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DEF Australia Letters from Talisman Sabre: The Four Currencies of War

July 13th, 2017 by Tom McDermott

Introduction: Ex TALISMAN SABRE and the Beast

The Australian military is about to conduct its largest multi-national amphibious operation since the landing of the 7th Australian Division in Balikpapan, Borneo in 1945. Over the next two weeks 33,000 Australian, American, Canadian, New Zealand and Japanese troops will take part in a training exercise to seize the fictional island of Carolina (actually Far North Queensland). The aim in the scenario is a ‘just’ one: mandated by the UN, the Coalition will apply reasonable force to re-establish the territorial integrity of the country of ‘Tetta’, invaded by their ‘Marcellan’ neighbours in breach of international law.

Even to someone who has been in the military for a little time now, the sense of scale is remarkable. The full force of expeditionary Western weaponry has coalesced in a thirty mile circle. Carriers bristle with jump-jets and helicopters. UAVs and intelligence planes fly constant sorties. Amphibious troops waterproof their weapons, and ‘tankers’ bash track in preparation for a rapid advance. Like a gigantic jigsaw, the ‘bricks’ of a genuinely interoperable force (the product of decades of work) overlap and link together.

But while the scale stuns the senses, so does the sheer complexity. Shoalwater Bay now hums with an electro-magnetic footprint that probably rivals most large towns. Thousands of pages of orders are being produced, underpinned by tens of thousands of pages of doctrine. Arguably no one man or woman knows how it all fits together … but fit together it does (albeit never seamlessly, and often with the help of a crowbar)! You only understand how impressive it is when you actually see it.

My sense, however, is that it is easy to get lost in this complexity. You can spend so much time looking inwards at the workings of this ‘Beast’ that you forget to watch which way it’s going; a bit like looking at the cogs of your bike while blindly cycling into a tree. The result can be a force that carries immense military potential, but is immensely difficult to wield. We use concepts like Mission Command, Decentralised Control and Digitised Common Operating Pictures as ways to overcome this, but all too often these also become overly-scientific and consumed in process. If there is one thing a Revolution in Military Affairs is good for, it’s sucking the life out of passionate ideas. So how do we, the simple soldiers, make sense of this?

The Duel, a Trade and the Currencies of War

My view (and I wrote about this last year) is that we need to hold to a different approach. We need to keep the human in the forefront of war, and focus all our effort on the ‘duel’: Clausewitz’s original image of war as a contest where we ‘compel our enemy to do our will’. Increasingly for me the heart of this is the idea of a transaction. War is essentially a trade where all other means have failed. We’ve asked nicely (through diplomacy), and you haven’t stopped. So now the line is ‘do what we want, or we will come and kill you’. This is ultimately why militaries exists: to apply, or to threaten to apply, force to compel others to do what we need them to do. Some militaries (like the one on TALISMAN SABRE) can come a long way to do it.

A trade is something we can all understand; from General to Digger. If we buy into this idea, we can then take it further. We can look at the currencies of war. These are the things that we can leverage against the enemy as we trade with them. In a way we try to do this in doctrine when we apply Dr Joseph Strange’sCritical Capabilities (CC) – Critical Requirements (CR) – Critical Vulnerabilities (CV)’ model. But to me this speaks too much in the language of the Beast, and thus lacks sufficient soul. Tanks, bayonets and bombs obviously have the scientific ‘potential’ to compel, but unless they are applied effectively against an enemy’s will they are valueless. As Napoleon said, ‘the moral is to the physical as three is to one’, and there are numerous example of small forces overcoming larger ones. I believe in a more philosophical approach. For me, there are really only four real currencies in war: force, risk, trust and hope. If we can understand this we can use these as very practical tools to shape our approach to war, and to how we use the Beast. Let’s look at them in turn.

Force is the first, and most important, currency in war. It is the ultimate arbiter: there is no more decisive way of changing someone’s perspective or behaviour than killing them. Indeed it defines war. If force is not being used, or about to be used, you are not ‘in war’. Given this it is surprising how little time we spend discussing it. One of the foremost questions democracies like Australian must constantly ask is ‘how much force must we use to achieve our national aims’? This is the case across all the levels of war. At the political level, the Australian government seeks to define our societal relationship with force; how useful we think it is, and how much of it we need to be able to wield (and where). But this is just as relevant at the tactical level. Indeed it is force that ties tactics and politics together. How often do we ask: ‘how much force do we need to apply to achieve our mission’? If the mission is to ‘DESTROY’, probably a lot. But force should not be a default, as it became in Vietnam. It is a means to an end in the trade, not an end in itself, and it only has value in terms of its psychological effect on the will of the enemy. Sometimes it can be as decisive, if not more decisive, when it is not used. Force is our principle currency, our ‘deal-closer’, and in a world where the quality of the deal matters it must be used carefully and judiciously.

Risk is the second currency in war. All military decision-making is a game of taking risk for gain. Risk can obviously be physical. If you want to effectively apply force, you almost have to open yourself up to risk. Attack a contested beachhead, hundreds might die. Fly a bombing run, the planes may get shot down or crash. Look out from cover to aim and fire, you might get shot in the head. This is why suicide bombers are so scary. They embrace the ultimate risk without even really knowing the gain. But there are many other forms of risk that play a role in war. Ethical risk, where tactical actions (like Abu Ghraib) can have remarkable consequences on moral authority. Political risk, where nations sometimes trade national interest for international standing (as in the invasion of Iraq in 2003). Even societal risk, where actions in war challenge the relationship between the Armed Forces and society. The point here isn’t about risk aversion. The reality is that we must embrace risk in war if we want to win. But we have to understand it, talk about it, and then practise taking it. The language of planning should be the language of risk. What risks are we holding? Are they letting us seize opportunities? Where is the enemy holding risk, and what sorts of risks are they? How can we apply the fear, fog, friction and stress of war to exploit his risk? If you are planning and you are not discussing risk, I’d say you’re getting it wrong.

The third currency in war is trust. We all know that ‘trust’ is at the heart of the concept of mission command, and this is right. The doctrinal, two-way trust between commanders and subordinates (top to bottom and left to right) is the key to achieving overwhelming tactical action. But I believe that trust goes much deeper as a true currency of war. Yes, soldiers need to trust their officers, and vice versa. But it gets interesting when you think about how that reliance on trust heightens as you take more risk and apply more force. As you scratch deeper under the surface of combat, you keep finding trust. Have you ever been battle-tracking and received a SITREP that throws the whole picture out? The panic rising in your throat is the trust you held in your own enemy picture draining away. Have you ever patrolled into a trusted village in a COIN campaign after a CIVCAS? The feeling is palpable as the trust you have spend months building is destroyed. The need for trust is everywhere in our current way of war, and it is only growing as we become more and more enabled by data and networks. The reality is that cyber attacks don’t need to attack the system; they just need to attack our trust in the system. This is a commodity that we need to grow and protect. But it doesn’t come fast, or easily. As with many things in war, the enemy seeks the same. How can we destroy their trust, while protecting and enhancing our own?

The final currency of war is hope. General Gordon R. Sullivan was right when he famously said ‘hope is not a method’. But while it may not be a method, I believe hope is the final arbiter between victory and defeat. War is hard, and now more than ever it is fought by volunteers. There are many things that keep soldiers fighting; pride, loyalty, dedication, passion, kudos. But it is hope that stops them giving up, even when all the others have failed. Take a second to think about a campaign through the medium of hope. When North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam in December 1974, the South Vietnamese turned with hopeful eyes towards the US to intervene as they had promised to do so in the Paris Accords. They watched in horror as Congress refused President Ford, and all hope was gone. Saigon fell four months later. Counterinsurgency and hope have a particularly checkered relationship. The insurgency in Iraq grew in 2004 after the Coalition failed to live up to the hopes of the Iraqi people. Arguably the 130,000 soldiers of ISAF were unable to defeat the Taliban as they could not destroy their hope of one day coming back to ascendency. Hope is linked to will, and is deeply psychological. Like trust it can take years to develop, but can be dashed in a single blow. Destroy an enemy’s hope, and you will likely win. Lose your own at your peril.


Force, risk, trust and hope. Four interlinked commodities that make up the currencies of war. I believe these are the sorts of ‘big’ lenses through which we need to analyse our strategies and plans. The benefits are many. Like most things truly linked to the nature of war and the human condition, they are enduring. They can be applied to any buzzword situation: symmetric, asymmetric, COIN, grey, hybrid … even hyper! But none of these commodities come easily, and all are like sand held in a fractured jar. They are years in the making, and can be lost in a second. The journey has to start in peacetime. As J. F. C. Fuller said ‘there cannot be two forms of strategy, one for peace and one for war’. A successful force is one who builds a surplus of these commodities while the sun shines.

Luckily, we are already doing it. Ex TALISMAN SABRE is a perfect example. Here we are massing and enhancing force through interoperability and shared alliances. With 33,000 soldiers and over 300 ships taking part, we are certainly taking judicious risk. All going well we will challenge and build trust, both internally and between our allies. Whether we are building hope is perhaps more difficult to answer. For those out in the field (like me) it is worth remembering that this isn’t just training. As long as we live in a world of states and societies, we are always taking part in a duel of sorts: demonstrating our wealth in the currencies of war to the region and the world. We just need to understand the Beast, keep it focussed on the duel, and look up to avoid that tree.

About the author

Tom McDermott is the Director of The Cove and Executive for DEF Australia.  An Australian Army officer who also served for 15 years in the British Army, he is a passionate advocate of the Profession of Arms. Tom is studying a PhD in strategy at @ANUBellSchool and is a Fellow at  and @.  You can follow him on Twitter via @helmandproject.

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