Holistic Agility

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There is renewed interest in how Australia should navigate the coming decades of rapid technological change and increasing geopolitical multi-polarity coupled with a reduction in relative advantage of Western nations economically, technologically and potentially militarily. The Army’s Professional Military Education (PME) Strategy acknowledges these issues and states that we can’t hope to be correct in our future assessments all the time and as such we must focus on being able to rapidly adapt. The means to achieve this for Army is, in part, the PME Strategy’s development of a cognitive advantage.

Within this context, there is acknowledgement that our sustainment and procurement processes are getting longer at a time when technological change is accelerating. This is increasing the risk that new platforms will be obsolete before they are introduced. Furthermore, disruptive technological changes are leading to an acceleration in the speed at which conflicts are carried out, reducing reaction times and pressuring planning cycles. Lastly, the cumulative effect of these various trends is that complexity is increasing at every level from the tactical to the strategic.

The one common theme emerging across these trends is that if we are to succeed we need to be adaptive and innovative. This is prevalent across a diverse range of writing including: Army’s PME StrategyLand Warfare Doctrine (LWD) 1; the writings of think tanks and senior leadership; and, profession of arms blog discussions. In my view, adaptation and innovation are part of a broader theme of agility.

LWD 1 defines agility as:

‘the ability to shift between tasks rapidly’

While adaptability is defined as:

‘the ability to respond to new needs or changes in context without loss of functionality’

If the context changes, the task changes to some extent. Since agility is a conceptual term it is able to transcend the constraints of a purely tactical or technical focus.


The remainder of this article proposes one option for the question “how can Australia successfully pursue its national security objectives in a rapidly changing environment with a deteriorating technological and economic advantage?”


Utilising holistic agility.

Trends identified in documents such as the Future Operating Environment 2035 (FOE) and the 2016 Defence White Paper paint a picture of a world that is more interconnected than ever with all domains affecting all other domains. A holistic view looks at the whole picture and as a result captures the effects of interconnectedness that traditional reductionist approaches miss.

Holistic agility means not just developing a cognitive edge so that our people are more intellectually agile or employing technology to speed up processes. Holistic agility would become part of our culture, who we are and the way we do things. It would permeate every facet of our Defence architecture including the three services (regular and reserve), Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG), the intelligence agencies and the Australian Public Service. Holistic agility is a way of thinking – a cultural shift of who we are – not just a box to be ticked on a checklist. Three examples are through enhanced maintenance, human-machine teaming and reduced friction.

Improved Agility Through Enhanced Maintenance

In a tactical environment our maintenance system can offer significant leverage points for enhancing our agility and generating physical tempo on the ground. A decisive tactical (and sometimes even strategic) advantage can be gained or lost through the ability to return key equipment to the fight faster than our enemies. A historic example is the battle of mid-way during WWII where the ability of the US Navy to return USS Yorktown to battle faster than expected (following the Battle of the Coral Sea) and the Japanese inability to return Zuikaku to sea when needed reduced the carrier differential from 5-2 in Japan’s favour to only 4-3. Careful design of new equipment specifications can help to accelerate maintenance functions by reducing the time required to repair key equipment. Enabling it to be returned to the fight faster.

Improved Agility Through Human-Machine Teaming

Much has been written about the potential of human-machine teaming. The detail will not be explored here other than to say that the ability of autonomous systems to provide effects remotely make it possible for a small number of humans to achieve a large mass of effect. Whether this is combined at a decisive point through swarming or as early warning and interdiction systems in areas where we wouldn’t normally have people. This family of technology make it possible to provide effects in multiple places simultaneously buying time for other forces to be appropriately assigned where they are most needed.

Improved Agility Through Reduced Friction

Our collective ability to respond to new challenges and threats can be accelerated by virtue of our small size. As a small Defence Force we gain the ability to learn and disseminate lessons across the organisation quite quickly (if we are appropriately structured to do so). The effect is that new skills, doctrine and processes can reach saturation point potentially much faster than in other much larger militaries. The effect is further magnified when other government agencies such as Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO), CASG, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, etc are included.

Our small size pre-disposes us to being able to iterate and adapt quickly if appropriately structured. If fully developed this can be a key strength that would place Australia at the forefront of allied efforts to understand, track and defeat new and emerging threats providing an outsized effect relative to our small size. This is possible due to our small size but requires a culture of holistic agility to realise the potential.

The effect of holistic agility on our procurement processes will be to enshrine agility as a guiding design principle challenging the notion that it must take a very long time to procure key equipment. It will also affect physical specifications of equipment and can include specifications in our tendering processes that help accelerate maintenance processes by returning equipment to the fight faster.

The end effect will enable Australian forces to rapidly mobilise, deploy and execute a given mission while retaining the ability to respond to changing circumstances. This physical agility across the levels of war will help offset our size disadvantage by enabling our forces to be in the right place at the right time on the right mission with the right structure and the right equipment.


By embracing holistic agility, Defence will have an architecture and culture that is able to rapidly respond to changing strategic, operational and tactical circumstances. This will ensure we have the right capabilities at the right time in the right place.

The highly integrated nature of the Defence establishment required to realise the concept will reduce friction at inter-organisational boundaries enabling the Defence establishment to move with greater agility to identify and seize opportunities to act at decisive points.

In this way the small size of our Defence establishment (in global terms) is leveraged as an opportunity rather than lamented as a weakness.

About the author

Chris Bulow is an Australian Army Captain. He holds a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering and is studying a postgraduate degree in project management. Chris is currently posted to the Australian Defence Force Headquarters and has prior experience in a combat brigade headquarters.