ASPI’s 2015 Land Conference: ‘Army’s Future Force Structure Options’
24 Jun 2015|

Australian Army recruits from Alpha Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, return fire on an enemy position during recruit training at Army Recruit Training Centre, Kapooka, New South Wales, in June 2015.

ASPI’s 2015 Land Conference this week foreshadows a number of Government policy announcements that will directly or indirectly impact the Australian Army and its future operational tempo and force structure.

The Conference will be an opportunity to discuss and explore a range of issues critical to the future shape and role of the army in Australia’s national security.

Phase 2 of Land 400 (the replacement of Army’s ASLAV mounted combat reconnaissance vehicles) is the hot topic for industry, state governments, army and the commentariat. But there remains a more important issue: the continuing debate over the appropriate size and shape of the army in the coming decades.

Given Army’s operational profile over the last 15 years one would be justified in asking why. The explanation lies in the policy tension that still exists between Australia’s role as a ‘middle power’ and our perceived national security priorities. The current Government seems to favour a more expansive global role for Australia’s defence force compared with a narrow, more traditional regional focus.

Why does this matter to Army? It’s important because there is a lack of consensus amongst policy makers about future force structure options.

Operations closer to home are perceived as ‘lower risk’ and as a consequence, decisions on later phases of Land 400—including the number and type of vehicles—can be debated and acquisition timetables pushed to the right. Army’s size and its harder edge can also be ‘worked’ to create the fiscal head room for other defence capabilities and budget priorities. One would hope these important decisions are informed by a knowledgeable and transparent policy debate.

This week’s Land Conference will help frame the discussion and the road ahead. With a broad range of speakers, including the Prime Minister and military experts from around the world, we have the ingredients for a well-informed debate.

A key topic will involve discussion of defence industry policy and the options that can provide the best possible framework for the States and local industry to support the Army.

The Minister for Industry and Science will join the conference to discuss the broader industry policy issues, which will be followed by perspectives from defence, industry and state government leaders.

Hopefully the Defence Industry Plan to be announced later this year will not be simply a carefully disguised prop for local manufacturing. That would spell another policy failure. The key to an industry strategy that will support Army as well as contribute meaningfully to the broader economy is a blueprint to encourage innovation in niche technologies and systems integration skills. Army’s relative size doesn’t justify the expansion of Australia’s manufacturing capacity. There is, however, a critical need to develop the indigenous knowledge and skills to sustain, evolve and improve Army capabilities across a broad range of areas, including weapons systems, armoured vehicles, helicopters and ICT based systems.

The Australian economy isn’t large enough to sustain competition at any cost. We need government,   industry and the tertiary education sector to come together and create sustainable centres of excellence. We need policy consistency and careful investment for these goals to be realised. If we lose the capacity to innovate we risk becoming simply an ill-informed follower with a defence industry unable to respond to army’s future requirements.

The 2015 ASPI Land Conference will provide a forum to challenge the status quo and broaden our collective understanding of Army’s role as it moves into its second century of serving the nation.

For those who won’t be able to be in Canberra for the Conference, it’ll streamed live by both Sky News and the ABC. And, of course, the ASPI social media team will provide updates as the Conference progresses via #FutureForce2015.