Friday, December 23, 2011


Training is vital; making sure people are properly and effectively equipped to do the job.

These are some thoughts on retaining specialities in the military . . .

Struggling to be Uniform

How long does it take to become an expert? Not merely competent, or proficient, but a real expert? In his book “Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that success in any field is almost directly related to 10,000 hours practice of a specific task. Plus, of course, a few other vital ingredients: luck, interest and opportunity.

It's an argument that explains a lot. It's an idea that forward-thinking corporations and businesses have tapped into. It means allowing people to specialise, rather than forcing everyone to be a generalist. The changing external environment drives the to re-structure organisations so they can keep specialisations. They have to adapt if they aren't going to be left behind.

But this isn't the thinking behind the most fundamental change to the Army for nearly 50 years. The military has realised that too much focus on specialisation can risk harming the ability to achieve a mission. It’s no use relying on experts if there aren’t enough, of if the task requires a generalist.

It's no accident that this restructuring into an adaptive army is part of “plan Beersheba". In 1917 it was here that the Australian Mounted Infantry shocked the Turks by suddenly charging entrenched machine guns. Despite only being trained to fight on foot and wielding bayonets instead of swords, the Light Horse succeeded where infantry couldn’t. They'd broken every “law" of warfare to do so.

This sense of adaptability is exactly what the Army's Head of Modernisation, Major General John Caligari, is attempting to achieve in the revamp unveiled last week. It's all about reintroducing flexibility into the structural: something that’s been lacking in the past.

When the commitment to Vietnam ended in 1972 there was a similar attempt to get back to “real soldiering". The 1st Division was properly re-established with three similarly organised brigades. Specialist units (divisional and corps troops) were grouped separately, to be allocated as required. But the good intentions didn't last long, primarily because of lack of money. Meagre resources resulted in a focus on specialised units. Gradually, one Brigade concentrated on mechanised warfare while separate battalions also took on special roles, such as housing the parachute capability.

Yet already one battalion (2 RAR) has been allocated to the amphibious role, our ‘marine’ unit. The tension between expertise and generalists runs deep.

Success depends on committing resources to fund the transformation. That's why it's important that, although the drive for change is coming from the Army, key politicians are supporting it. Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Senator David Feeney emphasises the re-creation of multi-roll manoeuvre brigades will not mean any disbanding of capabilities. Instead, he says, “this is about achieving both breadth and depth". He promises money is there to realise the transformation.

The Army’s taking a real risk as it moves towards a more generic structure. That’s why it needs to ensure that it is nurturing and retaining those areas of expertise that have taken so long to build up. The specialisations or areas of “corporate knowledge" that form the basis of successful enterprises. The sort of tasks that require 10,000 hours of practice (20 hours each week the 10 years).

You don't need to look very far in the business world to find enterprises that, in the attempt to become “lean and mean", have simply hollowed out their vital core. The expertise that's required to actually operate isn't actually fixed in the minds of the CEO or Dep Sec – no matter how wonderful their annual reports may suggest these creatures are.

Despite many attempts it's been impossible to isolate the particular features that enable an institution to keep the strength and resilience it needs to operate in hard times. The military has, of course, evolved its own unique structures, bonds and traditions to allow it to do exactly this.

Like uniforms. Camouflage might be required in the field but there's no obvious operational requirement that mandates the use of service dress when working in the bureaucratic jungles of, say, Russell Hill or Campbell Park. But the uniform is a bond. It builds esprit de corps. It’s an intangible that provides strength to the institution. Those silly little distinguishing patches and badges are the outward expression of values that people are prepared to die for.

Then some idiot comes along and thinks he knows better than a century of experience.

During the year we've seen some of the most stupid, pettifogging and mindless attacks on the core ethos of the Army since Federation. Incredibly, most of these have come from within. Today the suicidal urge cloaks itself in the need for uniformity and saving money: the very people who should be guardians of the tradition are leading the putsch for change.

Berets have been dispensed with because they’re not “sun smart”, however the SAS hasn’t been stripped of their signature item. Perhaps they’re expendable. The result is that some people can don berets, while others can't. Unsurprisingly, helicopter pilots and tank commanders are still finding it difficult to slip a headset over a slouch hat.

The attempt to get rid of regimental bands has, fortunately, been arrested. The forces of idiocy have, nonetheless, reformed for a new assault. This time Mess Dress is targeted for “correction".

Anyone who's ever had the pleasure of donning black tie knows that evening dress makes no sense. Yet this is mild compared to the riot of vivid colour, spurs, chain-mail and gold-braid that accompanying the profusion of mess dress at, say, a British cavalry dining-in-night. Our military’s restrained attire is drab by contrast. And yet some troglodyte has rubbed his remaining two neurons together and decided even the smallest expression of individuality and regimental pride must now be stamped out.

The intention is to strip each Corps of its identity, compressing everyone into dreary homogeneity. And then, as if to prove that this is all some bad joke, the committee designing the new uniform adds a bizarre, gay little touch of debonair insouciance: a little prissy chain to keep the front of the waistcoat together.

This lunacy is so idiotic that derision and contempt are the only appropriate emotions.

1 comment:

  1. Ah Nick, you once had some much personally purchased military uniform and various accessories, there was no question about the individuality. How to stand out when everyone looks the same as an excellent mantra.

    I remember when as a young officer, you rolled your Saracen Armoured Vehicle in the UK many years ago. But true to form, you saw the positive side - the nurses were pretty in the hospital.