The role of culture in developing the intellectual edge

Author: 
Ulas Yildirim

What is the intellectual edge?

It has become rather common lately to observe that the technological edge that Western militaries have enjoyed has been eroded.[1] Therefore it is argued, Western militaries must evolve to find a new edge to create an advantage. In this context, an intellectual edge is suggested to be the only option.[2] This assumption is an oversimplification of an existing paradigm with an over-reliance on technology which does not question the assumptions upon which it is developed and deployed. However, the pursuit of an intellectual edge rests within the Defence Force’s choices in constructing and employing knowledge that its existing culture plays an inescapable part.

The dominant definitions of intellectual edge

The term intellectual edge first appeared in the current Australian Defence lexicon following the 2016 Ryan review.[3] In subsequent articles it has been argued that the intellectual edge manifests in two disparate but interrelated ways. The first is individual professional mastery which is concerned with the individual’s ability to creatively out-think and out-plan potential adversaries underpinned by cognitive support from artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic biology. The second is an institutional intellectual edge that should be applied to such challenges as force design, integration of kinetic and non-kinetic activities, and talent management.[4] In an attempt to provide a more concrete meaning of the intellectual edge, Greg Coulton provides the following definition in a subsequent article:

          [t]he intellectual edge is an organisational ability to understand the environment and exploit opportunities in order to create an advantage in time and space in which the ADO can deliver an effect in support of Australia’s strategic defence objectives[5]

While recognising change in the current environment, these definitions are not new, albeit manifested under different names.[6] For as long as humans have walked the earth there has been conflict which has been accompanied with either side seeking to gain an ‘edge’ over the enemy. What these definitions do create though is a failure to acknowledge the fundamental importance of Defence’s evolving culture. Take for instance, the current focus on AI and the temptation of what it could bring merely a few years away.[7] Arguably, instead of identifying outlier means which Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the ‘black swans’, the singling out of AI as a military enhancement falls into the same technological determinacy trap that the Defence Force is trying to avoid through an intellectual edge.[8] Bertrand Russel highlights that ‘empirical knowledge is dependent upon, or derived from, perception’ which enables analysis and creativity.[9] In this context, the Defence Force’s culture rests against the backdrop in its attempts to find creative ways to use technology all the while acknowledging its erosion.

A closer look at culture

Culture transcends individual and organisational boundaries influencing conceptual choices that individuals make.[10] John Lynn defines culture as ‘values, beliefs, assumptions, expectations, preconceptions, and the like.’[11] For instance, in France and Germany the development and employment of the tank during the interwar period took two different paths for a relatively similar technology. The French tanks with their heavy armour and no radios suited their slow-moving continuous battlefronts in support of the infantry. In contrast, the Germans adopted a lightly armoured tank fitted with radios and two-man turrets arranged for a fluid battlefield to penetrate deep into enemy territory.[12] Due to their cultural differences, the conceptual not the technological choices of the Germans created their early advantages. The corollary from this example is that the integration and exploitation of any new technology, thought or practice will be influenced by the Defence Force’s culture.

The traps of culture

New technology, thought or practice must balance continuities in beliefs, values and habits that are influenced by the geopolitical setting and history of the existing culture.[13] In his book The Culture of Military Innovation, Dima Adamsky reviews factors such as organisational approaches to innovation and weapons procurement, and the military system structures of the Soviet Union, the US and Israel.[14] Adamsky highlights that while the Soviets were able to recognise the importance of linking the arms and methods of conventional warfare, they did not implement them due to an authoritarian military structure that believed in the superiority of military art over technological advances. In contrast, he describes the US as being oriented towards quick results due to a disinclination to wage long wars which created a blind reliance on technology to solve national security issues. Finally, Adamsy describes the Israel Defence Force’s preference for improvisation and pragmatism in warfare to have created a tendency for anti-intellectualism.[15] Therefore, without balance a suboptimal system that idealises the way it wishes to wage war rather than the way that it should do so emerges. In this context, Australia’s ‘fear of abandonment’ having led to a close alliance with a major power since Federation has carried some of their cultural flaws, which in the absence of an existential crisis is more likely to respond to an evolutionary change.[16]

In pursuit of perpetuity

To maintain a perpetual edge the Defence Force must evolve its culture by linking its personnel’s tactical and technical expertise to its strategic context. In a recent speech at the Australian War College, the Chief of Air Force highlighted that the Air Force must stop operating in independent silos of excellence as tactical experts in specialised fields.[17] The Chiefs of Navy and Army express similar views that look to prepare the existing Navy and Army cultures for future challenges.[18] To do so, the Defence Force must seek to shape the intangible aspects of its culture with a long view of its strategic landscape to imagine a future that can be. This involves looking beyond the temptation of the technical and social ‘now’ with its correspondingly attractive capability solutions. Borrowing from Allan Bloom’s polemical book Closing of the American Mind, the Defence Force must engender and reward its people’s inner fortitude to interrogate as independent thinkers without retribution or being fixated on a given solution.[19] Additionally, the Defence Force must acknowledge that no particular technical background, skillset, or specialisation denotes primacy in the delivery of strategic effects. Such an evolutionary approach can form the foundations of a unique learning and adaptive Defence Force culture that harnesses the intellectual curiosity and varied experiences of its personnel who will continually help identify ‘leading-edge’ solutions to its emerging strategic problems.

Bibliography

Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, USA, 1987

Alex Burns & Ben Eltham, Australia’s Strategic Culture: Constraints and Opportunities in Security Policy Making, Contemporary Security Policy, 35:2, 2014

Allan Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World since 1942, Carlton, La Trobe University Press, 2017

Austin Long, The Soul of Armies: Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture in the US and UK, London, Cornell University Press, 2016

Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, London, 2004

Dima Adamsky, The Culture of Military Innovation: The Impact of Cultural Factors on the Revolution in Military Affairs in Russia, the US and Israel, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2010

Greg Coulton, More than just a hashtag: The criticality of developing an intellectual edge, The Cove, October 2019, https://cove.army.gov.au/article/winning-future-wars-through-developing-the-intellectual-component-fighting-power-the, accessed 11 May 20.

Gwyn Harries-Jenkins and Charles C. Moskos, The Military Professional and the Military Organization, Current Sociology 29:3, 1981

Herbert R. McMaster, Teresita C. Schaffer , Pierre Hassner , David P. Calleo & Steven Simon, Book Reviews, Survival, 52:5, 2010

Jeffrey S. Lantis, Strategic Cultures and Security Policies in Asia-Pacific, Contemporary Policy, 35:2, 2014

Jeffery S. Lantis & Andrew A. Charlton, Continuity or Change? The Strategic Culture of Australia, Comparative Strategy, 30:4, 2011

John A. Lynn, Battle: A history of Combat and Culture, NY, Basic Books, 2008

Mel Hupfeld, Chief of Air Force Speech, Australian War College, 2020

Mick Ryan, An Australian Intellectual Edge for Conflict and Competition in the 21st Century, The Centre of Gravity Series, ed. A. Carr, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific, March 2019, http://sdsc.bellschool.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/2019-04/cog_48.pdf, accessed 11 May 2020

Mick Ryan, The Intellectual Edge: A Competitive Advantage for Future War and Strategic Competition, JFQ 96, 1st Quarter 2020; https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/2076007/the-intellectual-edge-a-competitive-advantage-for-future-war-and-strategic-comp/, accessed 11 May 2020

Morris Janowitz, The Professional Soldier, Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960

Nassim N. Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, NY, Random House Publishing, 2007

Plan PELORUS: Navy Strategy 2022, accessed 11 May 2020

Army in Motion: Commanders Statement for Australia’s Army; accessed 11 May 2020

Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State, Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957

Tom McDermott, What’s with the Intellectual Edge?, The Cove, November 2017, https://cove.army.gov.au/article/whats-the-intellectual-edge, accessed 11 May 2020

 

[1] Major General Mick Ryan, An Australian Intellectual Edge for Conflict and Competition in the 21st Century, The Centre of Gravity Series, ed. A. Carr, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific, March 2019

[2] Major General Mick Ryan, The Intellectual Edge- A Competitive Advantage for Future War and Strategic Competition, JFQ 96, 1st Quarter 2020; Tom McDermott, What’s with the Intellectual Edge?, The Cove, November 2017

[3] Greg Coulton, More than just a hashtag: The criticality of developing an intellectual edge, The Cove, October 2019

[4] Major General Mick Ryan, An Australian Intellectual Edge for Conflict and Competition in the 21st Century, The Centre of Gravity Series, ed. A. Carr, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific, March 2019; Major General Mick Ryan, The Intellectual Edge- A Competitive Advantage for Future War and Strategic Competition, JFQ 96, 1st Quarter 2020

[5] Greg Coulton, More than just a hashtag: The criticality of developing an intellectual edge, The Cove, October 2019

[6] Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State, Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957; Morris Janowitz, The Professional Soldier, Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960; Gwyn Harries-Jenkins and Charles C. Moskos, The Military Professional and the Military Organization, Current Sociology 29:3 (1981)

[7] Major General Mick Ryan, The Intellectual Edge- A Competitive Advantage for Future War and Strategic Competition, JFQ 96, 1st Quarter 2020; Tom McDermott, What’s with the Intellectual Edge?, The Cove, November 2017

[8] John A. Lynn, Battle: A history of Combat and Culture, Basic Books, 2008; N.N. Taleb, The Black Swan-The Impact of the Highly Improbable, NY, Random House Publishing, 2007

[9] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, London, 2007

[10] John A. Lynn, Battle: A history of Combat and Culture, Basic Books, 2008, p. xvii; Austin Long, The Soul of Armies: Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture in the US and UK, Cornell University Press, 2016

[11] John A. Lynn, Battle: A history of Combat and Culture, Basic Books, 2008, p. xx

[12] Ibid.

[13] Jeffrey S. Lantis, Strategic Cultures and Security Policies in Asia-Pacific, Contemporary Policy, (2014), 35:2, 166-186

[14] Dima Adamsky, The Culture of Military Innovation: The Impact of Cultural Factors on the Revolution in Military Affairs in Russia, the US and Israel, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2010

[15] Ibid.

[16] Alex Burns & Ben Eltham, Australia’s Strategic Culture: Constraints and Opportunities in Security Policy Making, Contemporary Security Policy, 2014, 35:2, 187-210; Allan Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World since 1942, La Trobe University Press, Carlton, AU, 2017; Jeffery S. Lantis & Andrew A. Charlton, Continuity or Change? The Strategic Culture of Australia, Comparative Strategy, 2011, 30:4, 291-315

[17] Air Marshall Mel Hupfeld, Chief of Air Force Speech, Australian War College, 2020

[18] Army in Motion: Commanders Statement for Australia’s Army, accessed 11 May 2020; Plan PELORUS: Navy Strategy 2022, accessed 11 May 2020.

[19] Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, USA, 1987