Interview: Towards an integrated approach to civil-military operations

Dr Alan Ryan, Executive Director of the Australian Civil-Military Centre (ACMC), will be presenting at this year’s NZDIA Annual Forum. In this interview, he sheds some light on the work of the ACMC and the evolving challenges facing civil-military collaboration.


An interview with Dr Alan Ryan, Executive Director of the Australian Civil-Military Centre (ACMC) conducted by Line of Defence (LoD) Magazine, Spring 2018.

LoD: The ACMC is an Australian Government initiative to improve Australia’s effectiveness in civil-military-police collaboration for conflict and disaster management. Where exactly does the Centre fit, and what does it do?

AR: It’s an issue of scale, and every country does it differently. The ACMC has been in existence for ten years, and when it was first initiated it grew out of a perception that we’d been involved in coalition management with New Zealand and an array of other countries in places like Bougainville, the Solomon’s and Timor, and we found that things that we expected would be military operations were actually not.

Foreign Affairs had a significant leadership role, the Australian Federal Police had a significant operational role, and a whole array of other agencies became involved as well.

The sense in 2008/09 was that we needed to work on preparedness for peace operations, and Government was also focused on the humanitarian and disaster response missions that we do around the region and rolled that into the mandate of the Centre. What we’ve found in the subsequent ten years is that in all of the operations we’ve conducted offshore and in all of the operations that we’ve done at the warfighting end of the spectrum, such as Afghanistan, the work that we do is really about interagency coordination.

The line between offshore operations and onshore operations, however, is not as sharp as it once was, particularly with the roles performed by agencies like Emergency Management Australia within Home Affairs. We need to be working with them in order to develop offshore capability, and they with us, so if it requires coordination and it has civil-military -police involvement (or at least two of the three) then the ACMC probably has a role in developing preparedness for it.

But every nation is unique. It’s political circumstances, the role of its military, the way its police forces work, the functions of its foreign affairs; all of those mixes are different. What works for us works for us in the sweet spot of Canberra, which is a fairly small town where we can bring things together although we work within a federated system.

New Zealand is quite different again.

Then you go to somewhere like the United States and you’ll find that they have pressures and tensions that are far, far greater than ours, and they couldn’t do it the way we do it. one of the problems the US is facing at the moment is that the Department of Homeland Security can’t do all of this. You probably need a dedicated unit of some sort, and some might argue that that function is performed by the National Security Advisers office from time to time and it is in part. But you find that in the US there are bits and pieces of what we do scattered across the administration and across government. Canada, the UK, Sweden and Germany all have some sort of institution that’s similar to us in our brokerage function. As a mid-level power, having something like this is a good investment in capability. We need something but we don’t need a massive bureaucracy to achieve it.

LoD: The language on the ACMC website is very much around the coordination necessary when Australian forces deploy overseas. The 2016 New Zealand Defence White Paper places the NZDF within an all-of-government national security ecosystem that operates under an ‘all hazards’ definition of security. What are the key challenges for civil-military cooperation in the domestic context?

AR: Australia and New Zealand are signed up to the Oslo Guidelines, the basic principle of which is ‘no first use’ of the military for domestic responses. No first use doesn’t mean that you won’t use the military first, but that if there is a civilian capability that is available and appropriate to use you will use that and the military will provide a supporting role.

The reality of most countries, even advanced countries like Australia and New Zealand is that when you have a major crisis the civilian response capabilities are rapidly swamped and you need to end up needing to use the military very quickly. The logistical capability, the transport capability, the access to a large body of disciplined labour that can be used in a very rapid sense.

‘No first use’ is not a prohibition, it’s about using what’s appropriate. If you can use civil society recourses, whether it’s private sector or otherwise, but you go and use the military, then you’re short-changing the private sector – and you can actually do damage to the economy.

Militaries are not necessarily organised or optimised for disaster response. They can be a very expensive asset to use. Military equipment, soldiers, sailors and airpersons are expensive assets and probably more expensive in many circumstances than private sector or domestic disaster response assets.

And if you’re using the military for domestic disaster response, they’re not preparing for conflict; they may be degrading their capability should they be needed for another task.

There are good reasons not to use the military, but of course for New Zealand – and Australia’s exactly the same – with bush fires, floods, extreme weather events, it doesn’t take very long until the civilian services turn around and say that they need military support. In Australia, from almost September though to April when we have extreme weather events carpeting the continent, people literally cannot cover the full range of activities that are on their plate.

So when I talked about the blurring between offshore operations and domestic operations, that’s been one of the pressures of the last decade or so as extreme weather events have become more extreme. As we have higher concentrations of populations in disaster-prone areas than ever before, we need to up our game in terms of our domestic response.

LoD: How much of it is about keeping everybody friends?

AR: Everything! All the work we do in preparedness – and we work on lessons learned, on exercises to build preparedness, education and training, research and publication, best practice, standard operating procedures, what the military calls ‘doctrine’, policy guidelines, and agreed principles for interaction – is great, but the fundamental piece is good relationships.

If we have made a contribution over the last ten years I think it’s been building those relationships and building respect.

Government is traditionally highly stove-piped into portfolios, and departments and agencies are in competition for scarce resources, and that is the traditional mode of government. We have put that behind us.

We’re moving much more towards what we call the integrated approach in that if you’re going to have a national or international response to an emergency, you need to work more closely together, you shouldn’t have agencies or countries in competition. We need to be more effective and efficient in the application of resources given that we’re finding ourselves in ‘no notice’ operations and black swan scenarios more often than previously.

In many ways the Asian Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 was the one event that turned our mind to the fact that something of that scale could break on us, that a quarter of a million people could be killed, that communities could be absolutely devastated, that an immediate response was required and that failure to do that meant that more people were going to die and there was going to be an enormous amount more in economic wastage.

You just can’t put that together on the ground when you arrive. You have to have pre-existing relationships and understanding, you need to have a degree of trust. The only way you can get that is by investing in preparedness, which is knowing your counterparts, having worked with them before, and if you haven’t worked with them before in real activity then you need to do more exercises – because that’s what saves lives.

LoD: Have you had any thoughts about the things you may be talking about at the Forum?

AR: It’s a bit of a moveable feast, because a lot of things are moving very, very fast. We’ve done a large body of work on the application of the integrated approach within Australia, which is building interagency connectedness through relationship building, through building understanding, through more workable frameworks. Up until now we’ve worked very much in terms of committee structures and providing liaison between departments. That’s not answering anymore. Our sense is that we need to do more joint interagency taskforces, and that was one of the principal lessons from our lessons-learned study of Australia’s coordinated effort in Afghanistan.

We had been there for over a decade but when we went we went as a gaggle of separate agencies. It was only in 2009 that we started working as a team of teams, and things came together very, very well. We can’t afford to do that in future. You can’t be in an operation for eight years and then after eight years decide that we’re all going to work together.

So the integrated approach is really about having interagency taskforces at the strategic level, the operational level and in the field that we’re all working together and we do. The hierarchical stovepipe approach isn’t going to work anymore.

One of the things that’s becoming particularly evident to us is that there is another pressure coming into play very, very quickly, and that’s what’s been broadly referred to as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’: Artificial Intelligence, robotics, machine learning, quantum computing, and the connectivity that is being built between all of those capabilities and more.

Most public services, most systems of government, are still based on a lot of process work being done in a clerical sense by people sitting in their own agencies; and that is about to be completely blown away. Most of the process work that is out there is disappearing.

A good example for me is tax. For many, any years it was a brutal experience. Originally you had to do it on a paper form, and then it was moved to computer form and it started getting easier and easier. Nowadays I do it in about five minutes. I flip on the computer, I enter my details, I give it permission to access all of my information that’s out there, it all comes together, I check it over, I make a few claims, I hit a button, and that’s done! That is now the standard human interface with government.

If I wanted to make a public health insurance claim or get my driver’s license renewed, I used to have to go to an office around that corner, I’d get a ticket, I’d queue, and after a while I’d see a person and things would happen. Now, all of those things are being done online by a machine. There are no people doing that anymore.

At the lower level of government-public interfaces we’re seeing people taken out of the equation, and that is going to very rapidly be taken up in terms of operations.

One of the things we’re starting to see – and it’s going to be interesting for countries like Australia and New Zealand – is that we’ve always turned around and said that we’re small players, we don’t have a lot of people, we can only do niche activities. But with robotics, with autonomous vehicles, with autonomous sensors and increasingly with autonomous weapons systems – and this is the bit where it starts getting quite scary – very few people will be needed to join the ranks of what Napoleon called the big battalions. We have these force multipliers that are available to us.

We’ve been preaching the integrated approach in government for long time, and to a certain extent that’s relationships, process and the like, but the next piece is the technology piece.

There are enormous threats there. A lot of people are going to lose their jobs, but the indicators are that a lot more jobs will be created, and the future really belongs to those societies that identify where the opportunities are and move fairly rapidly to them.

Small countries can use their technological edge to adapt, and we’re all going to need to move pretty fast over the next few years. But it’s not just technology; what you do with it and how you maximise the use of your people is going to be the real challenge.

For those of us in leadership roles it’s about what we can do to smooth this transition, because it’s coming at us very quickly.

LoD: Deputy Executive Director Glenn Dunbier is seconded to ACMC from NZ Police. What is the Centre’s formal relationship with New Zealand?

AR: Glenn is the third New Zealander in that role, and that’s a standing understanding that we came up with when the centre was founded. Jim Rolfe was the first deputy executive director, and then the RNZAF’s Greg Elliot.

Glenn is the Deputy Commissioner of Police. For us it’s fantastic. He’s a great person to work with, has extraordinary people management qualities, and is very well respected. He’s been here 18 months now and everybody knows him – and better than they know me!

The reason we have a New Zealand deputy executive director is that there’s an assumption that we’re not going to mount a major operation in the region without New Zealand.

As we saw in the Solomon Islands, we needed New Zealand to play a leading role. New Zealand is able to do a bunch a of things better than we can. New Zealand is a true Pacific country and New Zealanders are often much better at managing the relationships and people side of things with its presence in the region.