Intellect and innovation for warfighing capability.

Combat Adaption Through Time

November 2nd, 2017 by Cameron Gibbins and James Kingham

Reflections from the Chief of Army History Conference – and why you should be there in 2018.

Sir Michael Howard called adaption “an aspect of military science that must be studied above all others.”[1] Driven by the central importance of learning from our military experience, the Chief of Army History Conference 2017 (CAHC17) focused on the topic of ‘The Skill of Adaptability: The learning curve in combat’. For two days, a range of international speakers assembled in Canberra to discuss in a conference format, historical experience on adaption. This paper seeks to highlight the importance of the conference through a brief synopsis and analysis of the conference’s findings, offering a methodology for combat adaption grounded in historical analysis. Further, this paper will offer some suggestions on expanding the audience and outcome of such a great event.

It is useful to commence with a refresher on the relevance of the utility of history to the profession of arms; and one need look no further than Sir Michael Howard’s address to the Royal United Services Institute in 1961.[2] Unlike the surgeon who operates with regularity, or the barrister who orates with frequency, the military officer is rarely offered the opportunity to practise their profession outside the constraints of training. It is therefore imperative that military professionals employ alternate means to most prepare themselves for that unlikely, fleeting occurrence; the critical study of military history offers one such preparation. By studying a campaign in depth, an officer may chance a glimpse into the realities of the horrors and struggles of a war which may await them. By studying military history in width, an officer may deduce the changing characteristics of warfare which evolve with technology and diplomacy; while identifying war’s enduring nature of uncertainty, friction and chance.

S.L.A. Marshall offered that “War must always start with imperfect instruments”.[3] So in a world with 29 different Koppen climate zones, 155 distinct ethnic groups and continually evolving technological innovation it is hardly surprising that militaries rarely enter conflict with the right equipment or doctrine. Within this context and across a variety of case studies; ranging from imperial policing and the Boer War, to total war and the Second World War, the CAHC17 demonstrated how militaries adapt, and ultimately the primacy of doing so.  Across the ten and a half hours of presentations and disparate case studies, key themes of adaption in contact continually emerged. Together, the learning outcomes from the conference offer the Australian Army an understanding of how armies successfully adapt.

The graphical representation above offers a succinct means of understanding what history tells us about combat adaption. First to adapt you must be resilient. The title of Dr Alexander Hill’s presentation, ‘Sadder but wiser’ neatly encapsulates the traumatic experience of the Soviet Army in the Second World War. An experience that was ultimately successful, albeit at great cost, demonstrating the importance of resilience. In a modern Australian context we must strive to build resilience in our people, equipment and importantly our political support if we hope to deal with the rigours of adaption. We must learn, potentially through failure before the cost of failure leads to defeat.

Second, adaption will only occur in an organisation that promotes a culture of adaption. Many of the case studies presented at the conference highlighted that militaries do not adapt willingly. Wedded to the potency of past experience, armies struggle to appreciate change and evolve, like the British upon encountering trench works for the first time in the Boer War. However, we must recognise that learning is not a simple process, it compounds human frictions and the Australian Army should develop and understand what metrics exist to measure our ability to learn. A culture of promoting learning and adaption is more important than the adaption itself.

The third aspect of successful combat adaption is the importance of generating in-theatre reporting. As the Australian 6th Division transitioned from desert to jungle operations, initial reporting out of Papua New Guinea identified the importance of automatic weapons, jungle specific uniform and TTPs. It was adaptions like these that were vital to the success of the campaigns of Kokoda, Lae or Wewak. However, lessons of adaption and innovation have not always been uniformly adopted. This highlights the fourth aspect in understanding combat adaption; the need to continually codify adaption on the battle field and inculcate it. In the First World War both sides tried to restore mobility to the battlefield. Although isolated units from both sides had successes, it wasn’t until the final months of the war when both sides had developed and codified adaptions then retrained their forces, that new concepts such as the ‘elastic defence’ or ‘infiltration tactics’ were successful. Ultimately by understanding the common themes, depicted in case studies like the First World War and articulated graphically above, one can visualise a methodology for successful combat adaption. Significantly, this methodology has historically been instigated at the tactical level, and then promoted and disseminated by senior leaders. Junior leadership is a crucial element in driving organisational adaptation.

The findings and themes discussed were presented to a broad church with participation ranging from junior to senior officers of the Regular Army, a sizeable reservist contingent, retired members and a considerable number of academics. The ideal demographic for this conference however, was serving officers of all corps – but lamentably these officers were few. Only this demographic is in a position to implement or distil the ideas presented into tangible reforms to increase the Army’s adaptability. The Chief of Army History Conference is a unique event and it affords the Army an opportunity to deliver a valuable PME opportunity to a much larger audience then was achieved this year. Just as it is unwise to solely rely on individual soldier motivation to maintain physical fitness standards, Army should implement a modicum of compulsion to its PME efforts to both supplement activities at the unit level, and to generate a baseline of education for the disparate PME opportunities throughout Army. The 2018 iteration offers a perfect vehicle for implementation. Funding and compelling delegations of junior officers from each brigade to attend would be a simple step to ensuring this valuable PME opportunity reaches relevant ears. Alternatively, Army could fund the export of high profile academics to Darwin, Townsville and Brisbane to brief in a roadshow style.

Armies don’t need to be ready for the next conflict to the highest degree, rather they must prioritise adaptability ‘in contact’, so they meet challenges effectively. CAHC17 highlighted this must be done before losses of personnel, equipment or will derails war aims. Further, successful adaptation is germinated at the tactical level, and encouraged to proliferate by senior commanders. Successful adaptation cannot be ‘imposed’ from above, rather the lessons gained in contact must be encouraged to permeate a military force through codified adaptions in doctrine generated by in theatre reporting.

About the authors

Cameron Gibbins is an Australian Army officer currently serving as the Tank Officer Instructor at the School of Armour.

James Kingham is an Australian Army Officer currently serving as a Troop Commander at the 1st Aviation Regiment.


[1] Michael Howard, Military Science in an Age of Peace, Chesney Gold Medal Lecture, 3rd October 1973.

[2] Howard. M, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’ Lecture to The RUSI, London, October 1961.

[3] S.L.A Marshall, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, University of Oklahoma Press, 1947, p.20.

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