Cutting our cloth – part III: a force structure for straitened times
2 May 2013|

LCPL Ross Peters of Hobart, Tasmania, and PTE Paul Everett of WA provide outer perimeter protection for members of A Company, 3 RAR, 1 Platoon conducting a building clearance in Dili.The 2013 Defence White Paper will be launched tomorrow. There’s always a chance that it’ll take a more austere approach to force structuring, but all the indications are that it will stick to the guns of the previous one, while failing to adequately explain how the proposed force structure will be funded. If so, it will merely put off the hard decisions to another day.

In my previous two posts in this series I explained how an extended period of lean defence budgets would inevitably lead to a serious decline in defence capability over time, unless accompanied by adjustments in strategy and tough decisions on force structure. One of my premises is that Australia’s budget situation won’t return to the halcyon days of 2000–2008. Mark Thomson will say much more about this in his budget brief later in the month, but serious economists are talking about a structural deficit which will take ‘a substantial level of financial discipline’ on the behalf of future governments to deal with.

In the absence of a substantial external shock, Defence shouldn’t hold its breath waiting for more money. Like it or not, we need to find ways to provide defence capability and capacity with spending levels not too different from today’s. I think that’s doable, but acknowledge in advance that the levels of risk we’ll have to accept will rise—the good news being that they are currently very low and aren’t likely to substantially increase.

My prescription for the ADF force structure is based on the following objectives:

  • having the ability to lead or contribute substantial military capability to regional stabilisation, peacekeeping and non-combatant evacuation operations
  • having adequate surveillance and constabulary capabilities to protect our maritime interests
  • having the capability to defeat the force projection capabilities of countries in our immediate region
  • having the capability to provide high value contributions to US led operations in the wider Asia-Pacific theatre and beyond 
  • maintaining a critical mass of core warfighting capabilities which will allow for expansion in the future should the strategic situation deteriorate significantly

The first three points are options that support Australia’s core interests. First, we have a greater stake in regional stability than powers further afield do. That’s why we have found ourselves as leaders of operations in Bougainville, Timor Leste (twice) and the Solomon Islands. That’s not going to change, and we’ll have to be ready to do it again when circumstances demand. We’ll be able to handle similar operations with the land forces and air lift capability we have today plus the two large amphibious ships that will arrive in a few years. (Until then we might want to cross our fingers and hope our kiwi mates can provide sealift if we need it.)

Second, while we actually do a pretty good job of policing our maritime interests, in part by making good use of intelligence sharing arrangements, the politics of border security will probably cause governments to try to do more. Throwing extra money at top-end platforms like the naval version of Global Hawk or the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft is likely to be at the top of Defence’s wish list. But there are almost certainly more cost-effective ways to improve performance—a topic I’ll come back to in detail in an ASPI paper shortly.

Third, while there’s no indication that any country has designs on Australia’s territory (and there’s no credible reason for them to do so), maintaining capabilities that overmatch nearby militaries is prudent because intentions can change relatively quickly. We can put a large tick in that box with the forces we already have. Indonesia has neither the intent nor ability to seriously threaten Australia’s current air or maritime forces and has little prospect of doing so in the next couple of decades. In fact, given the large size of Indonesia’s army (and thus the unappealing idea of a land conflict there for Australia’s small Army), there’s a natural détente between the countries even if there’s a massive falling out. No other small to medium power has the ability to first defeat Indonesia then use their territory to stage against Australia.

That leaves us with hostile major powers—and brings us to the fourth objective. There aren’t any of those at the moment. But, again, intentions can change, and an insurance policy is worthwhile. That’s where getting smart in our alliance contributions makes good sense. Providing similar capabilities to the United States but on a much smaller scale won’t make any difference in the outcome of a major power conflict, but if we’re clever and turn up with niche contributions of often oversubscribed force elements, we could—and I hesitate to say it—punch above our weight. Peter Jennings pointed out some areas for high-value contributions in an earlier post. I’d add air-to-air refuellers (almost always oversubscribed in intense air operations), electronic warfare aircraft (ditto), Special Forces and (perhaps) conventional submarines—although we need to have a frank discussion with the USN about the concept of operations for those.

Finally, it makes sense to keep up the levels of expertise and a baseline level of sophisticated hardware to allow us to expand our defence forces if we need to. But we don’t need gold-plated technology to do that.

The force structure decisions that follow from this line of reasoning include:

  • no need to develop substantial elements of Army as a ‘Marine’ force, with the exception of a vanguard force to seize and hold points of entry for larger forces—but only against light opposition. Army doesn’t need weapon systems designed for high intensity warfare
  • no need for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter any time this decade—consolidate on the Super Hornet (especially the Growler electronic attack variant) and have another look some time after 2020.
  • the future frigate needn’t be a large, top-end warfighting vessel. A larger number of less capable vessels would provide better value
  • maritime surveillance and response needs a cost-effective force mix of manned and unmanned and military and civilian platform
  • 12 future submarines might not be necessary, depending on what we (and the USN) want them to do

There are some sacred cows in this list, and Defence won’t like it one bit. Nor will either side of politics be prepared to say publicly that they’ll settle for less capability than is in the increasingly fanciful Defence Capability Plan. But the alternative is to cut elsewhere in government spending to put more into Defence. Don’t hold your breath.

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