The Voices of War

61. Brigadier Mark Ascough - On Military Intelligence

VOW 61 | Military Intelligence


Today, I’m speaking with Brigadier Mark Ascough, the current Director General of Intelligence at the Headquarters Joint Operations Command of the Australian Defence Force. Brigadier Ascough joined me to talk about intelligence and how he sees the field evolve into the future.


Some of the things we covered are:

  • Mark’s background and entry into the Army
  • Life as the J2, HQJOC
  • The role of ‘Intelligence’
  • Impact of the ‘Five Mores’
  • Challenges for future intelligence professionals
  • Dangers of bias in intelligence analysis
  • Moral courage in intelligence
  • Training for ethical challenges
  • Importance of understanding culture
  • Intelligence – too much or not enough power?
  • Leadership in intelligence


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Brigadier Mark Ascough – On Military Intelligence

Before we get to my chat with Brigadier Mark Ascough, I want to share some good news of a personal nature. Last July 2nd, 2021, Esin and I welcomed our baby boy into the world. Both Mom and Pop are doing extremely well, and our two-and-a-bit-year-old girl is enjoying her new role as a big sister. Needless to say, we are enjoying the sleepless nights at the moment, but I’m led to believe that it’s all worth it. This is a very fruitful and insightful conversation with a serving senior leader in the Australian Defence Force. I’m led to believe that this is quite a rare occurrence, especially given Mark’s role as the Director General of Intelligence at the Headquarters Joint Operations Command. Let’s get to the episode.

My guest is Brigadier Mark Ascough who is the Director General of Intelligence at the Headquarters Joint Operations Command of the Australian Defence Force. Throughout this career, Brigadier Ascough is Commander of Troops at all ranks from Lieutenant to Brigadier including Platoon and Company Command in the 1st Intelligence Battalion, Battalion Command of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and he was also Commander of Sixth Brigade.

Brigadier Ascough’s operational service includes border protection operations, 2 deployments to East Timor and 2 tours in Afghanistan. For his command of the Kabul Garrison Command advisor team during his second tour in Afghanistan in 2017, he was awarded a distinguished service medal in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

Brigadier Ascough is a distinguished graduate of the United Kingdom’s Joint Services Command and Staff College, where he was recognised as the overall best student to date, the only international representative to achieve this honour. He also holds an honours degree in history from the University of New South Wales, a Master of International Relations from Deakin University, and a Master of Defence Studies from King’s College London. Brigadier Ascough joins me to talk about all things intelligence and how he sees the field of evolve into the future. Brigadier Ascough, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

Thanks for the invitation to join you. I feel very fortunate overall with the company that I’m now joining. I have been highly impressed by the lineup of speakers and I will do my best to contribute to the discussion, but a disclaimer upfront that I’m not sure that I put myself in the same pantheon of speakers that you have had. It’s been very impressive to see what you have achieved.

Thank you so much for saying that. I’m sure this will be an insightful conversation. It’s been one that I have been looking forward to, especially given your job. Before we get to your role and what that means, you joined the Army. Maybe we can start with what drove that decision to join your job decades ago.

Unlike possibly some of your other speakers and other professional military officers that have been involved in the show, I didn’t join with any strong aspirations of being in the military, to be honest. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I left school. I got into a couple of different uni courses in my home state of Queensland at the two major universities there.

I’d also been offered a place at a couple of other universities interstate including at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy campus. The ad for one was the one that was offering a salary that came with the study and I thought, “Maybe that will be a good start. I can put some money aside, get some credit points up, and then move back home and go from there.”

Through a combination of meeting some incredibly great people who have become lifelong friends in that first year, I stayed a second year. If I’m brutally honest, my laissez-faire attitude towards personal administration shuns through and I failed to do the paperwork to get myself out of the Army before a return of service obligation at the end of the second year of study.

I head up to Cape York as part of the 51st Battalion Far North Queensland regimen and spent two years working on the Cape in what is probably one of the last parts of the Australian wilderness. I learn a lot about myself as a young man and also learned a lot about our First Nations and their culture. I also learned a lot, which I didn’t know I was learning at the time about all the things that have come to matter over the last years in military operations in terms of information warfare, intelligence collection, building partnerships, and collaborating across the whole of government and with community and industry.

They are all things that I got to experience in my first two years of service. I didn’t know all those amazing things that I was experiencing were going to have lifelong impacts on me, but they certainly did. From there, I kept getting into interesting roles and here I am years later, still working out what I’m going to do when I grow up.

While you were at 51, did I hear you correctly, you are saying you were at Cape York, so you were a Bravo Company in Weipa?

That’s right.

The Dogs of War. I followed in your footsteps. I did my regi posting following RMC up in Bravo Company. I can echo everything you have said about that posting and the insights it affords. It’s incredible and I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to experience Cape York to its fullest and get to know the indigenous culture and build cross-cultural relations. I wholeheartedly agree.

It’s no surprise. That is why we get on as our formative experience of living in Cape York, but it was an amazing first step into my military career. To answer your question perhaps more succinctly than I did, I never had aspirations or a vision that I would be in the military for now. The reason why I’m still serving is that every time a posting cycle comes around the military offer, and the opportunity is such that it intrigues me. It engages me and it’s something that I can add value to. The opportunity to work with the great people that are in the ADF is a real value proposition.

VOW 61 | Military Intelligence
Military Intelligence: The opportunity to work with great people in ADF is a real value proposition.


As a result, I have kept doing it. I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m now probably closer to the end of my time in the military and I’m still yet to work out what I’m going to do when I grow up. That’s something on my to-do list that needs to be fulfilled. Until that time, I’m enjoying what I do. I feel very privileged to have assumed the role of Director General of Intelligence here at our Headquarters Joint Operations Command.

It’s a fantastic role. At a time of geostrategic tensions and competition, that means that the ADF and the military line of national power continue to have a real relevance in helping support our government in its national security and promoting its interests and trying to shape the region to support that national security. It’s an amazing time to be here and be on a steep learning curve.

The world hasn’t stopped or slowed down to let you settle in. It’s been turbulent. Maybe for the uninitiated in our readers, what is the Director General of Intelligence at the Headquarters Joint Operations Command do? What is the job?

The job is to work and lead a team of intelligence military professionals and support the Chief of Joint Operations, a three-star general who is responsible to the Chief of Defence Force for all ADF, Australian Defence Force operational activities and actions domestically, regionally, and globally. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? What we seek to do is provide and characterise the threats and the operating environments for the chief, the principal staff, and our deployed force elements.

Our purpose is to try and reduce ambiguity and support decision-making for our senior leaders, primarily the Chief of Joint Operations, but also the commanders of the joint task force that are deployed around the region and the globe. To help the headquarters staff identify opportunities and to enable full spectrum operations that the ADF is authorised to conduct now and needs to prepare to conduct possibly for the future.

Not a busy job at all then.

The whole headquarters works to a full and challenging battle rhythm, but it’s a sign of the times. The beauty as the leader of my branch, my biggest responsibility is to empower the rest of my team and to enable them to deliver on that purpose. My job is to try and help them prioritise because there are often more tasks than there is capacity. How do I help them prioritise what we need to do, how to communicate to the Chief of Joint Operations and the other senior staff on the headquarters what we anticipate as being future events and how we should array and use our resources to best effect in response to those future events and activities?

It’s leveraging the expertise across all the team and working. The key point as well is we don’t try and do it all on our own. We have got to collaborate and coordinate across the services, the Army, Navy, and Air Force with our defence civilian counterparts across the strategic policy and international policy groups and divisions, and across the rest of the defence intelligence enterprise and the wider national intelligence enterprise. It’s a large coordinating and collaborating role for us to deliver those effects and to achieve our purpose. It’s not done unilaterally. It truly is a team game.

That’s a neat pivot into my next question. I don’t want to assume too much from my readers. Most of them will probably be surprised that a senior intelligence officer of the Australian Defence Force is even willing to come on. Maybe we can start with what is the role and purpose of intelligence, and I’m talking about intelligence writ large. How does it support operations? How do you and your team achieve what your purpose is?

If you were to thumb it up in one singular role, it’s to support decision-making. There are a number of sub-elements to that. Some of those are what I articulated as the purpose for our branch, but those purposes are in many cases universal across the intelligence enterprise, which is to characterise decision-makers and for deployed forces or to the customer, whoever that customer may be. The threats and the nature of the operating environment in which they find themselves or we are likely to become involved.

The purpose is to help decision-makers by reducing ambiguity in that operating environment and relation to those potential threats. It’s to identify opportunities. How do we do that? Like all good militaries and other government agencies, we have tried to break that down into a cycle. Many of your readers may have heard of and been involved directly in being part of the intelligence cycle, which is the direction, collection, processing, and dissemination. At the Headquarters Joint Operations Command, we enable direction through advising and then acting on the direction from the Chief of Joint Operations.

The purpose of intelligence is to help decision-makers by reducing the ambiguity in that operating environment in relation to those potential threats and identifying opportunities. Click To Tweet

We are directly involved in the coordination and authorisation of collection. We support and are part of the defence intelligence and national intelligence enterprise in the processing of the information that is collected to translate into intelligence. We have a responsibility to disseminate that and share it with our customers and also our partners as we can build shared awareness and shared understanding across the whole of government for the Australian sense but equally with our allies, partners, and friends.

There are a number of intelligence disciplines that will support mainly the collection. Most of my readers will know of our human intelligence, signals intelligence, electronic intelligence, and so on. One of the ones that are gathering more and more steam in the wider world is open-source intelligence.

One of the points here I will refer to is what Amy Zegart, whom I listened to, said. She was on Michael Morell’s podcast, Intelligence Matters. She refers to it as the Five Mores when talking about open source. More threats, speed, data, customers, and competitors. In other words, she was saying that there’s so much data coming down range, and so many threats are emerging including down to backyard hackers or garage hackers. Given this reality in the multi-domain battle space, how do we prepare the intelligence analyst of the future against information overload, and then the ever-important cognitive bias?

How do we produce the future intelligence professional? To talk to the first point of your question and observation about the prevalence of data and the increasing prominence of open source intelligence, there’s a whole range of collection capabilities, which represent how we get after the collection and how we start to get the information we need to then be able to do analysis and processing to turn that data into information and then into intelligence.

You talked about and touched on a number of the traditional collection methods of human intelligence of signals intelligence, which encompasses both communications and electronic intelligence disciplines or sub-disciplines. There’s geospatial intelligence and image, which has a subset of imagery intelligence. This new idea of open source intelligence, which in some cases draws from publicly available information, sits under those traditional collection methods.

Imagery intelligence, there’s a large amount of publicly available imagery. What was part of the past, something that only governments could collect is now a commercial enterprise in many cases. How do we make sure we are aware of those sources of information? How can we incorporate them into our collection plans and use them as part of our analysis and processing? The use of software tools and applications is critical as we think about how to deal with the volume of data.

There’s the volume of public data that is exponentially growing on a day-by-day basis. I have read somewhere or heard a speaker on a podcast talk about the fact that each week or month, the world now generates enough data or an equal amount of data that was captured in the first or the last many years of human endeavour is now being generated in weeks/months as opposed to millennia. That’s publicly available. There’s private data collection through militaries, governments, and states private means of collection. Equally, that amount of data has also exponentially increased.

To talk about the skills and the capabilities of our workforce has to talk about data literacy. Being skilled and knowledgeable in the data sciences be that data analytics and data languages, so coding data visualisation are all disciplines and skills that we need to build into our workforce, but they are going to be essential qualifications or essential skills of our future workforce. I’d say that data literacy is one area that has increasing prominence and relevance.

The other thing that we need to build into our workforce part of which is already there, certainly in the military and intelligence workforce, is the idea of teaming. I talked about it before with regard to the J2 branch. We can’t do what we do unilaterally. We need to work across service groups. We need to build task-organised teams. We also need to build teams of teams working across the whole of government departments, but also working with our allied and international partners and friends.

We need to build into our military and intelligence workforce the idea of teaming. Click To Tweet

Also building teams with perhaps what would be considered, now or in the past, non-traditional partners such as academics, think tanks, and industry. In some cases, we badge them as non-traditional partners. If you go back and look at the way in which we went about trying to characterise the threat and the operating environments during the Second World War, then you will find that the military has worked closely with academics, think tanks of the day, and industry of the day. This idea of teaming is not new to the intelligence professional.

An area that perhaps is new in teaming for the future is machine-human teaming. That is an area that we need to explore as we look at the role that max data will play in the intelligence process and making sense of that data than human-machine teaming will be an important component of the future. There are some initial areas that I think about.

The things that are enduring in the future intelligence workforce, our people will remain still central to all parts of the intelligence cycle. Perhaps we will be able to use technology and systems to improve dissemination. We have a strong use of technology already in the collection, but the role of the human in both the direction, collection, and analysis will remain prominent and that means our people need to be professionally curious.

They need to be committed to continuous learning in learning and thinking about thinking. How to critically analyse problem frames and be committed to constantly learning and upskilling to build their skills and knowledge. Our people and our future workforce have to be excellent communicators. That’s something that we seek from our workforce but it remains as important, if not perhaps even more important into the future. By communicator, excellent listening skills along with traditional verbal communication and written communication are enduring skills and knowledge that we must have. We must remain sceptical and constantly question and look to validate the data that we are analysing.

That’s a wonderful point that you made there I want to jump in on that and double-click on it because that strikes me as a particularly important one to be critical of. Especially in the ever-increasing amount of data coming in, more sensors coming in inevitably and social science. These are the hard sciences, the data, but social science will tell us that when there’s too much information, we take shortcuts.

Heuristics will take over and our bias, which is one of the principal challenges of intelligence and intelligence analysis is. When you are talking about characterising threats and reducing ambiguity, how do we do that whilst making sure that we are applying the mirror on ourselves and making sure that our preconceived ideas and notions are not completely skewing the information that we see? We have seen this happen time and time and again. The 9/11 Commission found that the most important failure was one of imagination. It wasn’t one of not having the information. It was thinking in a single-tracked mind. I wonder if you have anything more to say about that?

History shows us that it continues to be our weak spot or blind spot is the impact of our biases on the way in which we approach our analysis. The same can be said for all human endeavour. We are victims of our own biases in informing our decision-making. You are right. We have got to build assurance mechanisms.

VOW 61 | Military Intelligence
Military Intelligence: History shows us that our biases in our approach to analysis continue to be our weak point or blind spot.


In the collection phase, we build a degree of validation and assurance through the layering of the collection. As to not rely upon a single source of collection to provide the sole insight and the sole data point. You want multiple data points of the same issue and the same topic to try and build in that redundancy, resilience, and way of validation.

In our analysis, you constantly have a contest of ideas and discussions. The use of things like structured analytical techniques provides a discipline and a framework around how to think about the information you have. Equally, things like structured analytical techniques also force the group through facilitation to step outside and step away from their biases because they are able to be called out or identified through a facilitated activity.

Ideas and approaches such as red teaming where people deliberately apply the De Bono Red Hat, contest, and challenge the group and the consensus. Using those discipline frameworks can help build contestation and open up imagination for alternative futures. That’s something that we should continue to value is the use of structured techniques to help people imagine different outcomes and different futures perhaps that aren’t readily able to be seen based on the data that they are looking at on a daily basis.

The following question from that is to what extent are you comfortable that we are achieving that institutionally as an organisation that we are inculcating that sense of curiosity and challenging the dominant narratives, whether through red teaming or purely through being critical? How comfortable that we are hitting the mark?

We value that approach to our work, but in some cases, think about it like the opposite. It’s happening. You have got to check and you have got to build a monitoring and assurance model into the way you do business to ensure that those things are happening and not being parked or put aside in the interests of time, tempo, or relative priorities. It’s important that through leadership, leaders at all levels having the courage and the discipline to apply those governance measures or points of contestation and not look at it will be easier if we just got to get this done. Don’t worry about running it through a red team.

Don’t worry about using a structured analytical technique. Let’s quickly spitball what we think. That will become our most likely course of action. We have got to constantly check and we have got to apply leadership and empower our leaders to feel like they have the authority and the courage. They have got the permission to have that moral courage to apply processes. That sometimes may cause us to slow down and have to delay outcomes or present ideas or positions that may not be aligned with the group or the consensus of thinking.

On that moral courage piece, where is that instilled and how is it done? I asked this because we as an organisation and institution, have faced some of our challenges with moral courage and people getting sucked in by the moment and the risk of being ostracised from a group didn’t necessarily speak up. How do we build that moral courage? Oftentimes, our intelligence personnel are rather young, not necessarily have lived a full life of world experience. It is quite challenging to speak up when the group think is heading one way. It’s a lot easier to go with the dominant narrative.

It is a persistent challenge that we must constantly consider and look to put in place the right resources and support mechanisms to ensure that all our teams are best prepared and appropriately supported to fulfil their role, honestly and with a level of moral courage. It starts on day one of joining, in this case, the military profession, inculcating and explaining that they have the power and the authority to call out and speak up when they see unacceptable behaviour, questionable practices, or unprofessional practices. That starts on day one. You can’t afford to be a bystander in an organisation that is based on the strength of the team.

Individual actions can reduce the effectiveness of the team. You have got to call out when people are misleading, misdirecting, or mistreating other members of the team. That needs to be from the outset. It needs to be demonstrated to them that it works. They have got to be able to see. It’s that see it be it type model. There’s got to be the active live application of it demonstrated to them.

You can't afford to be a bystander in an organization that is based on the team's strengths. Individual actions can reduce the effectiveness of the team. Click To Tweet

Throughout the course of your career, you need to keep that message being empowered and keep calling out and highlighting when it is being delivered and when the positive and the constructive are occurring. We call that out and highlight it and say, “This is what happens when you do this the right outcome occurs when you stand up when you speak up when you are not a bystander, and you are an upstand. It achieves the desired effect with the right outcomes.” It always sounds easier than it is. That’s what it is.

If it was easy, we wouldn’t find ourselves being challenged on a regular basis. That’s from the very minor to the most severe. Leadership in the intelligence enterprise is as important as it is in any other enterprise. Intelligence professionals who have responsibilities to lead, manage, coordinate, and take responsibility over others have to understand that they have a leadership responsibility. We need to provide them with the tools, resources, training, and experiences to be leaders as much as we need to invest in their professional intelligence skills whatever that might be as a collector or as an analyst.

We need to invest in their leadership skills and knowledge as well. If you want them to take responsibility for people and outcomes, then we have got to invest that time because it’s something that must be practised. It must be learnt. You must invest time in it as much as you invest time in your other skills and knowledge areas and building your attributes. It’s as important, if not more important for the intelligence professional because of the consequences of some of the scenarios and operating environments in which they are providing that advice.

VOW 61 | Military Intelligence
Military Intelligence: We need to invest in intelligence leaders’ leadership skills and knowledge if we want them to take responsibility for people and outcomes.


I will echo some thoughts. I interviewed David Whetham and Deane-Peter Baker as well separately and this came up with both of those military ethicists about the environment that we created and the role leadership plays in it. A person’s behaviour is an interplay of an individual personality with the environment to define themselves, which is why good people end up doing bad things or can end up doing bad things if a number of different things are in place. Whether that might be fatigue or peer pressure, confused mission set, desensitisation to war, or whatever other factors might influence how that person feels at that point in time when they encounter some version of chaos or whatever that might be in their instance.

Whether it’s an intelligence analyst as a Special Forces soldier or a regular infantryman on the ground. All of that will shape how they behave. Ethics unfortunately comes into play a little bit too late to think about it, which is why the training piece that you talk about is so important to build as close as possible to the environment that we are likely to face on the battlefield in a training setting.

The first time we confront these ethical challenges is not when we are out on operational deployment somewhere. That means that we need to try and replicate all of those various pressures that we experience. I wonder if you have any thoughts or if you have seen that done well particularly in the intelligence space on how we can bolster that realistic training or immersive training experience.

Our collective training environment has to replicate as close as possible the likely operating environments that we will find ourselves in. To do exactly what you have said, which is to create a situation in which people can see what right and potentially what not right looks like but in a safe environment where the ability to then actively learn from that through active debriefing of, “Here’s a scenario. Here were either what your actions were or the consequences.”

Let’s actively debrief that through an appropriate and facilitated debriefing structure to provide that learning opportunity. Here’s a scenario that’s played out and you can tell us what you see here and give us your impressions and seek for them to identify or self-identify where the right approach was applied.

In some cases, it’s creating a training environment that allows and encourages failure and then allows you to learn through that failure. Failure doesn’t have to be a catastrophic failure. It’s small decisions that may not have been the best decision. You have got to create a training environment that allows you to make those not best decisions, but also then a feedback cycle where you can actively engage, discuss, analyse, and then reengage at some point in the training activity for them to apply that new knowledge that they have had as a result of that debriefing process and self-reflection. We have got to teach people to value self-reflection as well on their decision-making and their actions.

You must create a training environment that allows you to make not only the best decisions but also a feedback cycle where you can actively engage, discuss, analyze, and reengage at some point in the training. Click To Tweet

The training environment does present opportunities like that. Can we create more of them? Absolutely. I honestly think that that’s what the ADF is committed to doing and building more complex, deep, and immersive training environments is to do exactly that. Create those challenging both physically, morally, and emotionally challenging environments that we will potentially find ourselves in non-operations to do that inside of our training environments.

The other way we need to practice it and train it is in our day-to-day work. We don’t need to have dedicated training events as well. We can practice a lot of these skills and demonstrate the appropriate values through our daily business. We can use that as a learning opportunity. We have got to encourage our team leaders to use the day-to-day business for collective learning by having reflection periods and debriefs, and giving them that time to do that with their teams so that they have the ability to learn from the past whatever that might be that they have been doing. Both individuals and groups reflect and share their understandings of what they have learned and then apply them for the next day or the next activity.

That comes back to that leadership piece. It’s critical. What becomes part of a leader’s toolkit is to encourage that self-reflection piece without fear of any reprimand, but more about getting to know ourselves better. This a neat segue into when we are talking about knowing ourselves better. Australia is an anglophone nation where English is the official language. However, we are arguably the world’s most successful migrant nation where around 23% of our citizens are born overseas.

VOW 61 | Military Intelligence
Military Intelligence: Australia is an anglophone nation where English is the official language. However, we are arguably the world’s most successful migrant nation, with 23% of our citizens born overseas.


In other words, we have this wealth of untapped resources within our borders that could help us understand the complex cultural ecosystems that exist around the world. This is particularly important when it comes to understanding our immediate region of Southeast Asia, but also beyond and further afield. My question to you is, are we investing sufficient resources in understanding the cultural diversity and ecosystems that exist in our region?

Could we be doing more? Yes. Are we doing enough? Probably not yet. Are we invested in it and have we identified it as an area of continuous learning and continuous improvement? Absolutely. I wouldn’t want to speak on behalf of the Australian Defence College, for example, and the commandant there. I know you have spoken to the former Commandant of the Defence College General Ryan. The work that he and his leadership team put in over the last few years to build the curriculum and increase access to things to learning opportunities about culture, languages, self-reflection and emotional intelligence and things that help you be a better person.

Even if you don’t necessarily have the specific language skill, if you understand how you present yourself to others and how you are perceived by others, then you can adapt and adopt more readily anyway to whichever group and cultural group you are interacting with. Whilst it may not be the gold plate solution of being a well-versed linguist with a deep anthropological understanding of the host nation in which you are partnering with working or is an adversary to you, you have built the foundational skills to give yourself the best chance of having success in that operating environment with the relevant culture.

We have invested in you understanding yourself and how you present and communicate. Not always but that would usually mean that as individuals you will be well placed to adapt when you are in your interactions with others, especially those from international cultures. There’s still specialist knowledge that we need to apply and it’s been fantastic to see the breadth of access that is being made available to people at all ranks through a whole range of different mediums.

Not necessarily residential courses where you have to go to Canberra or a certain location. It’s online. It’s learned at your own pace. It can be done at various speeds depending on your availability, and it’s focusing on topics of cultural understanding and intelligence. That is a good start. Can we be doing more? Probably. The challenge is how do we prioritise it as well.

As you have pointed out, each nation-state and language group has a unique, fascinating, and rich culture. Often, there are subcultures to that like there are in our country and within organisations. How do we prioritise which ones we need to focus on to build depth of knowledge and deep experience?

That’s a challenge because there’s a finite resource both in terms of people we have got and time, which is often our greatest and most constrained resource. There are always going to be some that we want to put more priority on, but we can’t for a range of different reasons. That’s always difficult. What we need to do is have a discussion about what we are prioritising and be clear on how we are investing in those that we have prioritised.

VOW 61 | Military Intelligence
Military Intelligence: We need to discuss what we prioritize and be clear on how we invest in those we have prioritized.


Making sure that if it’s agreed through consensus that a certain, place, group, or organisation is the priority of effort, then we need to make sure we have aligned the necessary resources against that to align like any main effort should be, where it should get the preponderance of resources and effort. We should do that as well with regard to building our knowledge and understanding of culture and languages.

I couldn’t agree more. I’m slightly biased when I asked that question. I’m one of the co-facilitators of one of those courses run by the Australian Defence College, the culture and armed conflict course. I’m a strong supporter of that type of institutionalised approach to getting to understand our environment.

I had Dr. Mike Martin on the show a couple of times who helped set up that course, but also he’s an author of An Intimate War. I’m sure you are familiar with his work and studying the cultural context of Helmand and the failures of the British military in Helmand. This is somebody who I have spoken to a number of times and we have publicly discussed it. Afghanistan is a good example of the importance of culture. At least I have often said in this show we never fought the war we thought we fought because it was biased through our interpretation of what we saw on the ground.

I put myself in this as well. I’m guilty of this. I misunderstood what the Taliban is back in the days that I was there. It’s quite often easy to fall into the narrow-track version of definitions. When we are looking at our region, that problem set is exponentially larger and dense. In my view, it should be a real priority because how we interplay with various ecosystems is going to shape their behaviour. If we are continuously exposing ourselves to cultural footpaths to call them, then that’s degrading our ability to build rapport or maintain rapport, and therefore, build long-lasting relationships. I wholeheartedly agree. This is an important step and I’m very biased in my views.

I agree. I highlighted the Australian Defence College’s efforts and I wasn’t aware that you are a co-host.

I’m taking it as a free plug.

It enforces the good work that you have been doing. What it’s also highlighted is the value of that teaming approach and teaming with other organisations. What we have recognised is that the military, ADF, and department aren’t the front of all expertise. We are comfortable and confident to reach out to experts from across a wide range of organisations positively in host nations. Going to them and saying, “We want to work and partner with you to learn more about your culture and understand,” because your country and our country have agreed that we want to work together, grow, and build our relationship.

We feel that to help to do that on our behalf, we need to learn from you about how you think about the world and your worldview. We have built new partnerships and encouraged experts from around the world and from the region to come and be engaged with us. They don’t need to be physically engaged. The COVID pandemic has prevented a lot of that physical engagement.

We have embraced multimedia technology to engage virtually. We have also embraced the opportunities presented by the communities within Australia that represent the diaspora and representatives of those regional and global cultures and ask them to be part of the discussion and engagement for us to help us learn. Many of them welcome the chance to come and tell and teach us more about their traditional cultures and ancestral heritage, which is great.

I will start bringing it towards the end. A question that I will be keen to hear your thoughts on is whether intelligence as a discipline has too much power or not enough power in the overall military establishment.

The easy answer is it depends. Our defence establishment over the last decades has seen the value that dedicated professional intelligence of officials or people workforce can provide to help them make sense of the environment in which we are working and living. They have seen the value of investing in all parts of the intelligence cycle from direction through to dissemination.

Like any discipline in any part of a professional organisation, you can’t rest on what you did. You have got to constantly engage and demonstrate the utility and the benefits of what you offer. You have got to remain relevant. You have got to demonstrate how you are remaining relevant. The way you and I learnt the basics of the intelligence cycle looks very different to the way that the junior and newest members of our profession are learning about the application of the intelligence cycle in 2022.

If you and I as people that were educated in a different type of contextual mindset don’t have the willingness to adapt and adjust, then we will quickly make the enterprise as a whole less relevant because we aren’t demonstrating that agility to adapt to the changing environment. I don’t think it’s got too much. Likewise, I don’t think it’s not enough. We have got to demonstrate that we are relevant and that we value add where we should value add. We demonstrate our professionalism by being committed to excellence and professional mastery.

General Craig Orme is a former commander of the first division and may have also been a commandant of the Australian Defence College in previous years. He had a mantra of brilliance in the basics. That’s how we may remain relevant if we are committed to maintaining professional mastery in the intelligence field. Not rest on our laurels and remain committed to continuously learning and adapting to meet the needs of the Australian Defence Force and the defence organisation, but for all of our colleagues and peers across government and our allies and partners to meet the need of their respective governments as well.

Perhaps my last question is, with the benefit of hindsight and having lived through the strategic shifts over the past decades if you could change one thing about the defence intelligence enterprise or if you could have changed it several years ago, what would it be?

From military intelligence and I probably shouldn’t even characterise it down into the Army intelligence, which is what my parent’s service is. I will go back further years. I will go back to when I joined the corps. It’s the importance of leadership as an equal attribute to professional intelligence mastery. For the officer corps within the intelligence space, what it holds at every level is that you need to be not the best analyst or the best collector, but you also need to understand that certainly as you gain experience and rank in the military, you have a leadership responsibility.

Valuing your development as a leader as much as you value your development as an intelligence professional. I’m sure that’s going to create some debate, but my initial observations and when I reflect on my time, may not have had equal value applied to both. We have seen the importance of leadership in the intelligence enterprise manifest itself and be so powerful in the last years as we became operationally active and valued as a part of the operational team.

The importance of leadership in the intelligence enterprise manifests itself and is so powerful. Click To Tweet

I do hope that creates some discussions because I couldn’t agree more that we are seeing the importance and power of leadership not only in the last many years, but we are seeing it play out now. We are watching it live on TV playing out in Ukraine, as we speak. Brigadier Mark Ascough, thank you very much for giving me so much of your time. I cannot imagine how busy you are keeping up to date with everything that’s happening in the world, so to take out more than an hour to speak with me on the show is truly appreciated. Thank you very much for your time.

Thank you for having the courage and the commitment to deliver the show and you along with some of your other officer colleagues over the last years being prepared to make your own time or in your own time do these types of activities to promote professional learning and debate are valuable and powerful. It talks about one of the points you raised about how we prepare for the future. It’s about having a commitment to learning and learning from others. This is what your show does well along with a range of others that are being delivered by military personnel in their spare time or former full-time serving members.

Thanks for making the effort. Hopefully, I have contributed to the discussion. I’m very conscious that my experiences of war are far less than many of your previous speakers. I respect their experiences and sacrifices in many cases. I have welcomed the chance to add to the discussion, but I’m very conscious of where the limits of my experience are in comparison to some of your other speakers. I appreciate it and look forward to catching up again in person when the opportunity permits.

Thanks very much and thank you for saying those nice words and I’m looking forward to catching you up in person soon.


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