Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 10:43 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 10:43 | SYDNEY

The national security phalanx

11 August 2009 11:02

The strength of the ancient Greek/Macedonian phalanx drew from symbiotic protection. The shield carried by each hoplite soldier afforded protection to his neighbour, and so on in each rank. Each hoplite’s life depended on working in intimate and precise cooperation with his comrades – demonstrating perhaps one of the earliest forms of interoperability.

Today, recent alleged domestic terrorism plots, bombings in Jakarta, pandemic fears and climate change repercussions underscore the need for agencies to cooperate closely, to both understand and prepare for the national security challenges confronting Australia. 

As the Federal Government begins to prepare the successor to its first National Security Statement, we need to consider how best to make our national security interoperability more effective. The ADF’s recent operational experiences and unique insights into interoperability and multi-agency coordination afford it a capacity to assist.

Interoperability takes many forms, from common equipment and jargon to standard procedures. The most essential, however, is 'cultural' interoperability, which comes from inter-organisational understanding, trust and confidence brought about through close and ongoing training, liaison and exchanges. 

Shared learning and education delivers much of this, and the measures Defence takes — such as shared staff professional development – aim to develop a predisposition across the Services, throughout Defence and among other coalition partners to engage early. But even in Defence, the work is acknowledged as incomplete – interoperability requires constant vigilance and re-investment.

Such early engagement allows time and scope for parallel planning and understanding the capacities and limitations of the other actors. It applies equally in all national responses regardless of the type of challenge, as noted recently by the head of Victoria's bushfire recovery.

The 2008 National Security Statement’s proposals of a 'national security college' and an 'executive development program' therefore have merit. However, as pointed out in my recent Lowy Institute Analysis paper on Defence’s contribution to national security, such ventures will only be effective if their value is understood and properly invested in by all elements of the national security community, from senior leadership down.

In classical times, when one phalanx was pitted against another, the result was invariably light casualties suffered by the victor, and virtual annihilation of the vanquished. Once its protective framework was shattered or pierced by the opposition’s tactics, nothing could prevent a phalanx’s demolition.

Australia’s future national security phalanx includes not only the ADF, but also federal and state police, emergency services, Customs, the intelligence community and Foreign Affairs. Like its ancient predecessor, it must be indomitable as a whole, but the phalanx’s impermeability will nevertheless rely upon cooperation, understanding and seamless cohesion — the cultural interoperability — between its 'hoplite' agencies.

Photo by Flickr user diffendale, used under a Creative Commons license.