Home on the gun range?
5 Feb 2015|

9442447402_13dc059540_zI was far from convinced by Deane-Peter Baker’s recent post on Australia’s gun laws and their allegedly deleterious effect on our Army’s effectiveness and safety in combat. But it evidently struck a chord with readers, judging by the number of Facebook ‘likes’ it got, so I’d offer the following thoughts in response.

I see two main problems with Baker’s argument. Firstly, he presents no evidence of any capability shortfall, other than comparing the shooting expertise of a few individuals with that of an American visitor. There’s no doubt that weapon proficiency and reliability are both critical in combat—but it’s the adversary that has to be outshot.

To be sure, there were Australian servicemen killed in exchanges of small-arms fire, but the majority of the fatalities that the ADF suffered in Afghanistan were due to rockets, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or tragic so-called ‘green-on-blue’ attacks. The roadside bombs are evidence of the reluctance of the enemy to get into a fair fight with Western forces and of their preference for adopting asymmetric tactics. That’s been a clear trend in the more than a decade since the Afghan and Iraq wars began. And green-on-blue attacks (where indigenous Afghan forces working alongside Australians turn on them without warning) can’t really be solved through better weapons proficiency.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Baker’s right, and that our troops need to be better shots. His solution is for them to privately own military-style weapons for practice ‘out of hours’. Seriously? If the RAAF was turning out second-rate pilots (which they don’t), would the best solution be for the service to encourage their pilots to join a civilian flying club to get some quality hours up in their spare time?

Of course that’s not the case. The correct response of the relevant service chief to either a capability shortfall or combat-safety issue due to lack of operator skill is to change the training regimen to ensure that the required skills are generated and kept current by appropriate and rigorous in-service training. Remember that the service chiefs are Capability Managers, with responsibility to ‘raise, train and sustain’ the capabilities the government requires from the ADF. If our land forces can’t shoot well enough to carry out their mission safely, then Chief of Army has some work to do. And if the requisite extra training costs more, then Army and Defence need to look at their budget priorities.

It’s also worth observing that the ADF is raised from and paid for by the Australian populace, and should reflect the values of the wider community. On the subject of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, a large majority of Australians have a strong preference for them to be kept out of civilian circulation. (And in this poll—the most pro-gun recent poll I could find outside of a special interest shooters website—more than half of respondents want even tighter controls than those currently in place). Exempting off-duty ADF personnel from the nation’s strict but popularly-supported gun control laws would likely be as unpopular as it is unnecessary.

And any instance of a weapon licensed under such an arrangement being used in a violent crime would be a public-relations disaster for the ADF. A link between the ADF and violent crime wouldn’t be missed by the press, and thus by the wider population. Well over two decades on, the Hoddle Street shootings in Melbourne by an ex-soldier continue to draw criticism of the ADF, even though it’s far from clear that there’s any culpability on the service’s behalf.

In short, Baker’s proposal is to let the land force Capability Manager (Chief of Army) fail in his job of providing government with forces that are fit for purpose, while hoping that his diggers are assiduous enough in their unsupervised homework to get up to standard. In return, Defence (and the government) get to take on the risk of having to manage a PR fiasco. That’s not an appealing prospect.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Lachlan Donald.