Floods, fires, regional disasters and war: Australia needs a bigger defence force
10 Mar 2022|

Can I let you in on a guilty little secret? The Australian Defence Force is too small. It must grow, which will cost money, political will and a sea change in thinking. That change will not come from within Defence but is a matter of political leadership.

There are 61,468 uniformed personnel in the permanent ADF, and they work with 16,695 civilian public servants in the defence organisation. That’s 78,063 in a population of 26,068,792—a rounding error in statistical terms. Reservists add another 21,390, the equivalent of about 5,000 full-time personnel. Most have other jobs and duties, many of which are essential during times of national need (think rural firefighting or medical personnel).

But the range of things this small number of Australians has been doing domestically, regionally and globally in the past three years has been extraordinary: support to the 2019–20 bushfire crisis, mask production, quarantine hotel management, house-to-house Covid checks, aged care home cleaning, Tongan volcano recovery work, Covid vaccination assistance with Australian colleagues in the South Pacific and a return to the Solomons to help with security and stability there. Prime Minister Scott Morrison appointed Lieutenant General John Frewen to turn around a flailing vaccination rollout. Most recently, ADF men and women have been deployed to help with the flood crisis in New South Wales and Queensland. I’ll have missed a few things here; it’s just the highlights that have been in the public eye.

And then there’s the logistical and materiel assistance Australia is part of with our US and NATO partners in the heat of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

That’s all in addition to Defence’s ‘day job’: growing Australia’s military power with the rising budget successive governments have entrusted it with since 2014, running the business enterprise that acquires and operates complex systems and weapons, and doing all the training and exercising that being able to use lethal force in our more dangerous world requires. It’s also been doing demanding and challenging daily work with our regional security partners to demonstrate presence, power and resolve in the face of an increasingly belligerent and overconfident People’s Liberation Army directed by Xi Jinping. (The Chinese guided missile destroyer that used an offensive military laser against a Royal Australian Air Force patrol aircraft off our coast last month is just the most recent, closest, graphic demonstration of this new normal.)

The problem is obvious. The ADF is too small to meet these rolling, simultaneous and growing demands on its skilled people and on the expensive, complex machines and systems that it buys and operates while doing what it must to succeed in war. It’s being corroded and torn apart by overuse of small groups of valuable skilled people, many for tasks their highly developed military abilities aren’t really relevant to.

Defence leaders are making this even more acute by the structural position they take to doing anything other than preparing for and conducting military operations involving lethal force—war. Defence’s mantra for decades has been that ‘Defence structures for war and adapts for peace’. National and regional ‘assistance’ is to be provided with the people and machines acquired for the ‘core task’ of warfighting. To do anything differently, the mantra goes, is to distract the military from its core mission and dilute the force.

That’s a compelling logic, except that it pretends the military can be an island to itself, funded by the Australian people and elegantly preparing for or doing the single most critical thing it is needed for—deterring or prevailing in war—while politely refusing other demands that get in the way. Even amid the horrific physical demonstration by Putin that wars are not historical anachronisms, our military simply cannot just structure for war and adapt to do anything else that a government and our nation requires.

That’s because rolling national and regional disasters and events—pandemics, fires, floods and regional instability—are growing in intensity and frequency. And when a crisis strikes, any Australian prime minister (and more and more often multiple premiers, chief ministers and governments in our region) see a role for the ADF—regardless of Defence’s desires to protect its ‘preparedness and readiness’ for core military operations. The government made clear in its 2020 defence strategic update that it sees these tasks as core Defence business. Whatever internal pressures and preferences there may be inside the Russell Hill complex, Defence doesn’t say ‘no’ when the prime minister asks.

Defence has caught itself in a dangerous spiral of denying that its structure, size, equipment and training are insufficient to meet its growing military and non-military tasks while being unable to convince political leaders it can’t do what the nation requires—whether that’s a public health emergency, bushfire, flood or regional disaster.

Defence would prefer that ‘somebody else’ do these things. And that’s absolutely right—Australia needs to invest in greater resilience in multiple parts of government and private sector operations to deal with the disrupted future we know is already here.

But the empirical fact is that even if other agencies, organisations and people step up in crises, there’s still a growing gap the military will need to plug. Because the essential value that ‘sending in the ADF’ brings to any prime minister—and the Australian public—is that it is a disciplined and trained body of men and women who can be ordered to do things rapidly and relied upon to do new tasks intelligently and well. Turning up fast and getting to work effectively has a value all of its own when it comes to reassurance, resilience and recovery. There are few other levers and tools available to our national leaders that have these attributes.

A new ‘civil disaster assistance organisation’ would need to build a separate support system and enterprise—including training, contracting, sustainment, facilities and logistics arrangements—instead of just blistering onto Defence’s larger business enterprise. That would be expensive, duplicative and slow, and the result would not be an immediately deployable, disciplined group of people able to be ordered to do what is required like the ADF.

So, the answer is a sea change in assumptions about what Defence is resourced, scaled and structured to do—and what it buys and trains to operate. Radical shifts in mindset come from an openness to admit that key assumptions behind what you’re doing have changed. Failure comes from doing the same thing when the environment you’re operating in has changed.

Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz is an example of someone who has realised this in a big way over a matter of days, not years. He announced radical changes to decades-long policy and budgeting directions for Germany’s military days after Putin began his war in Ukraine. Scholz understood that ‘we are living in a new era, and the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before’. We should be encouraged by his and others’ willingness to change when the times demand it.

The time is right for an Australian political leader—the prime minister or defence minister—to make the case to give Defence new funding, to be used only to grow a new part of its organisation with a core mission of helping Australia cope with the increasing number of domestic and regional crises our disrupted future environment has in store for us.

That will mean recruiting people for this new mission, acquiring different (cheaper, less complex, commercial-standard) equipment like helicopters and even ships (along the lines of the Pacific support vessel already planned), all while recognising the sense of purpose that people recruited for these essential tasks will feel.

The result will be a defence force that can provide options for assistance in times of national and regional need to this and future governments, without corroding the increasingly urgent efforts to have a more powerful military able to both deter others from war and, with our partner and allies, to prevail in war should deterrence fail.

I doubt there would be anything but celebration and relief from the broad Australian public if funding for a new ‘national and regional assistance command’ is provided in the next budget. Once it starts to operate, those officials and military personnel who’ve defended the now broken ‘structure for war, adapt for peace’ mantra might be thankful. Because they’ll be able to do what the nation demands without being torn in two, or failing, while doing so.