Risky Business: Equipping Junior Leaders to Exploit Risk on the Battlefield

Photo courtesy Australian Army
Photo courtesy Australian Army

‘In the art of war, lesser men are schemers, who avoid risk with mediocre results.’[i] 

Napoleon Bonaparte


To an extent unmatched by any other human endeavor, combat compels leaders to deliberately expose their subordinates to destruction to achieve success. Almost uniquely, military operations require leaders to weigh the cost of achieving a task against potential loss of life and material. Like many characteristics of successful commanders, the ability to assess, mitigate and accept risk in combat is part art and part science. Some leaders have a natural sense of it, others learn it. Regardless, successful Armies train their commanders to understand and cope with risk on operations, equipping them with the tools to determine when to accept risk in pursuit of the mission. This post will discuss how Army teaches its officers and NCOs to understand, assess and accept risk, and examine whether Army’s current approach best prepares junior leaders to prevail on the battlefield.

Operational Risk Management versus Conventional Risk Management

Operational Risk Management (ORM) is philosophically different from managing risk in non-operational environments in two important regards. First, military operations may require the intentional sacrifice of service personnel and material in order to achieve a mission.  There are some notable civilian professions that also encounter this dilemma however this consideration takes on greater significance in a military context due to the scale, scope and lethality of operations. The second is the involvement of a dynamic and hostile competitor that is actively creating harmful conditions. In this context, risk becomes not only a quantity to be ‘tolerated, treated or transferred,’[ii] but a commodity to be leveraged in order to better a hostile opponent.

Army’s Doctrinal Approach to Operational Risk

The ADF and Army possess a sound doctrinal approach to the issue of operational risk. Army and Joint doctrine repeatedly underlines the centrality of the mission, emphasizes the importance of prudent risk taking and reinforces the unique ‘cost versus gain’ nature of operational risk assessment. Examples include:

  • ADDP 3- 0 Campaigns and OperationsRisk must be balanced against audacity and imagination to seize the initiative, exploit fleeting opportunities and achieve decisive results.[iii]
  • LWD 0-0 Command, Leadership and Management. With mission command there is a need to accept a certain amount of risk to achieve success. In a rapidly developing battle, where it is crucial to gain and retain the initiative, the consequence of delay through hesitation and indecision, or time waiting for confirmation, may be more dangerous than a flawed but timely decision based on the best assessment of incomplete information.[iv]

Risk Management in Deliberate Planning

The ADF’s deliberate planning process, the Joint Military Appreciation Process (JMAP), is detailed in ADFP 5-0-1. This document provides the procedural foundation for Joint and Army operational planning and considers ORM in detail. The JMAP employs a ‘conventional risk management model’ based on the civilian Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZ 31000:2009 Risk Management-Principles and Guidelines. This same standard forms the basis of Army’s Military Risk Management (MRM) process. The AS/NZ Standard is aligned with the provisions of the Commonwealth Work Health Safety Act 2011 and the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013. The desired end state of the process is to identify and treat every hazard so far as reasonably practical, and transfer untreatable risks to higher levels for approval.

ADFP 5-0-1 explicitly acknowledges the limitations of employing the AS/NZ Standard to ORM, noting that ‘despite the differences between this conceptualization of risk (ORM) and that of the conventional risk management model, the later at the least provides a framework that can be applied to suit operational planning requirements.’[v]  Although the AS/NZ Standard is not a military risk assessment tool, and was never designed as such, ADFP 5-0-1 repeatedly frames the process in a manner that makes it suitable for ORM during deliberate planning. Indeed, applied in the correct manner, the very detailed and comprehensive nature of the process makes it well suited to the staff planning environment.

Army Risk Management in Practice

Like the JMAP, the AS/NZ Standard forms the basis of Army’s risk management model. However, unlike its application in the JMAP, Army does not frame the risk management process towards operational requirements. Instead, Army risk management is overwhelmingly focused on the application of the AS/NZ Standard as a means of providing a safe work environment in accordance with Work Health Safety (WHS) legislation.

Army’s risk management processes are currently sponsored by the Directorate of Technical Regulation Army (DTR-A), the same organisation that oversees the Technical Regulatory Framework (TRF) and the Maintenance Advisory Service (MAS). The management of the Army’s risk processes by the organisation responsible for Army’s material governance and technical compliance ensures that Army’s processes are organisationally skewed away from the demands of operational risk management and focused heavily on WHS legislative requirements. This is not to suggest that risk management is not an important component of Army governance or compliance, or that management of the process in a benign environment is not suited to an organisation like DTR-A. Rather, it highlights that Army’s processes are driven by governance and compliance imperatives rather than the needs of operational commanders.

This approach is reflected in the application of MRM across Army. The MRM process is taught throughout the All Corps training continuum framed largely in a non-operational context, focused on issues of workplace safety, reputation management and environmental protection.

The Challenge for Army

The problem flowing from Army’s current approach to risk is twofold. First, Army does not have a risk management process that can be readily applied by tactical commanders in line with Army’s doctrinal approach to risk on operations. Attempting to apply the MRM process in a tactical setting often falls short. The process is not designed for the military environment. It does not prioritise mission accomplishment and does not adequately focus on the enemy. It can be time consuming and considers a range of elements often irrelevant to tactical planning.

Second is the potential impact on Army’s leadership culture. While Army doctrine encourages boldness on operations, Army trains its leaders to employ a conventional risk management tool aligned with civilian WHS standards. The result may be a culture where risk is habitually framed as a negative to be treated and transferred, rather viewed as a freedom that can be leveraged to better a hostile opponent. In the absence of a risk management model that emphasises mission accomplishment and the impact of the enemy, junior leaders on operations will likely default to the approach they use in peace-time; looking to identify and treat every hazard before proceeding, attempting to defer untreatable risks to their commander, absent of the mindset needed to accept risk to seize opportunities on the battlefield.

The Combat Training Centre 2015 Trends Report provides telling evidence of these concerns playing out across Army’s combat units:

  • Lack of a ‘Bias for Action’. Linked to a quest for certainty, there appears to be hesitancy in acting without full information and confirmation from superior headquarters. While there have been some notable exceptions, most BG are sedate in their approach to operations. Commanders must be prepared to take appropriate risks in achieving the mission noting that their actions mean that the enemy OODA loop cycle starts again.[vi]
  • Reluctance to seek out and close with the enemy. There appears to be a reluctance to move aggressively and engage the enemy. These observations appear linked to an over-reliance on trying to know every enemy location prior to moving. Commanders must practice working in uncertainty and appropriately employ their forces to seek out and close with the enemy.[vii]

Addressing the Issue – Options

A multi-faceted strategy is required to address the problems associated with Army’s current approach to risk.  Some options include:

  1. Retain extant doctrine, JMAP and MRM process. The mechanisms for dealing with risk within the JMAP and MRM are highly suitable in the correct context and should continue to play an important role in the education and training of Army’s leaders.
  1. Supplement the MRM with ‘Risk on Operations’ training. Whenever MRM training occurs it should be supplemented with discussions on ‘risk on operations.’ The aim of such training would be to inculcate an alternate mindset where risk on operations is viewed as something that can be leveraged to better the enemy. The MRM and ‘risk on operations’ should be seen as different but complimentary approaches to risk. Risk on operations training could discuss:
  • The unique demands of risk management on operations.
  • Army’s doctrinal approach to risk on operations and its importance to manoeuvre warfare.
  • The concept of risk as a positive.
  • The concept of prudent risk.
  • The Tactical Risk Management framework.
  • Historical examples of prudent risk taking leading to success on the battlefield.
  1. Develop DI(A) OPS 68-1 Military Risk Management to include a more fulsome discussion on risk management on operations in line with the above.
  1. Introduce the concept of ‘prudent risk’ to Army doctrine. Prudent risk describes the ‘deliberate exposure to potential injury or loss when the commander judges the outcome in terms of mission accomplishment as worth the cost.’[viii] The formal adoption of this term or something similar will assist in establishing an alternate framework for junior leaders to understand risk on operations as a positive.
  1. Introduce a Tactical Risk Management process. Army should develop a simplified operational risk management process for use at the tactical level. This process would be used in the field to supplement the Combat Military Appreciation Process (CMAP)[ix] and in tactical level planning where the full ORM process envisaged by the JMAP is inappropriate. This simplified approach should focus on two core elements only, risk to mission and risk to force.[x] The Tactical Risk Management process is designed to be expedient and philosophically aligned with Army’s doctrinal approach to operational risk.


Army encourages commanders to accept a degree of risk on the battlefield as a means of bettering a hostile opponent; however, Army has adopted a civilian risk management model that while highly appropriate in a non-operational setting, is ill-suited to many tactical situations. There is evidence to suggest that Army’s peace-time risk management processes are contributing to a culture of risk aversion over boldness.

Army’s approach to risk management should be supplemented by training on operational risk, designed to encourage a mindset among commanders to accept risk in pursuit of the mission. This alternate approach to risk should be supported by the introduction of the term ‘prudent risk’ and the Tactical Risk Management process. Together, these initiatives will better equip junior leaders to understand, assess and accept risk in order to seize opportunities and prevail on the battlefield.

About the author

Colonel Garth Gould is an Australian Army officer and Director of Training Systems.

End Notes

[i] ADDP 3.0, Campaigns and Operations, chapter 5

[ii] DI(A) OPS 68-1, Military Risk Management, Annex B-5, para 21

[iii] ADDP 3.0, Campaigns and Operations, para 5.79

[iv] ibid, para 13.e

[v] ADFP 5.0.1, Joint Military Appreciation Process, para 1.38

[vi] CTC Trends Report 2015, para 25

[vii] ibid, para 25

[viii] US Army doctrine, ADP 6-0, Mission Command,

[ix] CMAP Step 4 currently includes the consideration ‘are risks acceptable?’ (LWD 5.1.4, The Military Appreciation Process, chapter 10). The Tactical Risk Management Process would simply provide a framework to consider risk as part of the CMAP. No adjustment to the CMAP is necessary, simply an understanding that the issue of risk in the CMAP should be viewed through the framework of risk to force/risk to mission.

[x] The terms risk to mission and risk to force have been employed informally within the ADF and allied armies for some time but has never been formally adopted by Army.


Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.

3 thoughts on “Risky Business: Equipping Junior Leaders to Exploit Risk on the Battlefield

  1. Very interesting article, and a civilian Risk Manager, my own personal takeaway is the ‘cost versus gain’ paradigm. Civilian Risk Managers tend to stress the ‘cost versus (negative) impact’.

    1. Agreed, I have an engineering background and its very similar. At its core is a cost benefit analysis tested against the AFARP criteria (as far as reasonably practical). If you stand to win big (benefit) if you’re right but lose small when you’re wrong (potential cost) and you have taken every reasonably practical step to ensure success then risk can be incredibly useful.

  2. Sir,

    I completely agree that our current risk management tools and systems are not suitable for some of their current applications. Do you believe the ‘risk on operations’ framework can replace the MRM framework for training activities in Australia, or is there still a requirement for an MRM for any non-operational activity? I see a challenge being if the ‘risk on operations’ model cannot be utilised in training it’s full benefit will not be realised. If it remains a tool only utilised on operations and taught but not exercised in Australia it risks not achieving it’s aims. Perhaps an MRM conducted by the highest HQ on the activity covers governance requirements whilst all suborndinate units utilise the ‘risk on operations’ framework?

    I would also contend that the Army’s organisational culture toward risk is a significant contributor to the overall risk averse culture of the Army. This culture has spread beyond activities where an MRM is required. Across Army the default is to transfer risk to a higher authority for authorisation. This has resulted in junior leaders having a limited scope to take advantage of opportunities, be it in barracks or conducting field training, without deferring to their chain of command or authorisation. Junior leaders are fearful of reprisal for accepting risk, making a decision and potentially making mistakes.

    Junior leaders, both commissioned and non-commissioned, need to have the confidence that if they take calculated risks utilising all available information to make a swift decision that maintains momentum and the initiative. This confidence must be instilled by the chain of command. In order to instill this confidence it must be for all decisions, not just those in the face of the enemy (simulated or real). It will not be sufficient for risk to be accepted in field training but a Troop Leader is not trusted to approve leave for their soldiers or accept risk in other barracks functions. The culture we create in barracks will permeate into the field and vice-versa. The two must act in concert, not contradiction.

    If we are to reform the systems and tools we use to manage risk to better suit their purpose, I believe that it must be in concert with cultural organisational change toward risk implemented both by the Army’s leaders and the training conducted at the Royal Military College – Duntroon and on ACOTC and WONCO promotion courses. The systems and culture are intrinsic and I believe if we correct one in isolation of the other we risk not achieving the desired outcomes of an Army that seizes and maintains the initiative, regardless of the circumstances.

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