

What I am saying is a fully professional army consists of enlisted men and officers who, if they play the game, get promoted and move up the career ladder. Therefore, you do not encourage flexibility or initiative or the ability to think outside the box.

One way to overcome this is to have officers first serve two years as enlisted men before they can be lead men, the way they do in the Israeli Army. But our traditional military system inherited from the British is unlikely to change. There would be too much resistance because officers have a privileged role in our army.

Moreover, we need to encourage people from a wide variety of professional backgrounds to join the army. At present the system, known as Direct Entry Officer or Specialist Service Officer takes lawyers, dentists, doctors, engineers, journalists directly out of civilian life and puts them in fields related to their professions. This is a great idea.

However, we need flexible soldiers who will have to do the fighting. We need warrior-scholars, as opposed to a lawyer in uniform. We need to get people into infantry corps, the frontline troops.

How do we do that? One way, and this is highly controversial, is to re-introduce conscription. You might say why do you want people who do not want to be in uniform? They are precisely the people we need. It sounds crazy but a person who does not want to be in the Army is not interested in playing the career/promotion game and is more likely to speak his mind, within the boundaries of course. These are the people we need to fight these complicated new wars.

Let me give you an example of someone thinking outside the box. Colonel David H. Hackworth, US Army’s most decorated soldier from Vietnam, once proposed to the Pentagon that it hire a caving specialist (speleologist) who claimed he could locate all of the Viet Cong underground tunnels. But the Pentagon Generals with their narrow minded view knocked back the idea. It is one of the great what ifs of that controversial war.

Whilst the Taliban modify, adapt, change, organise, we just talk and pass ideas around.