I read with great interest a recent article by Paul Dibb titled ‘How to plan for [an] ADF without [a] territorial threat’. I am of the 1986 Dibb Report and subsequent Beazley White Paper generation. At Staff College in the early 90’s we pawed over every comma and full stop in those documents looking for some divine guidance. And of course I served in an Army that was very much shaped by those policy tablets.
Professor Dibb’s judgment about Army is dismissively short—just one sentence: ‘it (a maritime strategy) demands a change to Army, with more focus on our Region of direct strategic concern.’ I would have hoped for something better, even allowing for the demands of newspaper editors.
However, it seems in 2015 we are back to the future. Does one conclude from that single sentence that there’s a need for a policy shift or does it suggest that Army’s force structure has been in some way warped by the last 15 years of operations and as a consequence of this apparent retro shift to a maritime strategy needs an urgent re-shape? If so—what?
I thought most defence thinkers in Australia have been talking about a maritime strategy since the early 90’s. Or does it mean that a recalcitrant Army has again failed to digest the critical elements of a maritime strategy and continued to pursue, as I have previously written, some heretical ‘heavy’ armoured force.
Army’s thinking demonstrated in its writing and rhetoric over the last 20 years has been framed around a maritime strategy. What, for heaven’s sake, are the Canberra-class LHD ships about if not to operate within and support a maritime strategy?
I fear that Professor Dibb’s article may echo the thoughts of the writers of the White Paper. If that’s so—sadly those who have drafted the policy advice to Government and recommended the consequential force structure priorities have not learned a thing from the last decade or so.
One hopes that the Minister’s recent comments which seem to reinforce a ‘steady as we go’ approach to defence policy isn’t the end of the intellectual investment by the new ministers.
The fundamental question above all is: does the Army’s force structure resulting from the White Paper process align with the Government’s intent and vision for Australia and its role in the world? If the continuous shipbuilding strategy results in an uncritical bias in defence spending which over the forward estimates creates an inherent imbalance in the ADF’s force structure the forthcoming White Paper like the last two should be condemned.
It’s worth repeating that a balanced force should be a ruler against which policy and capability decisions can be tested. The current air package deployed to the Middle East is a wonderful example. It’s self-reliant, balanced and capable—and importantly, of a scale that meets Australia’s means. Self-reliant because it can see, sustain itself, and shoot. Balanced because it has the force elements necessary to prosecute the tasks given to it by government—and not limited just to either seeing, or sustaining or shooting.
It’s capable because as a package it’s not a liability to others in the coalition but gives government a range of policy options over time based on policy grounds not capability deficiencies.
Those investment decisions aren’t easy, but let’s be clear: the Army has really lived off the operational funding it has received over the last decade or so to put the real edge on its current capability. A capability that has delivered much for successive governments both close to home (Professor Dibb’s region of direct strategic concern) or further afield. That edge isn’t funded and will therefore decay quickly.
Yes, there’s been some spending on new capabilities, but this in overall terms has been a replacement strategy which has held the army steady in relative capability terms. The underlying force structure remains fundamentally a ‘fitted for but not with’ force. That’s like an Air Force without EW self-protection for its aircraft! If Army’s capability enhancements are being progressively pushed further and further beyond the current forward estimate period the capability gap created will be increasingly more difficult to close. The gap must be recognised and explicitly acknowledged by Government and then closely managed.
As I have asked before, why do we continue to have these type of discussions around Army’s force structure?
The explanation lies in the policy tension that still exists between Australia’s role as a ‘middle power’ and our national security . Simply put, the policy schools of thought are either a set of priorities based on a more global role for the country in world affairs, or the more traditional thinking which says we need to return to a narrower set of priorities closer to home.
Why does that matter to Army? Because the potential force structure options are different in some policymakers eyes. Closer to home is perceived as ‘lower risk’ and as a consequence later phases of LAND 400 can be shifted further right and the number and type of vehicles can be open to semantic debate. Army’s size and its harder edge can also be ‘worked’ to create the fiscal head room for other capabilities and expenditure priorities.
That’s where the new White Paper needs to be crystal clear. A retro maritime strategy isn’t about an ADF with a land force as a one line afterthought.
The last decade or so has demonstrated the nature of the tasks that are likely to arise for the Army over the coming decades. If the Government now sees this period as an exception then it needs to clearly articulate why this is the case and not just echo the views put forward by its policy advisors.