Australia’s armed forces must be ready for the worst

Kim Beazley recalls the 1980s when he oversaw a restructuring of Australia’s military establishment comfortable in the knowledge that no major attack was likely in the coming decade. That luxury is gone, he says.

Beazley, one of Australia’s most experienced and accomplished defence ministers, is asked in a video interview as part of ASPI’s ‘Lessons in leadership’ series what advice he’d have for a counterpart now. He tells former ASPI executive director Peter Jennings: ‘The whole world’s on your shoulders, mate. If anything goes wrong and the country’s not effectively defended, it’s your fault.’

Having held the defence portfolio from 1984 to 1990 and served as Australia’s ambassador to the United States from 2010 to 2016, Beazley recalls that when he was minister he’d sometimes wake up and ask himself if Australia had to fight a major war from a standing start, ‘Could we win?’

His answer was, ‘Probably not’, says Beazley. ‘And that would compel me to work a bit harder.’ He also had the reassurance of knowing that he wasn’t likely to wake up to find his country at war. ‘You can’t do that now. The current defence minister has to wake up and say, “What can I now do from a standing start if tomorrow the balloon goes up?”—because it might!’

That puts an enormous burden on the minister’s shoulders, he says. ‘Much more than there was on mine.’

The minister must issue dire warnings, and those warnings must be accompanied by solutions and not issued on their own, he says. The minister must be sure of getting the best possible advice from the Defence Department and from the armed services. ‘But at the end of the day, it’s just down to you, and it’s a very heavy weight.’

Beazley says the government needs to know what, if shooting starts tomorrow, is going to work and how much of it is needed. ‘We have never done defence on that basis, since World War II.’

And while there has been much speculation that the army will come off second best when new capabilities and resources are allocated as the recommendations of the just completed defence strategic review are implemented, Beazley has a different view.

He says a key to defending Australia will be large numbers of missiles with long range, and they’ll have to be mobile. ‘Basically, that’s the army. So I think that in terms of strike capability and distance, you’re going to see the army with a bigger role. They’re not thinking like that at the moment, really, but they’re going to have to.’

The government must ensure that the Australian Defence Force has enough weapons and ammunition at hand to fight a war that might last for months, he says.

Beazley had had a long interest in defence issues before he became minister and had written a master’s thesis on Indian Ocean security.

He says that after Vietnam, the Americans did not want to focus on this region and US President Richard Nixon made it very clear that Australia had to do more to look after its own security. ‘I thought that Nixon had done us an enormous favour by telling that the US, like God, helped those who helped themselves. And so he actually made it easy to do a shift in the character of Australian policy.’

Ensuring Australia’s long-term survival will not be easy, he says. ‘History has a way of correcting anomalies, and in many ways, we are an anomaly. And that means we have to be not so laid back. We have to be clever.’

Australia needs to be spending much more than 2% of GDP on defence, but that will be hard to achieve, says Beazley. ‘It’s difficult to convince people of what you ought to do unless you’re actually in the emergency.’

When he became defence minister in Bob Hawke’s new government, an early goal was to abolish the Department of Defence Support, which, Beazley says, ‘was wasting resources by the bushel’. The department was responsible for purchasing or manufacturing much of what Defence needed, carrying out research, developing Australian industry and providing support in dockyards.

Having those roles in a separate department complicated the running of programs for Defence, says Beazley. Australia’s industries, as they were then set up, were perfectly positioned for the production of ammunition and equipment for World War II, and maybe even the Vietnam War, but not for anything that might happen subsequently, says Beazley.

Dismantling the Defence Support Department was strongly backed by those running the military.

Beazley went on to oversee major reforms based in large part on Paul Dibb’s 1986 Review of Australia’s defence capabilities and the 1987 Defence of Australia white paper of which Dibb was the primary author.

A high point was the decision to build conventional submarines in Australia. Six Collins-class boats were commissioned, though a regret for Beazley is that the fleet wasn’t increased to eight. ‘The reason I wanted two more was simply this, and it’s still a consideration: there are about four choke points on entry to Australia; if you’ve got eight submarines, you’ve got a chance of keeping them all covered permanently, and eight was absolutely essential. And, to my mind then, on the math of it, twelve would be better but eight was essential. So that was a failure on my part, not to be able to get there.’

But he also felt strongly the requirement for a long-range strike capability because Australia needed to be able to hurt an attacker. ‘They won’t take much notice of you unless they know how much hurt you can inflict. That’s why the F-111s [long-range bombers] were fantastic.’

Beazley talks at length in the interview about his complex dealings with the US over New Zealand’s ban on visits by warships that might be carrying nuclear weapons, the process of building trust with the US intelligence agencies, and the importance of the shared facilities in Australia, including Pine Gap, which he regarded as critical to the global balance of power.

And he makes telling observations about Australians at the sharp end of diplomacy, intelligence and the military: ‘Our Defence and Foreign Affairs officials are probably better than just about anybody I’ve come across. They’re good all-rounders, they have to do a lot of things, so they actually know a lot; they’re not stove-piped. So, our public servants can readily hold their own; our intelligence officers and service personnel can hold their own. The services, I think, really do brilliantly with that. The way American officers are educated is well ahead of us, and they’re better qualified, but I think our guys have a rough and ready intelligence.’

ASPI’s ‘Lessons in leadership’ series is produced with the support of Lockheed Martin Australia.