Cutting our cloth – part II
26 Apr 2013|

HMAS Jervis Bay - a non-warfighting platform that did sterling service during the INTERFET operation in 1999.

In my previous post, I found myself agreeing with Jim Molan that the ADF was in danger of entering a period of serious decline in its ability to maintain capability. The combination of tight budgets and the need to replace assets across the board at the ‘pointy end’ in the next ten to twenty years is a recipe for bad outcomes.

The Defence White Paper that will be released in the next few weeks probably won’t help. If, as expected, it maintains the fiction that all of the ‘core capabilities’ can be retained without a funding boost at least as generous as the levels promised in its predecessor, it will only make a future train wreck more likely.

We know that to be the case, because we’ve done the experiment before. As Mark Thomson has documented over the years in his budget briefs, the 1990s were tough times for the ADF. Funding was constrained as successive governments worked their way back from the recession we had to have, causing the ADF’s readiness and capability levels to fall away. Submarine capabilities declined alarmingly and the Anzac frigates were ‘fitted for but not with’ the systems needed to make them combat ready. Our air combat platforms weren’t able to participate in even moderately challenging environments due to inadequate electronic warfare fits and long-delayed weapons upgrades. At the same time, the Army spent a demoralising decade preparing to hunt for small groups of insurgents who had decided—for reasons nobody could ever adequately explain—to penetrate the vast expanse of Australia’s north to do who knows what.

Yet—and this is very important  for what follows—the ADF still managed to pull off the INTERFET operation in late 1999. It’s conventional wisdom to say that this was a ‘by the skin of our teeth’ success, which is usually followed up by an argument for boosting defence funding so that it won’t happen again. I’d argue that there’s actually another lesson that can be drawn from that episode; the decline in front-line combat capability across the ADF didn’t preclude success in that sort of operation.

It’s true that the ADF would have been it trouble if had it faced an adversary with high-level capabilities around that time, and things could have gotten difficult if the Indonesian forces had not cooperated in East Timor (that’s why Indonesian agreement was an effective precondition for the deployment). But the relatively benign stabilisation operations that did arise in East Timor, Bougainville and Solomon Islands were far and away the most likely sorts of contingencies foreseeable at the time. In short, the decline in ADF capabilities in the 1990s was lamented by the Services and by those who see a strong military as a vital arm of national power, but it didn’t endanger Australia’s security in any meaningful way. In fact, the embarrassing failure to provide amphibious vessels during the Queensland floods showed that our preoccupation with platforms suitable for high-intensity operations can lead to capability downfalls in those areas that are more likely to be required.

That observation brings me to what I think is the crux of the defence decision making process—the level of risk we’re willing to live with and how we assess it. (Mark Thomson has also been down this path.) Assuming that we’re at least passingly smart in the way we spend the defence budget, more funding buys more capability, which in turn retires more risk. That’s why we tend to ramp spending up in times of heightened risk perception, as the Menzies Government did during the time of insurgencies in Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, and as the Howard Government did after 9/11. But it’s also possible to overestimate risk and spend more than is prudent to retire the risk of events that are either unlikely to the point of irrelevance or which would have consequences that don’t outweigh the cost of hedging. The convulsive decade-long reaction to 9/11 is arguably a case in point.

The New Zealand example I mentioned last time is a good example of a country that took a hard look at its strategic situation and realised that it had capabilities on the books that weren’t ever likely to be used in anything but a war of choice which would take place far from its sovereign territory (and in which New Zealand’s contribution would be far less then decisive). Arguably, New Zealand is less well defended today than it was in the past, but it’s defended well enough against anything that’s actually likely to happen.

Looking at Australia’s strategic circumstances, we’re less well served by geography than our mates across the Tasman, so our risk assessment is different—but perhaps not as different as might be supposed. Power projection across oceans remains a formidably difficult task, and the list of countries that could bring much combat power to bear against Australia’s territories is (provided we exclude the United States) vanishingly small.

A predictable rejoinder to that analysis is ‘but we can’t predict the future’, so we have to hedge against things we can’t foresee. To a point that’s true, as Mark Thomson and I would be among the first to admit. But any planning process has to have a stab at prediction within a reasonable set of parameters, and defence planning is no exception. So I’ll finish this post with my short list what I think are reasonable planning assumptions for the next twenty years. I don’t think any of them are particularly contentious:

  • even with only modest investment, the ADF will continue to overmatch the power projection capability of those countries within range of Australian territories
  • the United States will remain the primary military power in all parts of the Asia-Pacific region from which a conventional threat to Australian territories could be launched
  • Australia’s budget situation won’t return to as favourable a state as was the case in the period 2000–2008

In my final post in this series, I’ll explain the force structure options that follow from this line of reasoning.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Defence.