Andrew Davies and Jim Molan talk strategy: round 2
6 Feb 2013| and
Andrew Davies

Here’s part II of the Andrew Davies–Jim Molan strategy debate, with part I here:

Andrew Davies: Jim, to what extent do you see the force in being as an expansion base as insurance against a future that’s worse than now?

Jim Molan: Well, it’s more than just an expansion base. You can’t put all capability off into the future—you have to have some now. In the past we [Defence advisers to government] assumed preparation times that were outside the possibility of impacting on the current force. In other words, we bet that we wouldn’t need the capability we eventually aspired to in the short term. Time has proven it to be the case, but it’s a risk and it mightn’t be true in future. If you’re going to cut the force, you can measure the risk, for example by wargaming. The problem is that no one outside of Defence has any understanding of that risk, so there’s no downside to government in cutting money to defence. We believed the government in 2009 when they said we need more and we’ll believe them in 2013 when they say we don’t need as much.

Andrew: OK, let’s talk budgets. It seems to me there are three ways you can go if the government sticks to the line of reduced money on defence. The ADF can get smaller, or it can be of lower quality, or it can defer capability until later. While I agree with you about warning times and risk, it’s hard to see a power projection risk against Australia in the next decade that’s worth worrying too much about. No one out there is going to have power projection capabilities that even a moderately competent ADF couldn’t deal with. So let me put a concrete proposal as an example. Let’s say we decide that we don’t need a submarine capability in the near term of the sort that drove the Collins specifications and which seems to be driving the future submarine. Instead, let’s buy the Navy some smaller European boats that aren’t in themselves the strategic submarine capability we think we might need down the track, but which can be used as a stepping off point into a future generation of more capable line of submarines. What’s wrong with that line of reasoning?

Jim Molan

Jim: There’s nothing wrong with that per se, except that you haven’t told me why you’re doing it.

Andrew: I’m doing it to fit budget realities. We make the judgement that at some time in the future we will need a strategic submarine capability, but not yet.

Jim: Ah, but implied in that statement are assumptions about threat and the strategic environment.

Andrew: Absolutely, but for a military capability planner, there are two externalities. The first is the strategic environment and the second—as you said—is the government setting the budget. So if you’re going to have a smaller budget and your assessment of the strategic environment is that you might have a problem in 15 years’ time, but not yet, perhaps the solution is an ADF that doesn’t have the best and shiniest equipment today, but which maintains the skills to move up the capability ladder later.

Jim: Right, and that’s totally legitimate, as long as you’ve been through the process of developing a policy and a strategy. And it applies not just to submarines, but across the entire force. I’m not arguing against an interim step—in fact, we’ve done exactly that with our unmanned aerial vehicles. We couldn’t get ourselves organised to work out what our requirements were, so we bought an interim solution (Shadow and Heron) that’s good enough for now. As long as you’ve answered the question ‘what does the ADF have to be able to do now, in the medium term and in the long term’? then you’ve defined the Need, and if you can meet that, you’re done. What I object to is anything that uses the deception that the amount of money we have now is adequate, meaning that we can keep cutting. If the only function of European boats is to get us through an interim period until we have to get serious about underwater warfare, then by all means. But that’s the strategy I’m talking about. And it needs to be clear. The National Security Strategy is not at all clear—it’s anything you want it be; benign but challenging, uncertain…

Andrew: ‘Relatively benign‘, I believe, but relative to what?

Jim: Indeed. This is why policy and strategy, in order to produce capability, must go through a step which answers the question ‘what is the ADF must be able to do’? If the answer is to maintain skills without a high-level capability, that’s something I have no problem with, but I don’t see that we’ve been through that process anywhere. Defence admits openly that it hasn’t.

Andrew: And this is where I took issue with you. I think Defence often starts with a ‘capital-R Requirement’ which looks more like ‘we need four squadrons of fast jets’ or ‘we need a submarine on station at X nautical miles for a duration of Y days’.

Jim: Maybe they do. It does seem to be the case that some missions are valued more highly than the result they actually achieve, and without looking at the many other ways you can do them.

Andrew: Which is why you have to come back to what you’re trying to do—and the focus has to be on the effect rather than the means.

Jim: Absolutely—but everyone argues about inputs. Hugh White and Ross Babbage argue that we need 50 of those or 200 of those, and Nic was arguing that we need Reserves. But none of them were arguing about what those things are actually going to do. I’ve argued that we can get by with 2% of GDP. But because we can’t say who we are going to fight or how we’re going to fight them, I don’t think the whole force can come back to the level of skills maintenance only. The bottom line is that we need one or a series of generic operational concepts of the sort the Williams Foundation has published (PDF) to help us map the resources to the force structure. That’s what tells you whether to buy four, six or a hundred. That’s how you get your inputs.

Andrew: Jim, this is scary, but I think we’re in violent agreement—we need to work out what the ADF has to do in terms of effects and then look at the most efficient way to do that.

Jim: Yes, and you need information about the ADF’s capabilities so that you can make decisions about allocations of money. You can make trade-offs if necessary.

Andrew: Including between future capability and current readiness.

Jim: Yes, and we are a long way from having that sort of understanding. If we ask why that isn’t done, one possibility is that governments would be deeply embarrassed about the current level of actual ADF capability. The current ADF couldn’t fight its way out of a paper bag because nothing ever really works or could be made to work for an extended time. And we’re light on for firepower, which is something that seems ok until you get into a shooting match. The process of agreeing an operational concept would let those things be identified. The first argument must be about what you want the ADF to do, not what you think you can afford, and then everything else follows.

Andrew: Jim, it’s been a pleasure. I won’t promise to agree with you in future, but I think we’ll call it a draw for now.

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.