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Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies

Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies

Volume 4, Number 1 (2022)


Many strategist but little strategy: addressing a deficiency in Australia

Michael Scott

Peer reviewed


We have lived too long now in a strategy-free mode.

Retired USMC General Jim Mattis to US Congress in 2015. 1

Defence in Australia - the combined Department of Defence and Australian Defence Force (ADF) - has no readily implementable military strategy to apply Australian military power for the achievement of government objectives. Military strategy and defence strategy are not the same thing. However, a combination of inconsistent language regarding strategy, a lack of a military strategy tradition and structural changes in Defence over the past 25 years have led to a focus on enterprise ‘defence strategy’ for long-term generation of military capability at the expense of executable ‘military strategy’. However, Australia still needs a flexible and adaptive military strategy developed for the near-term strategic environment, one which can be adapted for any looming conflict. Defence must organise at the strategic level to develop, implement, monitor and adapt military strategy.

The terms ‘policy’, ‘strategy’ and ‘strategic planning’ are frequently used in high-level Australian defence documents, as well as in position titles inside Defence. The terms are used in the 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP), the 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU), The Strategy Framework 2021 and 2021-25 Defence Corporate Plan. These documents, however, do not relate to ‘military strategy’ for achieving the government’s strategic objectives through the application of military power in the near-term. Defence at the strategic level is predominantly structured for enterprise ‘defence strategy’ for long-term capability generation.

Currently, the ADF has a bottom-up approach to applying military power, which has the potential to lead to strategic surprises or missed strategic opportunities. 2 The Strategy Framework 2021 depicts military strategy (as ‘force employment’) being divested to a subordinate ADF command below the ‘strategic level’ as a ‘theatre campaign plan’. 3 Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQJOC) at the ‘operational level’ distil their interpretation of strategic policy documents to achieve what the Chief of Joint Operations (CJOPS) believes the military strategic intent to be, while the Services can simultaneously do likewise. The Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) and Secretary of the Department of Defence (Secretary) - and the government - are then briefed on these plans, sometimes relatively close to execution. This divested approach is less than ideal in the current geostrategic climate.

In short, by highlighting the importance of effective military strategy this article demonstrates the reason why military strategy should be established in Defence. Our allies have experienced the effects of no or poor military strategy in recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their national security apparatuses have reflected on the outcomes of these ‘Long Wars’ and derived lessons for military strategy. Australia must learn from these to understand why military strategy is important.

This article will address the problem in four steps. First, it will clarify the confused lexicon: the terms policy, strategic policy, strategy and strategic planning are used interchangeably, while defence and military strategy are not differentiated. Second, it will trace the evolution of the Defence entities responsible for strategy and show how Defence has come to a position where it no longer has a focus on - and no two-star or above responsible for - military strategy. Third, through a study of two allies who have traditions of military strategy, the US and UK in the Second World War then Afghanistan and Iraq, this article will affirmatively answer the question, ‘Does Defence need a military strategy approach?’ Contemporary arguments for strategy will be offered. Finally, principles will be recommended for systematic and organisational changes in Defence to establish the military strategy approach needed to succeed in complex multi-domain and multi-agency strategic competition and conflict. 4

Many strategists but little strategy: addressing a deficiency in Australia [PDF 301KB]

Published online: 8 July 2022

Last Updated: 27 July 2022

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Australian Government Style Documentary-note
M Scott, ‘Many strategists but little strategy: addressing a deficiency in Australia’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, 2022, 4(1):39-64.

Australian Government Style Author-date
Scott M (2022) ‘Many strategists but little strategy: addressing a deficiency in Australia’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, 4(1):39-64.

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1 James N Mattis, ‘A new American grand strategy’, Hoover Institution, 26 February 2015.

2 Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan, Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College Press, Carlisle PA, 1 September 2009, p 96.

3 Department of Defence (DOD), The Strategy Framework 2021, Australian Government, Canberra ACT, 2021, pp 12-13.

4 Multi-domain referring to the land, maritime, air, space and cyber/electro-magnetic operating environments and multi-agency referring to Joint (multi-service), interagency and multinational actors.