Generating, Expressing and Implementing Ideas – Part I

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The realisation of a human/machine, robotics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence approach, may represent the biggest single step innovation change our Army has ever undertaken. Army, Defence industry, and society need to further develop our collective thinking on this, possible, future. We will be looking to build partnerships of thought and action with interested parties and stakeholders. You might consider this a call for collaboration.[1]

Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, AO, DSC – Chief of Australian Army


It is all but passé to describe an unforseeable future.  New ways of warfare in Syria, Iraq, and the Ukraine; the reach and velocity of information, change in society and the nature of work, a rise in great power competition, and cheap, ubiquitous technology colour all crystal balls opaque. How the Australian Army might prepare for this unforeseeable future is guided by the opening quote from the Chief of Army. You might have heard this preparation conceptualised as a “big idea.” This post is the first of two that explores a framework for the generation, expression, and implementation of big ideas. Part one orders concepts, strategy and ideas, and charts the practical experience of generating Army “big ideas.” This analysis prompts the development of a system model for “big ideas.” Part two cross-pollinates design thinking, change management theory and recorded experience to expand on the model and illuminate ways of thinking about, expressing and implementing big ideas.

Big ideas in execution – Soldiers from 2/6 Cav Commando Regiment complete training at the Atherton Tablelands to rerole from an Armoured Division Cavalry Regiment to a dismounted Commando Unit.

What are Ideas, Concepts, and Strategy

Works about future war quickly lead a reader into a zone where the terms ideas, concepts, and strategy frequently collide or are employed with varied meanings. The first task of this post is to order these terms and describe a “big idea.” Because Strategy is multi-faceted and can be, according to J.C Wylie, a “loose sort of word,” the reader is asked to accept Colonel John Lykke’s explanation of strategy:

“Strategy equals ends (objectives toward which one strives) plus ways (courses of action) plus means (instruments by which some end can be achieved).” Ends” (objectives) explain “what” is to be accomplished. Ways (strategic concepts/courses of action) explain “how” the ends are to be accomplished by the employment of resources.”[2]

Concept and idea are synonymous in general usage. However, in the Australian Defence Force, and Lykke’s model, concepts are the generic ‘ways’ the force will use the ‘means’ to deliver the ‘ends.’ Ways are more flexible than ends and means which tend to be fixed by budgets and policy. Ways are where creativity, insight and breadth of thinking can flourish; ideas drive  ways. The term “idea” has no specific military meaning, but in colloquial terms, a big idea is a strategy that has sufficient richness, breadth, and appeal to carry change. Big ideas address complex, knotty, unstructured problems and are often “named” strategies, like Airland Battle or Plan BEERSHEBA. The generation and implementation of these named strategies or big ideas demand resources, energy, and leadership above those needed for the continuous practice of strategy.

Practical Examples of Big Ideas

Big military ideas abound: Protracted War, Operational Manoeuvre from the Sea, The Adaptive Army and Multi Domain Battle are examples commonly discussed. The following paragraphs examine Army in the 21st Century (A21)/Restructuring the Army (RTA) and  Airland Battle. The first case study capitalises on Renée Kidson’s recently released monograph Force Design in the 1990’s.[3] Kidson’s work is the only detailed exploration of A21/RTA, and much of the subsequent information is drawn from her study. In contrast, Airland Battle is the subject of a Centre for Military History publication, multiple Command and General Staff College monographs and Army Review Articles.

Army in the 21st Century/Restructuring the Army Trials 

The Australian Army initiated Army in the 21st Century (A21) and Restructuring the Army (RTA) the early 1990s. A21 proposed a new structure and operational concept for the Army and RTA was a program of trials and experiments to validate the proposal.  A21 was a response to the Defence of Australian (DoA) policy that prescribed a narrow role for the Army and reduced its budget accordingly. Undoubtedly the most controversial recommendation in the A21 report was the creation of Battalion task forces with organic artillery and armour. This controversy concealed a much broader program including a new operational concept: titled “Detect-Protect-Respond”; reorganisation of the Army into seven major task forces with assigned areas of responsibility in Northern Australia; removal of the divisional level of command and acquisition of more special forces, helicopters and light armoured vehicles.  A21 also required an additional 2500 personnel that Army was to generate by integrating reserve and regular units.

The proposed A21 force was disproportionally capable for the tasks required of it by the government.  CGS Sanderson shaped A21 in this way to claw back resources for Army. This approach was not transparent and undermined attempts to gain endorsement from government and the other services. The program also encountered resistance from Army despite A21/RTA’s capability gains.The basis of this resistance was the threat that A21 posed to Regular Arms Corps units from which Army’s culture derived.  Ultimately, A21 evolved to a large-scale program of trials and experiments under the banner of Restructuring the Army (RTA). RTA was designed to produce evidence to confirm or deny the feasibility of the proposals. The trials demonstrated that embedding and the consolidation of logistics at 2nd line were flawed. The trials also had positive outcomes: supporting capability proposals for ASLAV and Bushmasters, vehicles that proved remarkably useful for the next two decades.

Stepping away from A21 was useful for Sanderson’s successor as CGS, General Frank Hickling,, who’s big idea took a different path. Hickling argued that the Army should be preparing for expeditionary operations in the near region because of escalating geopolitical tensions. His logic ensured overt alignment with the emerging Defence strategy of a new government. Hickling was fortuitous that the possibility of a crisis in East Timor in 1998 reinforced this approach. A strong correlation between Hickling’s ideas for an expeditionary land force and the prevailing Army culture quelled any internal dissenters. Hickling also sought and gained buy-in from Navy. The contrast between Sanderson and Hickling’s approaches provides lessons for generators of big ideas. These are that: the idea must overtly connect government policy with what the Army knows to be technically feasible. What Army considers technically possible, is inextricably linked to the existing culture, the “professional software” of the Army. Big ideas should follow sound change management principles; buy-in from Army, other services, and government are not optional. Time and tools are needed to gain this buy-in and facilitate  iteration and adaptation.

Airland Battle

The final draft of the Airland Battle doctrine was released in 1981. But like Army 21/RTA, the Airland Battle story spans a decade. The roots of Airland Battle are in the analysis and rejection of the Active Defense doctrine of 1976. Active Defense was initially well received but in time criticisms became more pointed. Assuming command of Training and Doctrine Command in 1977, General Starry politely asked if Active Defense did enough to interdict an adversaries uncommitted second echelons before they joined the close battle. Other critics, such as William S. Lind, wondered if the Soviet threat would allow the lateral freedom of movement that Active Defense demanded. A vigorous debate sprang up in the Military Review regarding Active Defense’s preference for firepower and attrition, which was seen to be at odds with US Army preference for manoeuvre. In short, the feasibility of the idea of Active Defense was in question.

Building on this, Airland Battle proposed an integrated battle in which Corps and Division attacked adversaries in depth, from the air, through rocket artillery, deception, and the electromagnetic spectrum. This approach demanded a range of new technologies.  The US Army also formally co-opted the US Airforce to this analysis as it served to reinforce the demand for capabilities for Close Air Support (A-10) and Strike (F111). A new command and control methodology, mission command, appropriate for the Airland Battle doctrine and the all-volunteer force, reinforced the doctrinal and technology change shown in figure 1.

Figure 1 – Airland Battle  

Airland battle was fantastically optimistic about the pace of development of some technologies.  These bold predictions did not detract from the success of the program as it was sufficiently flexible to be usable with near-term technologies. This was demonstrated by  the US Army through experiments and exercises. General Starry was an exceptional spokesperson for change, writing about and championing the Airland Battle narrative.

Themes in Big Ideas

The first deduction from the analysis of A21/RTA and Airland Battle is that they defined by the resources, permissions or mandates, and technical possibilities granted by institutions outside the Army. These are society, the Government, industry and the other services.  The institutional leader owns the logic and narrative that links the Army proposition with the expectations of these institutions. The second observation is that the alignment between the new idea and the prevailing “professional software” is a critical consideration. Formative experience codes an Officers professional software from the day they enter service.  A21/RTA diverged from existing paradigms and was actively resisted by Army leaders because of this. Deliberate change management methods are needed when big ideas point at solutions for which the existing “professional software” is not coded. The third observation is that an organisation needs time to test, iterate and incubate big ideas.  The fourth observation affirms that the technical feasibility of an idea matters greatly, A21/RTA took risks in this area. Airland Battle made fewer early declarations regarding organisational change and allowed studies and experiments to coalesce into a method and structure that both the Army and Government accepted as fit for purpose.

The final deduction is that A21/RTA and Airland Battle treated unstructured problems. Figure 2 aims to show the minimum number of related factors that “big ideas” treat. The model is illustrative rather than exhaustive. It shows the breadth, depth, and interrelations of the problem. It reminds idea generators that: change in any part of the systems influences all other components; all change is viewed through the Army’s existing professional software; and the value of change in the system measured by the potential effect on an adversary and by industry, the other services, government, and society. It is a model, and like all models, it is incomplete, for example, it doesn’t reflect cost, training and education and doctrine that influence all quadrants. This model serves as basis for further discussion in part II.

Figure 2 – A system Model for Army Ideas