Andrew Davies and Jim Molan talk strategy: round 1

Ladies and Gentleman, in the blue corner, Andrew Daaaaavies ... and in the red corner, Jim Mooooolan! Photo credit: Luke Wilson @ ASPI

Over the course of several blog posts and tweets, Jim Molan and I decided to get together in person to hash out the issue of Need and strategic planning face to face. What ensued was a spirited discussion, the end of which, to my surprise, we found ourselves in violent agreement. The debate that unfolded will likely be of interest to Strategist readers, so I’ve reproduced parts of the transcript below:

Andrew Davies: Thanks for coming along here Jim—we seemed to be butting virtual heads on the blog, but I sensed we might have been talking past each other.

Jim Molan: Yes, I think so. Our clash has a lot to do with the definition of strategy. I think you use the term differently to me. I see it as following on from the Government coming up with a policy, which might be ‘defence of Australia’ or ‘forward defence’ or ‘minimise spending’. Underneath that there’s a strategy which translates policy into the reality of a force structure. So when I use strategy, it’s in the sense of implementation of policy, not how we fight country A, B or C. Your use of strategy, I think, is different to mine. There’s a missing link in what we’re all doing. The link is between government policy, implementation of that policy through an implementation strategy and eventually capability. I think there’s something missing in the centre, which turns strategy into capability. I think that’s what you are calling strategy, but it’s what I’d call an operational plan. Does that make sense?

Andrew: Yes, that makes sense, but I think your definition of strategy is a bit too abstract to be helpful. Yes, you can have a policy of defending Australia, but surely you have to have some concept of who you are defending Australia against and what sort of capabilities they can bring to bear. So there has to be an idea of net assessment (PDF) in there somewhere.

Jim: Yes, absolutely, and I agree with that. Except that you can’t always be that specific. It’d be nice if you could say with some precision that in ten years’ time there’s a high probability that we’ll be fighting a power that has certain capabilities and therefore, in order to match those capabilities, we need an ADF that can match those capabilities and which can expand in that preparation time to the capacity required. In that case force structuring becomes so simple that the defence problem essentially goes away.

Andrew: Then in some cases it becomes a matter of timing? That’s the problem that France had in the mid 1930s—it knew where the threat was coming from and roughly what capabilities the adversary would have, but it overspent on preparedness at the expense of investment in future capability and when the war arrived in 1939 rather than 1936 they were caught with out of date forces. Isn’t there a tension between future and present forces?

Jim: Right, and I think we could find ourselves in a similar situation but when I look at the strategic environment, we can’t at this stage say who our enemies are going to be, or how they will come at us. But we can go back to a generic enemy in a way that allows us to match it capability by capability in a way that suits us. But if we define the situation too closely—or accept too readily that our enemy is going to be China, for example—we come up with a solution that has 40 submarines and 200 front line combat aircraft. In my view that’s totally wrong. Firstly, we can’t afford it and secondly, that’s all you’d have in your defence force. So at some stage we might be able to do that should a major Asian power become more aggressive than in the past, and that might take you to 3–4% of GDP. But at this stage, saying that we need 24 submarines to fight a major Asian power assumes that it’s all we’re going to have to be able to do.

Andrew: Let me throw that back at you. If we need flexibility and agility in our force planning because we don’t know who the enemy is or what they are going to throw at us, how do we decide how much is enough? I think this is at the heart of your ‘capital N’ need. You call it that as if it’s a real thing that can be articulated, but if we’re really being so contingent in our planning, then surely there are different levels of risk that we can plan against, and at some stage there has to be a level of risk acceptance or risk management.

Jim: Correct. And how much you can afford is set by government. That’s it—there’s no to-ing and fro-ing. Government will decide how much it’s prepared to spend on defence and that will define the risk that’s involved.

Andrew: No, that’s not right—surely the risk is an externality?

Jim: No, I don’t think it is. If we were prepared to spend 4% on defence, we could significantly reduce the risk of getting the wrong war. If we only spend 1.56% of GDP, then we’ve created a risk—we’ve caused the risk to us to increase. Government can control the amount of risk.

Andrew: Following your line of reasoning about reducing risk by spending more, is there too much that can be spent on defence, or can you always spend more to reduce risk?

Jim: I don’t know, and I don’t know how important that question is. My point is that once you’ve assessed what you might need to meet the strategic environment with an acceptable level of risk, you can then ask the government how much it’s prepared to pay. The way I look at it is that Force 2030, a 2% of GDP force, provided us with an acceptable level of risk—to do wars of choice or a medium level action today—but to be able to expand to do more in the future. For example, Force 2030 would have produced enough submarine captains and operators to allow us to expand later. To go lower would take us to a level where it is harder to respond quickly to changes in an uncertain strategic environment. Backing down from Force 2030 not only shrinks the ADF today, but shrinks its potential size in the future as well. I’m happy that Force 2030 gave us enough future flexibility—and that was based on a 2009 assessment of the strategic environment which has actually got worse since. We’ve rushed too readily to the challenge of reducing the force to match the budget.

To be continued tomorrow …

Andrew Davies is a senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The StrategistJim Molan is a retired Major General in the Australian Army and is a commentator on defence and security issues. Image courtesy of Luke Wilson.

Andrew: Yes, that makes sense, but I think your definition of strategy is a bit too abstract to be helpful. Yes, you can have a policy of defending Australia, but surely you have to have some concept of who you are defending Australia against and what sort of capabilities they can bring to bear. So there has to be an idea of net assessment (PDF) in there somewhere.

Jim: Yes, absolutely, and I agree with that. Except that you can’t always be that specific. It’d be nice if you could say with some precision that in ten years’ time there’s a high probability that we’ll be fighting a power that has certain capabilities and therefore, in order to match those capabilities, we need an ADF that can match those capabilities and which can expand in that preparation time to the capacity required. In that case force structuring becomes so simple that the defence problem essentially goes away.

Andrew: Then in some cases it becomes a matter of timing? That’s the problem that France had in the mid 1930s—it knew where the threat was coming from and roughly what capabilities the adversary would have, but it overspent on preparedness at the expense of investment in future capability and when the war arrived in 1939 rather than 1936 they were caught with out of date forces. Isn’t there a tension between future and present forces?

Jim: Right, and I think we could find ourselves in a similar situation but when I look at the strategic environment, we can’t at this stage say who our enemies are going to be, or how they will come at us. But we can go back to a generic enemy in a way that allows us to match it capability by capability in a way that suits us. But if we define the situation too closely—or accept too readily that our enemy is going to be China, for example—we come up with a solution that has 40 submarines and 200 front line combat aircraft. In my view that’s totally wrong. Firstly, we can’t afford it and secondly, that’s all you’d have in your defence force. So at some stage we might be able to do that should a major Asian power become more aggressive than in the past, and that might take you to 3–4% of GDP. But at this stage, saying that we need 24 submarines to fight a major Asian power assumes that it’s all we’re going to have to be able to do.

Andrew: Let me throw that back at you. If we need flexibility and agility in our force planning because we don’t know who the enemy is or what they are going to throw at us, how do we decide how much is enough? I think this is at the heart of your ‘capital N’ need. You call it that as if it’s a real thing that can be articulated, but if we’re really being so contingent in our planning, then surely there are different levels of risk that we can plan against, and at some stage there has to be a level of risk acceptance or risk management.

Jim: Correct. And how much you can afford is set by government. That’s it—there’s no to-ing and fro-ing. Government will decide how much it’s prepared to spend on defence and that will define the risk that’s involved.

Andrew: No, that’s not right—surely the risk is an externality?

Jim: No, I don’t think it is. If we were prepared to spend 4% on defence, we could significantly reduce the risk of getting the wrong war. If we only spend 1.56% of GDP, then we’ve created a risk—we’ve caused the risk to us to increase. Government can control the amount of risk.

Andrew: Following your line of reasoning about reducing risk by spending more, is there too much that can be spent on defence, or can you always spend more to reduce risk?

Jim: I don’t know, and I don’t know how important that question is. My point is that once you’ve assessed what you might need to meet the strategic environment with an acceptable level of risk, you can then ask the government how much it’s prepared to pay. The way I look at it is that Force 2030, a 2% of GDP force, provided us with an acceptable level of risk—to do wars of choice or a medium level action today—but to be able to expand to do more in the future. For example, Force 2030 would have produced enough submarine captains and operators to allow us to expand later. To go lower would take us to a level where it is harder to respond quickly to changes in an uncertain strategic environment. Backing down from Force 2030 not only shrinks the ADF today, but shrinks its potential size in the future as well. I’m happy that Force 2030 gave us enough future flexibility—and that was based on a 2009 assessment of the strategic environment which has actually got worse since. We’ve rushed too readily to the challenge of reducing the force to match the budget.

To be continued tomorrow …

Andrew Davies is a senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The StrategistJim Molan is a retired Major General in the Australian Army and is a commentator on defence and security issues. Image courtesy of Luke Wilson.

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