The David Kilcullen Interview: Serving in a Peacetime Army

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This is Part II of an interview with David Kilcullen. Find Part I here

David Kilcullen is Professor of International and Political Studies at UNSW Canberra, Professor of Practice at Arizona State University, and CEO of the research firm Cordillera Applications Group. His expertise is future warfare, guerrilla and unconventional warfare, special operations, and counterterrorism. Over a 25-year career with the Australian and U.S. governments as a soldier, intelligence officer and diplomat, he served in Iraq as senior counterinsurgency advisor to General David Petraeus, as advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and in Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Colombia. He has worked extensively for NATO and other international organisations, helping to analyse and predict the nature of future threats and conflicts, and has written five prize-winning books and numerous scholarly articles on terrorism, insurgency, urbanisation, and future warfare. 

The Australian Defence Force’s current cohort of junior leaders may feel like they’ve joined a peacetime military, but Kilcullen once believed the same thing. He believes that now “is a great time to be a junior leader.”

“I joined a peacetime Army in 1985, and thought I’d never get to go to war. Look how things turned out. Every generation of junior leaders since World War II has had their conflict, and I don’t think there’s any reason to believe it won’t be the same for your cohort.”

“When you’ve been doing the same type of operation for a very long time, rank and expertise tend to be aligned. All the senior leaders who’ve made their way up the promotion pyramid began the War on Terror as Lieutenants and junior non-commissioned officers. They combine seniority and expertise. Now, there’s been a paradigm shift, and all innovation and insight is there for the taking. It’s no longer aligned with seniority,” says Kilcullen.

It’s a great time to be starting out in the military. You have the opportunity to set in place many of the innovations and thought processes which will be tested in the next war. 

“There is new technology on the battlefield that my generation are not well placed to understand, and anybody who has done more than 2 or 3 tours in the Middle East is probably too set in their ways. They have a lot of field experience, but won’t understand the emerging tech, so they need to collaborate with the digital natives coming up the ranks.”

“Your generation will be the company and battalion commanders who fight the next war. My generation need to hand-off what we know.”

“You’ll need to work out if what you’ve got is right for what’s coming next.”

Kilcullen says, “it was an ‘accident of history’ that I ended up working in the United States and having the career I’ve had. I did my PhD in the 1990s on terrorism and Islamic insurgency in Indonesia. Some colleagues were sceptical about the relevance of that topic, and I wish I could say I’d predicted it, but I could speak the language and just followed my passion.”

“I finished my dissertation 8 weeks before 9/11 happened. One of the groups that I studied very carefully was DI [Darul Islam], which became JI [Jemaah Islamiyah], who were responsible for the Bali bombing. By sheer good luck I was one of the very few people in Australia who knew how the network operated. Because of this, I got to work on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade counterterrorism policy re-write.”

Kilcullen served in the Australian Army from 1985 to 2007, before taking long service leave to do Southeast Asian counterterrorism strategy at the Office of National Assessments (ONA; now the Office of National Intelligence). He eventually quit the Army and became a public servant at ONA. 

There he wrote a paper about the War on Terror; proposing that the war in Iraq “was soaking up so much of our effort that we didn’t have the resources to focus on other problems, like Afghanistan going bad again and Somalia.”

This caught the eye of Paul Wolfowitz, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, who requested Kilcullen as irregular warfare contributor to the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) which the Department of Defense writes for Congress every four years. 

Working at the Pentagon while writing this, Kilcullen met a CIA official called Henry Crumpton who had led the initial invasion of Afghanistan for the CIA. He was appointed as the U.S. Ambassador for Counterterrorism, making him the equivalent of Roger Noble in the Australian system today, shortly after Kilcullen’s time on the QDR. Crumpton requested Kilcullen be seconded to the State Department from ONA as the Chief of Strategy in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau. As Chief of Strategy, Kilcullen was responsible for developing a global strategy and went to Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, Kenya, Southern Thailand, Indonesia, and Colombia to conduct field work and provide the “unvarnished ground truth. During this time, it was clear that China was ‘eating our lunch’ in Africa and Latin America while we were busy in Afghanistan trying to keep the world safe from the threat of terrorism,” Kilcullen says.

“I worked there for 3 years, and 1.5 years into that the surge in Iraq started. I worked for General David Petraeus as the State Department representative, and when he got the gig in Iraq he wanted to bring a small team to design the counterinsurgency strategy. I couldn’t join him while working for an Australian civilian intelligence agency, so I re-joined the Army and went to Iraq. Eventually, I was working as Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.” 

Kilcullen believes his experience is unheard of; “we would never put a foreign intelligence officer in our foreign minister’s office. Imagine if the Australian Foreign Minister had a U.S. intelligence officer on secondment advising her on the most important issue with which she was dealing. That would never happen, but the Americans were desperate. They were losing 120 soldiers per month in Iraq, and the war was going from bad to worse, so they were willing to do anything.” 

Colombia, 2015

Today, Kilcullen is a Professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy and Arizona State University, and the President and CEO of risk management company Cordillera Applications Group. He says he is invested in “bringing up the next generation” by teaching and helping transition from the War on Terror to the “great power competition problem set”. 

In Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, Kilcullen described some key global trends that will affect warfare, and (as he discusses in The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West) he sees the ADFA cadets of today facing a mixed threat picture with state and non-state actors. “I don’t think we should seek a war with China, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it is going to happen. I think an Asia Pacific great power threat, like China, will be the central problem, while Abu Sayyaf, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS pose a threat at the same time, in the same places.”

“However, I’m old enough to remember that even when we theoretically had a strategy called ‘the Defence of Australia’- where the Army was resourced and trained purely for the territorial defence of the north- we deployed overseas about a dozen times, including 4 times to Africa. I certainly would not rule out expeditionary deployments to the Middle East and Africa.”

“I also think Antarctica will be a future problem. China, Russia, North Korea, and several other players, are beginning to encroach upon fishing, mineral rights, oil and gas, and territory,” says Kilcullen. “Australia claims about 30% of the total landmass of Antarctica and have five bases down there. Other than Mountain, Arctic, and Cold Weather Operations (MACWO) training conducted by Special Operations teams, there’s been zero thought put into how ground forces will conduct operations there. It might not be on the ice cap, but Heard and McDonald Islands could be at risk.”

“Australian Antarctica territory is as big as half the Australian continent, and we’re either going to give that up without a fight when push comes to shove, or we’re going to get ahead of the curve and think about how we’re going to hang on to resources which are being hungrily eyed-up by our adversaries on a 10–20 year timeline.” 

About the Author: Samuel J. Cox is the editor of Grounded Curiosity. Find him on Twitter.

Cover Image Credit: WO2 Max Bree, Defence Image Gallery