Saturday, August 30, 2014


What skills make a cyber-general?

Not this. 

St Patrick's Day
with the Irish Guards

I entered the words, "Steve Day Army" into Google search, and this picture of the Irish Guards on St Patrick's Day jumped back at me.

Perhaps it is worth knowing something about cyber issues after all, as this article for the Canberra Times last Saturday suggested . . . 


Major General Steve Day, Deputy Director Cyber and Information Security at our secretive Australian Signals Directorate (motto: “reveal their secrets, protect our own”) reckons he’s exactly the right person for his current job. Not because he’s a computer geek though; nor because he’s a former combat engineer. Not even because he’s spent time in Iraq and Malaysia. As he told a University of Canberra National Security lecture last week, “I am an ordinary garden variety soldier. I have no special expertise in cyber . . . I actually think that’s an advantage.”

His reasoning’s simple – but it’s an argument with big implications. Day believes it’s vital the person looking after cyber-security can think broadly without being trapped in the minutiae of tactical issues. After all, cyber is just a means, not an end. Compare it to a bombing campaign: the aim is not just to destroy; the requirement is for a carefully targeted campaign. Cyber war won’t occur as such – it’s just one method of disruption and destruction.

I reckon he’s right. But it’s important to note this is not the approach of either superpower. The US Army Secretary has announced he’s considering establishing a new branch or ‘corps’ for computer warriors. This is forward-thinking. After all, entrenched institutional resistance inhibited the development of armour after World War One and stopped the US Airforce becoming independent. Soldiers jealously guard the old way of doing things – swords and plumes on parade, anyone?

The US won’t be left behind again. So how can we reconcile the different thinking skills that are required at different levels of command? Why is it an advantage to think flexibly at a senior level when we demand uniformity from other junior ranks? The critical factor is the individual.

As Day points out, this is where the ability to fight well resides. Military structures are vital for achieving defined missions; this doesn’t mean they can work out what the political aims and objectives are or should be. This requires different skills. We churn out brilliant officers to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. They’ve got exactly the right combination of time in command, training and other appointments. But then something happens. A mysterious fog descends enveloping all those the bright young officers in a mist. By the time they emerge many (although not all) are sclerotic, rigid individuals who can’t think outside the square.

That’s why there’s an urgent need to rethink the training of officers and commanders. If it’s another week, there’s another ADFA sex scandal. But what’s utterly bizarre is that the military defend an education system that’s not only out-of-date and irrelevant but was foisted on the services, against their will, to begin with.

Originally officers in all three services were (only) taught military skills required for war. Eventually the Army decided it needed to lift its game to attract better quality applicants. It began offering degrees at Duntroon. The Airforce and Navy were later forced to send their cadets to the Academy in the interests of ‘jointery’. Now it’s an expensive anachronism with a reputation standing as a barrier that prevents good young people joining the services. ADFA provides nothing that isn’t offered better at civilian universities, yet it costs us almost half a million dollars to graduate each and every officer cadet. Even that outlay doesn’t guarantee progression to the highest ranks. Take the army, for example.

Lieutenant General Andrew Morrison has done more to restore its reputation with a single YouTube video appearance than any general since 1945 – yet he was educated at Melbourne University. Our former commander in Afghanistan, John Cantwell, began his military career as a soldier. Previous army chief Ken Gillespie began his service as an apprentice. Other senior officers, such as Angus Campbell, have transitioned through long careers wearing suits. To the best of my knowledge, only one of our current crop of generals possesses the ability to speak Ancient Greek. Now while I’m certainly not suggesting this should be a prerequisite for command, a detailed understanding of how the disciplined Macedonian phalanx with its cavalry overwhelmed the democratic city-states of the south probably illuminates the issues involved in fighting ISIS far more clearly than a thesis on the campaigns in North-West Europe in 1945. Even Day escaped the rigid, four-year indoctrination of Duntroon by graduating from Portsea. And this is the point that he was making. The skills required to win tactically won’t deliver strategic victory.

This is something we might have learned after Vietnam. Or perhaps Iraq. Or maybe Afghanistan. Yet it seems we haven’t. Our generals are the best trained who’ve ever left our shores in command of troops and yet somehow the structures and systems prevent them achieving their objectives. The structure needs to change.

The evidence is in. ADFA should, must, be re-purposed to provide something more appropriate. Dynamism needs to be injected in at a senior level. Our military needs to be allowed to thrive. It’s sometimes difficult, when you’re trapped inside the pyramid, to understand how it can be changed for the better, but the first step is simple.


  1. "Tally ho chaps, first one to kick a goal an score the winning points is a jolly good sort" said the old general, massaging his whiskers... academies are excellent places to train captains, majors and short colonels in good supply but the brilliance of a field commander in the modern era often requires a broader perspective.