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The 2020 Defence Strategic Update provides a strategic demand signal for Defence to think equally and iteratively across shape, deter and respond. In this context, the notion of warfighting warrants a reconsideration in terms of the dominant position it occupies within the ADF. If this term no longer simply speaks to the activity of fighting a war, what does it actually do, and how does this affect Australia’s current approach to military strategy?

Section 1: Setting the scene

This contribution to The Forge examines a familiar term in uncomfortable ways. We employ the logic of military strategy to understand what is at stake when the term warfighting[1] is used across the Department of Defence. We suggest that a lack of discipline in our deployment of language has caused warfighting to become a problematic term. Left unchecked, its ordinary use produces a type of non-sense within the realm of military strategy. In this article we extend particular focus to the 2020 Defence Strategic Update[2] and consider what the term warfighting does in this context.

Two elements may immediately be derived from the aim of this article. First, our subject is the term warfighting. We are not offering a technical examination of the particular functions the term is supposed to represent. We are fixating only on the term itself, and the way it is employed. Second, we are handling this subject in the context of military strategy. Our discussion should not be seen as any sort of incursion into the tactical.

Our approach should also be understood as a critical examination. We seek to build new understanding of what happens when the term warfighting is deployed. This article is not a source of agitation for an alternate term to replace warfighting, nor is it concerned with reconceptualising the function of warfighting. We are simply working to better understand the state of play.

The two objectives that guide our contribution are to:

  1. Take the term warfighting and view it through the lens of military strategy.
  2. Ask simply: what is happening here, and what are the implications of the term?  

Section 2: Assumptions

Three assumptions underpin our movements. We think it useful to outline these upfront to organise and frame our argument. First, we hold that words have a productive value—they are important because they do things rather than simply represent things. In doing so, we draw on the understanding that language can be performative. This is a well-established notion that gained momentum within the linguistic turn of philosophy. Specifically, we reference the philosopher John Langshaw Austin and his concept of performance utterances.[3] Austin makes the case that words and utterances don’t just describe or report something, they can also be a form of action that brings things into being. Austin explains that in these cases,the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action—it is not normally thought of as just saying something”.[4] Austin’s work provides the key conceptual construct that this article is anchored to. Our focus is to better understand what the term warfighting produces when it is uttered or employed, and the implications of this for the Department of Defence. 

Second, our examination is made through the lens of strategy. We are going to take warfighting, situate it within the logic of military strategy, and understand what happens when this occurs. If nothing else, our contribution might be understood as a fresh mode of strategic acumen. We are offering our readers a possible way of seeing the logic of military strategy as it exists in the ordinary ways we conduct ourselves.[5]

Third, of all the ways we could tackle this topic, we have carefully selected just this one. We acknowledge that there are many important and interconnected ways of examining warfighting. For example, the term might be examined though a sociological lens to understand how it constructs particular identities within the military institution.[6]  Recent research speaks to this, such as the inquiries conducted by GPCAPT Jarrod Pendlebury (2020)[7] or CAPT Toni Pachernegg (2020).[8] Pendlebury in particular offers a powerful counterview to the habitual ways we think of warfighting culture with reference to military academies. Pendlebury’s sociological stance departs from the ordinary and opens possibilities to rethink the dominance of warrior identities within the Australian Defence Force.  We also point to the recent contributions on the matter of warfighting from WGCDR Ulas ‘Ulie’ Yildirim (2019),[9] Dr Peter Layton (2019),[10] Dr Marcus Hellyer (2019),[11] Michael Shoebridge (2020),[12] and Lieutenant Emma Watson (2020).[13] These scholars might be seen as participants in a broad, unfolding debate about the raison d'être for the ADF, and the way such purpose is expressed to the Australian public. The investments made by these scholars begin to expose a larger concern of why a term like warfighting might stick so well when recent events indicate that this term does not acutely capture the entirety of what the Department of Defence has been called to do.

Finally, warfighting can also be examined through different theories of strategy and analyses of war’s changing character. These are crucial inquiries and are extensive and far-ranging in their treatment of the topic. Surveying or summarising these ideas is beyond the scope of our article. Our concern is not the totality of what warfighting does or how the term could be thought out, but is instead a particular slice of that whole. We are only seeking to understand what warfighting does within the logic of military strategy as employed by the Department of Defence.

We feel that such a precise examination is powerful and well-overdue, particularly in light of the release of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and other strategy documents such as Air Force Strategy 2020.[14]

Section 3: Warfighting

Warfighting is a compound word that has been structured in a certain way to do deliberate things. In this section we briefly trace the historical development of warfighting and understand the term’s performative implications.

In literal terms, warfighting speaks to the endeavour of fighting qualified exclusively by the phenomenon of war. This is to say that the qualifier of war is what gives the word fighting its meaning when arranged in this manner. Outside of the context of actually fighting in a war, or by extension, training and preparing to fight a war, the use of warfighting should be seen as an oddity. But this is not the case in the Department of Defence—alternate modes of employment have instead given the term a life that is beyond the limits of its actual composition.  

Warfighting is a difficult term to precisely pin down. While there is a broad suite of documents within the Department of Defence that loosely employ warfighting, we start our examination with the official definition that has been given to the term. ADDP 3.0 Campaigns and Operations (and the Australian Defence Glossary (ADG)) currently defines warfighting as “[g]overnment directed use of military force to pursue specific national objectives”.[15] This is quite an awkward definition. It seems to be at odds with the way the word has been constructed, and then becomes muddied by the way the term is subsequently used.[16] ADDP 3.0 goes on to make warfighting an operative concept (i.e. ADF ‘fundamentals of warfighting’) that is then applied to explicate specific ‘warfighting functions’. The logical manoeuvre being performed in ADDP 3.0 is one that transforms a compound word into a concept, and then converts this concept into a function. This manoeuvre is carried out almost completely in the language of ‘armed conflict’—war and conflict are notions that dominate and recur throughout the text. Within ADDP 3.0, warfighting can be implicitly understood as a sort of function tethered to armed conflict. The literature provides little nuance to allow the reader to understand otherwise.

In briefly tracing the way the term has been used internationally, two prominent matters may be observed. First, Australia slowly adopted warfighting from US military doctrine over the period 1990-2000.[17] Second, some of the most detailed renderings of warfighting can be located in NATO doctrine, specifically, Allied Joint Publication-01 (AJP-01). The NATO treatment of the term leaves little to be imagined:

in warfighting, most of the activity is directed against a significant form of armed aggression perpetrated by large-scale military forces belonging to one or more states or to a well-organized and resourced non-state actor. These forces engage in combat operations in a series of battles and engagements at high intensity[…][18] [emphasis on the term warfighting has been added by authors]

Leaning on the work of others who have thoroughly surveyed the literature, we suggest that the term warfighting is regularly utilised in both ADF and international literature with reference to armed conflict and combat engagements. Pachernegg performs a useful analysis in this regard. She recognises this same characteristic and takes matters one step further. Through investigation, Pachernegg suggests that the ADF have been working since 1998 to translate the “term ‘warfighting’ into the label ‘warfighter’ [to] provide a simple, modern mental association between the role of the individual and the goals of the organisation”.[19] Pachernegg neatly sums up what the military institution has thus far been unable to do. She boldly identifies the performative nature of warfighting in a way that speaks to what many of us have already observed. Warfighting (and its derivative, warfighter) is used as a way of describing the role of particular individuals within the Department of Defence while also forming a fundamental relationship between these individuals and the goals of the organisation. As we have examined, this relation between individual and institution is almost invariably cast in the language of conflict and combat. Through such an arrangement, a dual activity of structuring is at play. Not only does warfighting attempt to structure the identity and purpose of the individuals within the organisation—the term also structures the activities that the organisation undertakes and the way such activities are thought and understood.  

Our concern is not only that warfighting performs this specific act of structuring. What is also troubling is that over the course of 30 years, the term has slowly crept to a dominant position within the Department of Defence.[20] The term is frequently deployed with heavy-handedness. Warfighting is mobilised and deployed as some sort of broad descriptor of what certain individuals within the Department do, the fundamental roles and kinds of functions of the organisation, and the relationship between the individual and the goals of the organisation. There is almost a heuristic quality to these cases: warfighting displaces the otherwise varied and complex ways that military identities might be thought. Warfighting provides a simplified, fixed and reductive way of negotiating such connections and relations. 

We can think of any number of committees and forums where we have observed this phenomenon. That many people within the Department of Defence are comfortable to deploy (and perhaps overuse) warfighting despite the absence of a meaningful definition speaks to its dominant nature. In these cases, the follow-up question of ‘what do you actually mean when you say warfighting?’ is usually met with varying degrees of hesitation, confusion as to why such a question would even be posed, and an inability to then provide a useful definition. The term warfighting is used in a way that is habitual and therefore second nature. From this position of dominance, the term is seldom the target of critique. To borrow from Pendlebury: “[i]n military circles, questioning the basis of a dominant identity is rare and, in many cases, actively discouraged.”[21] Warfighting no longer simply describes the activity of fighting a war; it has instead become a term that does something altogether different. Warfighting (expressed herein as war-fighting to indicate that the term is used in a way at odds with its official definition) is a term that has taken on an active role in the structuring of military activity and allowing military activity itself to be structuring. Drawing on the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, warfighting may therefore be seen to inscribe a particular habitus—that is, as a system “of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures”.[22] Put simply, Bourdieu is suggesting that particular ways of being and acting are structured by the social context, but they also act to structure that same environment. So, in this case, the use of the term warfighting is guided by its ubiquity in military discourse, which in turn influences the social environment of the military to better reflect the primacy of warfighting within the discourse. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus offers a powerful tool to better understand what warfighting is doing and the way it performs this structuring role. This particular line of enquiry has been extended in recent and impactful research from both Pendlebury (2019[23]) and the Australian design theorist and philosopher Tony Fry (2019).[24]

Section 4: Military strategy

We now transition our attention to military strategy and focus on just one particular logic: sense. This important logic is made operative through strategy’s irreducibly functional role. Military strategy is ordinarily understood in the Department of Defence as the complicated function that enables military instruments (as distinct from the business of war) to be applied in service of political objects. This notion of instrumentality—as the function of military strategy—moves through many theories of strategy and remains part of strategy’s current condition. It is through this function that the sense of military strategy is produced. Sense is an abstract idea that describes the meaning and purpose assigned to activities and events, and the establishment of necessary correlations and associations. The logic of sense is not a concept we have developed but has been explored for centuries by strategy theorists.[25] Military strategy extracts sense from the political and establishes this as the necessary context and condition for military activities. This type of sense is therefore always political—in the case of the Department of Defence, this is the political sense of the state.

Sense has a particular directionality and flow. In military strategy, sense flows from the political, through the strategic, to the tactical. Sense does not flow the other way. The logic of military strategy holds that military activities must receive political sense and embrace this as their own. For the Department of Defence, military activities remain instruments of the state to be applied in any number of different ways, for any number of political objectives. In making this claim, we are not asserting that military activities always unfold in neat, predetermined and calculated ways—they certainly do not. We are not seeking to apply a narrow and rationalist treatment to military activities. Rather, we are demonstrating that the current logic of military strategy places political sense as the necessary condition for military activities so they might serve instrumental and functional roles.  We are also not denying that military activities produce a number of things that flow from the tactical to the strategic (and to the political). We cite notions of effect (as in strategic effect) and feedback (the feedback of military activities to the political) as just two rich examples of what military activities produce and which flow contra to the directionality of sense. However, the sense of military strategy is ordinarily held to flow in one direction only.

Section 5: Divesting in sense—the production of non-sense

The two main propositions we have asserted in this article lead to an interesting question. Our proposition in Section 3 was that war-fighting has become a function that can structure military activities and the goals of the organisation on the condition of war and conflict. The proposition in Section 4 was that military strategy extracts sense from the political and uses this to establish the context and necessary condition for military activities. Assuming that both propositions are true, we can see that they exist in a seemingly contradictory and incompatible relationship. In this final section, we deal with the question that naturally arises from this: what happens when both propositions co-exist?

The dominance of the term war-fighting within the Department of Defence is problematic because of the effect it has on the logic of sense. As we have examined, war-fighting takes the activity of fighting and conflict as its origin, and from this point works to establish connections between what individuals do, military activities, and the goals of the Department of Defence. War-fighting structures military activities on the condition of conflict and war. This contrasts markedly with the logic of military strategy, which uses political sense to set the necessary conditions for military activities. The structuring role of war-fighting affects the type of meaning and purpose that military activities carry, and that strategy begins to concern itself with. A brief example of this is provided here with reference to the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the strategic defence objectives of Shape, Deter and Respond.

Defence policy-makers play an important role to ensure that war-fighting is contextualised with necessary and sufficient political sense. This activity of contextualisation is especially crucial when we consider that war-fighting is the dominant term applied to: (i) establish connections and flows between the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and military activities; and (ii) set the foundation to describe and speak of these activities. In these cases, it is common for the term to be understood only as a function with a relation to the strategic defence objective of Respond. When this occurs, the strategic defence objectives of Shape and Deter are often displaced, overlooked or minimised in their significance. These other strategic defence objectives are treated as minor objectives in some sort of linear series structured around the objective of Respond.[26]

This is concerning for two reasons. First, it is a mistake to treat the strategic defence objectives in this manner: they do not run in one linear, diachronic series. All three objectives are constantly at play and always interact. Secondly, without contextualisation in the complete sense of military strategy, we can see that war-fighting sets up a system of containment around the objectives of Shape and Deter. War-fighting creates a condition where Respond becomes overly dominant within a sort of artificial series. This act of containment then prevents proper sense flowing to military activities from the strategic defence objectives of Shape and Deter. War-fighting thus establishes a condition which divests the completeness of sense otherwise contained within military strategy.

Uncritical applications of war-fighting are therefore a source of obfuscation. The divestment of the complete sense of military strategy reduces the full set of conditions on which the conduct of military activities could and should occur. Instead, one particular function begins to delimit the kinds of activities that a military is capable of and concerned with. In these instances, we argue that rather than the full sense of military strategy flowing to military activities, a decontextualised type of non-sense instead flows from the political to the tactical.

We are not at all suggesting that the ADF does not need to be prepared to fight wars; however, when the term war-fighting is deployed ubiquitously, in the absence of full context and without complete sense, it becomes problematic. We are thinking very critically about the consequences of allowing war-fighting to become the sole or dominant prism through which the Defence organisation self-identifies. There are complicated issues at stake when war-fighting foregrounds the importance of capabilities, activities and effects developed on the condition of conflict and war while excluding other critical capabilities and effectors that do not play into this traditional and reductive stereotype.

Section 6: Conclusion 

War-fighting is a familiar term that can have problematic consequences. Allowing the term to occupy such a dominant position in structuring what we do, and why we do it, creates conditions for a type of decontextualised non-sense to displace the full sense of military strategy.

We again stress that we are not denying that war-fighting has value in describing particular military functions. Rather, our argument is that there are complications inherent in how we must think of both war-fighting and the logic of military strategy. Our current strategic context demands that these complications be seen, understood and then carefully navigated in new and very precise ways.

The challenge we set out for our readers is to critically consider how war-fighting might be reframed in the context of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. The next time you are in a committee or forum and war-fighting is recklessly thrown around, gently challenge it: ensure that it is properly contextualised with the full sense of military strategy. Perform an act of resistance by pinning the term down.  



The authors are thankful for the sociological guidance and expertise of GPCAPT Jarrod Pendlebury (PhD), especially his comments across revisions of the article.  

The authors also acknowledge the support provided by the Air and Space Power Centre to establish definitions for the term warfighting and trace its historical development. 


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[1] A note on style: when we place warfighting in italic type we are indicating that its use refers to the term rather than a description of the activity of fighting a war.

[2] Australian Department of Defence, 2020 Defence Strategic Update (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2020).

[3] John Langshaw Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 2nd edition (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975). This text is developed from a lecture that Austin delivered in 1955 at Harvard University.

[4] Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 6.

[5] Our article is not presented as the way this acumen should look, but rather is a way it might look. We deliberately allocate time to step through our method to assist readers with thinking through this process. In doing so, our desire is to tear the matter of strategy away from the exclusive domain of Senior Officers and select Senior Non-Commissioned Officers. Instead, we aim to open possibilities for new contributions and conversations on strategy across the span of the joint force.

[6] A short, informal example of the habitual ways that militaries treat warfighting culture is found in a 2018 Grounded Curiosity contribution from MAJ Mark Tutton (Mark Tutton, ‘What is a Warfighting Culture?’ Grounded Curiosity, 22 March 2018. Available online:… (accessed 02 September 2020).

[7] Jarrod Pendlebury, “‘This Is a Man’s Job’: Challenging the Masculine ‘Warrior Culture’ at the U.S. Air Force Academy.” Armed Forces and Society, vol 46; no 1 (2020): 163–184.

[8] Toni Pachernegg, ‘Army’s Warfighting Philosophy and ‘Warfighter’ Culture’, The Australian Army Journal, vol. 16; no. 1 (2020): 113-128.

[9] Ulas Yildirum, ‘First Class People for a Fifth-Generation Air Force Part 1: Where are We?’ The Central Blue, 21 July 2019. Available online:… (accessed 27 August 2020).

[10] Peter Layton, ‘Bringing the defence force into Australia’s climate-change fight’, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 11 December 2019. Available online:… (accessed 02 September 2020).

[11] Marcus Hellyer, ‘Fighting Fires is Not the Australian Defence Force’s Job’, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 17 December 2019. Available online: (accessed 02 September 2020).

[12] Michael Shoebridge, ‘Defence Minister’s Strategic Reassessment Must Take Fires and Floods into Account’, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 11 February 2020. Available online:… (accessed 02 September 2020).

[13] Emma Watson, ‘What is the Main Effort? HA/DR or Warfighting?’ Grounded Curiosity, 24 March 2020. Available online: (accessed 02 September 2020).

[14] Australian Department of Defence: Royal Australian Air Force, Air Force Strategy 2020 (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2020).

[15] Australian Department of Defence, Australian Defence Doctrine Publication 3.0: Campaigns and Operations (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2012), iv. Australian Department of Defence, Australian Defence Glossary—‘Warfighting’ (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia).

[16] We also assert that this definition of warfighting is awkward because it is developed around the concept of military force without any elaboration on how military force itself is defined or should be understood in the specific context of warfighting. The high degree of nuance that is necessary to think about applications of military force in an era of constant competition are lacking in the official Department of Defence definition of warfighting.

[17] We cite here literature surveys performed by Pachernegg (2020) Army’s Warfighting Philosophy and ‘Warfighter’ Culture, and the Air and Space Power Centre (ASPC) (2020).

[18] North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Allied Joint Publication AJP-01—Allied Joint Doctrine (Brussels: NATO Standardisation Office, 2017), Section 2-19. High intensity is defined as: “a mission is considered as high intensity if it encompasses any of the following situations: actual or potentially frequent and large scale combat incidents; actual or potentially large scale combat incidents at low frequency; actual or potentially frequent; and small scale combat incidents.”

[19] Pachernegg, ‘Army’s Warfighting Philosophy and ‘Warfighter’ Culture’,120.

[20] We again cite literature surveys performed by Pachernegg (2020) and the ASPC (2020).

[21] Pendlebury, ‘This Is a Man’s Job’: Challenging the Masculine ‘Warrior Culture’ at the U.S. Air Force Academy, 165.

[22] Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), 53.

[23] Jarrod Pendlebury, ‘Bourdieu in the Military: The Field of Officer Training in Three Air Forces’ in Soili Paananen and Antti-Tuomas Pulkka (eds.) Processes and Practices in Military Training and Education (Helsinki: National Defence University of Finland, 2019), 21-37.

[24] Tony Fry, Unstaging War, Confronting Conflict and Peace (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

[25] As a brief example, renderings and treatments of sense as it relates to military strategy may be found in the work of Sun Tzu in The Art of War (not notably in Chapters 1-3 of the original 13-chapter text) Sun Tzu and Roger T. Ames. Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare: The First English Translation Incorporating the Recently Discovered Yin-Ch?üeh-Shan Texts. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 101-113. Carl von Clausewitz also gives a particularly deatiled treatment to sense in On War (notably in Book Eight: War Plans). Carl von Clausewitz, On War. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 577-637.

[26] Australian Department of Defence, 2020 Defence Strategic Update.

Cite Article
(Champion and Gill, 2020)
Champion, P. and Gill, M. 2020. 'War-Fighting and the Production of Non-Sense'. Available at: (Accessed: 21 February 2024).
(Champion & Gill, 2020)
Champion, P. & Gill, M. 2020. 'War-Fighting and the Production of Non-Sense'. Available at: (Accessed: 21 February 2024).
Phil Champion and Matthew Gill, "War-Fighting and the Production of Non-Sense", The Forge, Published: December 06, 2020, (accessed February 21, 2024).


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