The March 2013 edition of Quadrant magazine features an essay I wrote examining defence policy during the Rudd and Gillard governments.
The essay will form a chapter in a book to be published this month by Connor Court, entitled State of the Nation: Aspects of Australian Public Policy.
The headline chosen by Quadrant was ‘The Terminal Decline of Australia’s Defence’. It is a catchy headline and I use those words in the article. I explain that we should consider that a defence force is in terminal decline ‘… where its capabilities are at, or will soon be at, a state from which they will not be able to be revived in any reasonable period of time’.
The title that I suggested was ‘A Strategy Free Vantage Point’, implying that those that are determining what passes for defence policy in Australia are overseeing that policy from a position devoid of anything that passes for strategy.
Day after day in the media and in blogs, we debate the merits of 6, 12 or 24 subs, 59, 70, 100 or even 200 joint strike fighters and a fourth air warfare destroyer, and we wrap ourselves around our various axles as we define and redefine what a maritime strategy really is. It was almost with joy that I welcomed the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion!
My main argument is that it does not matter what cuts we make, or what favourite bit of equipment we advocate buying, if we don’t know what you are going to use it for or how you are going to use it. It is not just the absence of coherent strategy that is the problem. Not one White Paper since 1976 has effectively linked policy and strategy to the ‘tactical’ level of defence policy; that is, procurement. As a result, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has never been able to achieve the military strategy that is sometimes stated, always vaguely, and sometimes inferred. Then ‘pop’, out comes a procurement plan with no links back into the policy and the military strategy.
Guidance in white papers is not guidance if it is so vague as to merely create confusion and conflict within the bureaucracy that has to turn it into the reality of a capable war-fighting ADF. The confusion and conflict within the civilian and defence bureaucracies, as well as the Services, are caused by the inadequacies of the guidance. There is an unwillingness (often for political reasons) to state the truth about the current inadequate capabilities of the ADF, the real truth about what the strategic environment demands of Australia, and ways to overcome resulting deficiencies.
The strategic demand for Australia at the moment is not China or North Korea, although sometime in the future it might be. The current strategic demand that our defence policy must address is dangerous uncertainty in a situation where the US is relatively weaker than it has been for decades, and so may not be able to cover Australia’s defence ineptitude, while Australia and its neighbours find themselves almost at the centre of the geo-strategic world. In the past, with a powerful ally and Australia geo-strategically remote, our strategic incompetence was less of a worry. Now, we have a far greater incentive for getting strategy right, and linking that strategy to the real world of military capability.
Getting the policy and the strategy right is not beyond the wit of our leaders and our bureaucracies. Translating that into military capability seems to be. The trick in linking policy and strategy to the ‘tactical’ area of military capability is to shift the emphasis from ‘threat’ countries (really the realm of contingency planning—something done to confirm defence planning in resource constrained uncertain times, not the basis for defence planning) to what we can actually do.
This can be done by the relatively simple mechanism of one or more generic operational concept(s), which state in operational terms the maximum military capability that the ADF can generate and sustain short of a war of national survival. Anything less than that is then possible. The concept must be in joint terms because wars are fought by joint forces. It must be in terms that are understandable to civilians in responsible positions because that is where the authority lies, and we are answerable to our civilian population. And the concepts must contain sufficient joint metrics (how much, how fast, how far, for how long, to do what) because ultimately the problem is one of buying the maximum capability for the minimum funds, and trade-offs are essential.
Once we honestly assess the demands of the strategic environment and match these with policy and a military strategy linked to the real world of military capability through a generic operational concept, we will be able to make informed and defendable judgements about numbers of equipments because we know what effects are achievable. We have moved the argument from one of meaningless material inputs to real world defence outcomes. Then if we cannot afford what we know that we need, as is highly probable, we at least understand the risk.
If we don’t know what we want to do with the ADF, then it really does not matter what we cut or what we buy. Regardless of which government takes us into the future, there will be little to spend on defence at least for a few years. Let’s use that time to honestly align policy, strategy, concepts and procurement. Thinking is not expensive.
Jim Molan is a retired Major General in the Australian Army and is a commentator on defence and security issues.