Flat White

Where are the strategists and tacticians?

12 March 2022

11:00 AM

12 March 2022

11:00 AM

There’s nothing like the whiff of distant grapeshot to energise Australia’s plethora of armchair military strategists. Military professionals, on the other hand, spend an inordinate time pondering where strategy ends and tactics begin.

Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz defined strategy as the ‘necessary response to the inescapable reality of limited resources’. He reasoned that no entity, regardless of size, had unlimited resources. ‘Strategy’ is concerned with defining an overall purpose and priorities. It is about making choices to concentrate limited resources into a competitive advantage. To successfully prosecute a war, one must pick the right battles with a clear purpose.

Chinese general, philosopher, and strategist Sun Tzu coincidently (and unrelated to contemporary Russian pugilists), described strategy as a ‘chosen set of methods reacting to possible situations’. These methods were chosen with a big-picture view of the mission within a competitive environment. For Sun Tzu, tactics were chosen as a response to a situation. The choice of tactic depended on the overall strategy as did the execution of the response.

To quote a small, furry, cancelled Russian oligarch, Simples Sergei!

Perhaps not.

Australia, in its short history, has had few strategists who were also good tacticians.

Field Marshal Sir Thomas Albert Blamey certainly wasn’t in that league, though polymath militia General Sir John Monash definitely was. Blamey’s ambitious career was spent as a plodding methodical staff officer where he could be seen by those he thought could benefit him. His brief exposure to the front as a battalion (then brigade) commander was left unremarked by the absence of combat.

Professor David Kilcullen showed promise from an early age as a young infantry officer in combat who understood the tactics of restraint could be more effective than aggression in achieving a strategic aim. Unappreciated at home by more senior but lesser ‘talents’, Kilcullen relocated to America where he gravitated seamlessly toward academia – specifically strategic thinking.

Australia’s loss has been America’s gain.


Of all the generals since Monash, Major General turned Senator Jim Molan has stood apart as a strategist and tactician. His innate understanding of the capabilities of weapons has made him a master of battlefield manoeuvring both in the lecture room and the field. When the Australian Army repeated their mantra that ‘combat power is a combination of firepower, manoeuvre, and morale’, Molan argued that this was a ruinous simplification.

As a skilled multi-lingual military diplomat, Molan led Australia’s advanced command and leadership training institutions. He has continually argued for greater expenditure to develop Australia’s integral defensive capabilities, minimising reliance on other nations.

Monash, Molan, and Kilcullen all earned America’s respect by performing senior planning roles with American combat forces. It was a privilege specifically denied to Blamey by US General Douglas MacArthur.

The Australian’s perennial strategist Greg Sheridan postulated recently that a threat can materialise in weeks, days, or perhaps even hours. Defence emergencies are all ‘come-as-you-are’. He argued that nobody can rely on the false security of strategic warning times.

Correct – up to a point – but Sheridan then erroneously applies lessons from Israel’s military situation onto Australia.

After making valid criticisms about the Australian defence structure and its materiel acquisition programs, he stepped into dangerous territory. Sheridan declared Ukraine’s heroic military and people were wildly out-matched and yet had inflicted substantial losses on Russian forces through portable, cheap, shoulder-launched missiles, Javelin anti-tank missiles, and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

‘The army urgently needs to completely reconfigure itself,’ Sheridan said. ‘It should acquire thousands of long-range, land-launched missiles. Hezbollah, a terrorist guerrilla group, has 100,000 missiles and constitutes an existential threat to Israel. We acquire missiles in the dozens, if we’re lucky, and are a threat to nobody.’

This observation neglects that Australia shouldn’t be a threat to anybody, but rather be sufficiently prepared to deter any hostile threats to Australia or its interests.

Australia is also not Israel, neither geographically nor in terms of real or potential threat. Australia has a vast landmass of 7.692 million km² with no contiguous land borders leaving it separated from potential aggressors by a formidable air-sea gap.

Israel is inextricably linked to its regional enemies by contiguous land borders. From Israel’s southern border near Gaza up to Nahariya in the north near the Lebanese border is 178 km. That’s 104 km shorter than the distance from Sydney to Canberra.

A Stinger missile, for example, has an approximate range of 8 km, so simplistically allowing for interlocking arcs of fire, that would require approximately 50 Stingers to prove one continuous layer of defence and at least three times that many to ensure defence in depth between Sydney and Canberra. The distance from Broome to Darwin is 1,870 km, requiring approximately 1,000 missiles not accounting for operators and supporting protection.

The dilemma for Australia has always been the competing priorities of defending the mainland while projecting combat power forward.

Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft can project combat power beyond Israeli’s borders within moments of launching. Australia’s air-sea gap is a major component of any defensive strategy. New Zealand has taken the ridiculous position that – considering it has no effective air power – any prospective aggressor will be preoccupied with Australia. Despite Prime Minister Ardern’s best efforts, The Land of the Long White Cloud is not an invisible safe space.

In PC Wren’s ripping yarn Beau Geste, a relief party approaching the mythical Foreign Legion Fort Zinderneuf observes the Legionnaires seemingly at their posts in the ramparts. Upon closer inspection, it is revealed to be a bluff. The Legionnaires are actually dead – propped up into place.

This is a good approximation of the situation at Australia’s defence headquarters on Canberra’s Russell Hill.

Nato and the West have been startled from their state of complacency by Putin’s murderous attack on Ukraine. Their inability to match Putin’s focused threats to seize former USSR states has come as a shock…

…Except perhaps for Jim Molan, whose multi-faceted military career was relatively untarnished by time spent in the calcified Fort Zinderneuf environs.

It’s more than just symbolic Australia’s Fort Zinderneuf surrounds the appropriately named Blamey Square, where the only whiff of grapeshot has been from otherwise unproductive ceremonial salutes.

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