US President Barack Obama recently suggested that the leaders of Islamic State “know they will lose in Syria and Iraq”, and that consequently they’re already “shifting their strategy” to accommodate that impending battlefield defeat. President Obama’s assessment was later repeated by the commander of Australia’s training mission in Iraq, who predicted victory by August 2017.
This is a remarkable turn of events. Only two years ago IS seemed to be carrying all before it as it swept aside local armies, made vast territorial gains, declared the establishment of a geographic “caliphate”, and threatened to occupy Baghdad.
Islamic State’s unforeseen rise was precipitated by the West’s ill-considered series of invasions of the Middle East over the past twenty years, and the social, political, economic and religious tensions unleashed by the disruption of established orders and the (resented) presence in the region of large numbers of foreign troops.
IS’s impending demise as a geographic entity has been in part attributable to the US’s abandonment of the failed cult of counterinsurgency warfare, and to the implementation by the Obama Administration of a fundamentally different approach to military operations in the Middle East. Two aspects of that approach have been critical.
First, most of the occupying soldiers have been withdrawn. This means that the fighting on the ground, which has remained savage and intense, has become the responsibility of local armies and militias; that is, of forces that actually can “fight amongst the [their] people”. It has been an exceptional achievement by the armies of the US and its allies, including Australia, to revive and to train those local armies and militias to the point where IS’s military defeat is likely.
Second, having rejected Coin, the US has turned to what has arguably been its most successful model for the application of military force for the past two decades, namely, the combination of Special Forces and air power. SoF (whose operational characteristics in many respects mirror those of air power) contribute expert front-line assistance for local forces, real-time intelligence, target marking, and rapid precision strike. Air power, both manned and unmanned, hits strategic targets and provides near-on demand close attack for local ground forces. Air severely limits IS’s ability to mass or to move in vehicles, and strikes at the head of the IS snake through the controversial but highly effective campaign of decapitation of the enemy leadership.
That approach in turn has allowed anti-IS forces to contain, then degrade, then take the initiative. It is a model distinguished by its emphasis on information dominance, decision-making superiority, and controlling the tempo of operations. Maximising the West’s greatest military comparative advantages, it is the antithesis of strategy based on mass, close-up fighting, the presumed need to hold ground, and implausible social engineering.
However – and it’s a big however – the SoF/airpower model of force application is situation-specific. Thus, as IS slides towards geographic defeat and increasingly turns to the wider use of terrorist attacks in Western cities, our defence forces will need to develop new attitudes.
Which raises the question: as Australia’s involvement in wars in the Middle East at last seems closer to the finish than to the start, what comes next for the ADF and our defence strategy? For some twenty years we’ve been fighting as junior partners with little, if any, voice in the military strategy/ies we’ve been trying to execute. Will that change? Will we actually have an officially articulated military strategy? Do we even need one?
You’d hope that the answer to all three questions would be “yes”, and that we’d move beyond the era of strategic drift that has characterised ADF operations since the invasion of Vietnam in the early-1960s.
Some commentators would contend that Australia hasn’t had an independent defence posture since Federation in 1901: that we’ve simply followed the lead of the UK and then the US. Others might point to the brief period in the late-1980s when the so-called “Defence of Australia” strategy required the ADF to focus on “controlling” events in the air and sea approaches to our north and north-west.
That strategy was vigorously opposed by the Australian Army, presumably because its innate maritime nature implied a diminished role for land forces. Army’s equally vigorous promotion of counterinsurgency warfare, which by definition entailed expeditionary operations, might be seen as an opportunistic corollary to its dislike of a maritime (air and sea) strategy.
Recently the Director-General Army Modernisation for the Australian Army seemed to endorse the development of an anti-access/area denial strategy for Australia, an approach which in practice bears a strong resemblance to the Defence of Australia concept. Perhaps Army’s apparent change of heart is related to the ADF’s acquisition of two very large “Amphibious Assault Ships” (which started life with the entirely different role descriptor of “Landing Helicopter Dock”); perhaps the generals who opposed the Defence of Australia policy in the past were wrong; or perhaps there’s another reason altogether.
Whatever that reason may be, the point to take away here is that as the ADF starts to transition towards a post-IS, post-Coin posture, the development of military strategy must be both objective and genuinely joint.
Dr Alan Stephens is a Fellow of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation