25 April 2012

Defence Force Structure - Looking in the wrong direction again!

Guest post by Andrew Farran

The Lowy Institute's blog, The Interpreter, is running a debate on future defence policy with particular attention to force structure. It is a polite wrestle among those representing entrenched military prerogatives and like-minded academics and bureaucrats. Very little lateral thinking is revealed in these courteous exchanges.

The starting point is the view that defence policy is again at a watershed, as in the 1970s. That may have been the case then but the opportunity was not taken to leap a generation and anticipate the 21st century when that was quite possible. There were voices then that could have provided the intellectual basis required to skip decades of wasted expenditure on large capital items that did not even accord with the agreed strategic basis at the time. That basis was that Australia was unlikely to be invaded within the next generation or two as has proven to be the case. The outlook is much the same today but the Lowy discussion regresses to the same old issues as listed by defence planners in the 1970s - how many strike aircraft, how many submarines, how many tanks, etc. to defend a country that would not be attacked - at a steady cost of some 3% of GDP.

Former deputy secretary of defence, Alan Wrigley seeks now to revive the 1970s 'core force’ concept which “would provide an expansion base of military and technical skills that would greatly reduce the time to build a more capable force as any credible threat began to emerge”. The trouble with that was it presupposed that the military skills required necessitated the acquisition of expensive platforms in numbers beyond what the strategic basis could justify. Spread across the services, as it had to do so that each service got its “fair share”, the country acquired a force structure that was over equipped for action that never took place and under equipped for the low-level but lethal campaigns (Iraq and Afghanistan) respective governments got our forces into. The exceptional campaign was East Timor for which the forces lacked critical capability, especially in logistics. 

A later defence deputy secretary, now Lowy and ANU, Hugh White, doubts that the 'core force’ concept remains a sound basis for defence planning today as it was developed in the 1970s in response to big shifts in Australia's strategic environment in the later 1960s and 1970s. As now, there had then been big shifts in Australia's external environment. But defence planning misread the implications of those shifts and the 'core force' concept was largely a rationalisation for getting what the services wanted, not what was needed. There was no "new world" for the forces.

Overlooked in their recall of the 1970s were two significant developments, neither of which fully achieved their potential. First were the reforms introduced by defence secretary Arthur Tange designed to lay down clear lines of authority as between the defence department and the services vis-à-vis the Minister, and minimise turf wars and obstructionism in these areas. The second was the Dibb Report which sought to tailor force structure to a realistic assessment of defence needs in that changing strategic environment. The Report itself was far sighted but its implementation fell foul of the very issues Tange had tried to overcome - and the 'core force’ concept was introduced to placate all parties even if it became an expensive anachronism.  

Lowy readers are being regaled with mind-numbing numbers of required submarines (12), JSF aircraft (50 or 100), legions of tanks - with little or no explanation as to the whys and what-fors.

Hugh White however (to his credit) warned that Australia is in danger of repeating the same mistakes this time around when he wrote: "There is no plan for how the ADF will be used to achieve Australia’s strategic objectives. And that is because no one has decided what our strategic objectives are. In other words we do not know what the ADF is supposed to do. That is why there is no systemic way to decide how many of anything we need. But even worse, it means there is no systemic way to decide what we need at all”. So one can safely say that the services will seek the toys they want and rationalise their wish lists under some fancy new but vacuous strategic concept.

So how in outline might a defence force structure be shaped to reflect the realities of Australia's strategic environment over the coming decades?

Given that invasion is an unlikely contingency, and given the digital revolution in military technologies (especially with guided missiles), we need to refocus and adopt a force structure that takes advantage of area denial strategies because of the relative vulnerability of attack-mode platforms.  

The potentially 'big bad wolf' in the region is of course China. The issue here is how far China might go in enforcing its resources claims in the South China Sea or, if provoked, by further claims from Taiwan for independence. The former would concern most Southeast and East Asian states, the US and Australia; the latter, the US essentially alone (or do we have some undisclosed diplomatic understanding with the US about this?). The question for Australia would be how far to go in supporting those affected parties and with what resources? Any strategic 'commitment' to a US response should surely differentiate between the respective situations and require on our part a clear choice based on the perceived 'national interest' - not just another ‘alliance insurance' premium or token deployment. 

Conflict between the US and China would have negative consequences for both. As 'rival' powers they have an extraordinary degree of inter-dependence which is likely to be on-going. What might disturb that is a political breakdown internally in China when a foreign distraction (i.e. conflict) might suit a struggling regime. The international community should encourage China to stay on track and conform with the norms of global governance. Current trends in multilateral diplomacy and international law would reinforce this endeavour.

Closer to home there is the potentially (actually) unstable arc of Melanesian and Polynesian states around our northern periphery, which may call upon interventionist forces to restore order and maintain a peace (when there is a peace to keep) - or on humanitarian grounds. Specifically there may be problems with PNG but these would more likely be in the nature of police rather than military actions (e.g. Solomon Islands). Our best expenditure has been on SAS-type forces. We may need more of these along with their requisite materiel support (helicopters, amphibious craft, etc.) where versatility and rapid response is imperative.

Surely we will not again indulge in out of area Iraq/Afghan type operations - unless it be a peace-keeping exercise unequivocally sanctioned by the UN or in support of 'civil society'. The capabilities we have developed in East Timor and Afghanistan (the one positive from the latter) could prove useful, militarily and politically, and be very much in our interests to strengthen. Safeguarding our maritime approaches will remain a primary task for which we are presently poorly equipped. At a routine level, early warning surveillance (aerial and other) and high-sea state fast patrol craft are necessities. Then, to monitor, deter and resist less benign intrusions, there is a role for light frigates and submarines (also for intelligence operations). Currently we lack the necessary equipment and skilled manpower for reliable submarine deployments but a new generation to follow the troublesome, near obsolete Collins-class vessels might rectify this deficiency in time (a generation). A role for guided-missile carrying catamarans (as being developed by China) would be interesting!

Air surveillance and deterrence is another formidable issue, because of its expense, our dependence on the overseas supply of aircraft, and the uncertainty of their availability. Will the F35 Joint Strike Fighter ever be available, and at what cost and for what purpose? This question is not being honestly addressed.

There was no reason why similar requirements, and issues, could not have been foreseen back in the 1970s. The broad geo-political trend has long been apparent. All this time Australia's physical security has not been endangered. Yet we have spent billions of dollars on capabilities that either have not been required or would not have been operational had they been. Meanwhile we have lost too many good soldiers, killed or maimed, in conflicts that have lacked credibility and acceptability to the Australian public - or can be justified in terms of protecting the national interest. 

In short we should leave out-of-area conflicts of others to them; be clever and focussed in our diplomacy; clear headed about our national interests; and develop a force structure that is relevant to those interests with more attention than previously to cost efficiencies and effectiveness (administrative and military).

About the Author
Andrew Farran, is a former diplomat (Australian) and academic (Monash University Law School). Diplomatic postings included Pakistan (including two visits to Afghanistan), Indonesia, and the UN General Assembly. He was an adviser to the Australian Government during the GATT/WTO Uruguay Round and a former vice-president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. He is also a publicist and company director (Australia and UK).

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