ASPI, AZERIs, the ADF, and the Defence hierarchy

Jul 30, 2021

ASPI’s Michael Shoebridge’s criticism of the professionalism and competency of the Defence hierarchy is serious. He paints the military and civilian hierarchy in Defence as hidebound, and infers they are placing service personnel and the nation’s security at risk. His analysis, however, displays a surprising degree of unfamiliarity with military affairs, and does not support his grave assertion.

Failure to acquire fast-moving technology is inflicting “damage and danger“ on the ADF and isn’t “delivering these powerful capabilities into the hands of the soldiers, sailors and aviators”. Defence is “without leaders who understand the required pace of change”, and who therefore join those who “expose their people—and the governments and populations that rely on them—to enormous risk”. The Defence leadership is failing ADF members and endangering the security of Australians, Shoebridge charges. They are denying “the capability needs of our ADF personnel in an environment whose dangers are obvious to us all”.

But Shoebridge’s case for condemning the Defence leadership is flawed. Force structuring is more than having the latest clever things. It is part of a complex and iterative process directed at maximising the military’s chances of successfully carrying out the missions the government asks of it. Without understanding how technology adds to military effectiveness, it’s valueless in isolation.

The likely theatre of operations, the concept of operations for employing force, and the integration of joint and combined capabilities and organisations, along with sustainability and manpower constraints all play a role in shaping force structure decisions. Not to mention the strategic and tactical options open to a potential adversary. Moreover, there is always the dance between measures and countermeasures that must be taken into consideration.

Shoebridge seeks to illustrate his argument with the Azerbaijan–Armenia conflict. Australian forces, Shoebridge warns, are “becoming more vulnerable to everything we saw happen to the Armenians” and Australia needs to be “more like the Azerbaijanis, not the Armenians”. He concludes that “the Azerbaijani military used [a] cheap, deadly, unmanned system” to convincingly defeat the conventional Armenian forces”. The Armenians by “fielding traditional manned platforms and operating in conventional ways, lost”. Azerbaijan’s rapid procurement processes supposedly enabled a decisive autonomous drone capability to be introduced into service quickly. It was nowhere near that simple, a point the Defence analysts should understand.

Armenia’s lack of preparedness was crucial. Armenia had become “content with the status quo of a frozen conflict”; and complacency about the security of Nagorno-Karabakh led it to under-appreciate that Azerbaijan’s “oil and gas sales over the past two decades [had] enabled it to modernise its armed forces, including significant funding for missiles, drones, and rocket artillery”. It was obvious that “Azerbaijan decided it wanted to change the status quo and that the Armenian side had no interest in a war.” It was not just drones, although they provided entertaining video-game like news footage, but “Azerbaijan’s qualitative military advantage over Armenia, [was] due in part to an extensive military build-up over the last decade”.

The second lesson was that technology alone is not enough. Training and tactical doctrine count. The battle for Shusha, a strategically located Nagorno-Karabakh town, provides an example of the importance of the need to integrate new technologies and capabilities with other components of the force, including tactical doctrine. Shusha was taken by “a combined arms approach that included special forces and light infantry, supported by armoured units and precision artillery and drone strikes”.

An analysis for the European Council on Foreign Relations pointed out the importance of tactical doctrine and planning in the Azeri victory; “This is where the drones came in: they allowed the Azeris to reconnoitre first the Armenian position and then the placement of reserves. Armenian positions then could be extensively shelled with conventional artillery, weakening their defences. Drones then guided the onslaught towards the Armenian reserves, bringing in artillery, multiple-rocket systems with cluster munitions, their own missiles, or using Israeli-made LORA ballistic missiles to destroy bridges or roads linking the reserves with the front”. To single out drones as the decisive factor that permitted victory is to exaggerate their importance and to underplay the role of conventional forces; “[T]he Azeri tactical use of drones was impressive, as was the way they embedded them in conventional armoured operations to work around the strength of the opponent’s armed forces”.

It’s worth noting that the Azeri drones were not invincible. The Russia Krasukha broadband multifunctional jamming station, which is reported to have had success against a range of drones in Syria, was deployed at the Russian military base at Gyumri in Armenia during the conflict. It is believed to have brought down at least nine Azeri Bayraktar drones.

Shoebridge’s condemnation of Defence’s leadership as being dangerously conservative in introducing new technologies is surprising. He has extensive experience in all areas of defence and strategic policy, and capability procurement. Equally surprising is his superficial analysis of the Azerbaijan–Armenia conflict; it did not resemble anything the ADF will encounter.

New technology should only be introduced after careful analysis of how it fits into existing military organisations, equipment, and doctrine, or after the required changes to take advantage of new technology have been assessed.

The public debate is not furthered by this sort of contribution, particularly when citizens hear the Defence Minister proclaim that “ASPI continues to produce informed, incisive and independent analysis on all things defence and national security”. It is anything but. The sense of imminent threat Shoebridge affects to heighten the failings of the Defence leadership is confected. The sense of urgency he tries to generate, were it valid, would not be met by impulsive acquisition of shiny new technology from the pages of glossy defence industry magazines.

Shoebridge infers the Defence leadership is unprofessional, incompetent, and even negligent. Many people believe that Australia’s current strategic and defence policies are deeply flawed. The author is one of them. But on the basis of his analysis, Shoebridge’s suggestion that the Defence military and civilian leadership is endangering the nation and its military personnel is unjustified.

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