Force expansion and warning time (part I)

The twin notions of force expansion and warning time have been integral to Australian defence planning since the 1970s. Yet over the years the focus on these issues has been neither strong nor consistent. Today, in the new age of Asia, we have to ask if these ideas are still relevant. In the first part of this post, I explore their conceptual foundations and history; in the second, I’ll draw some conclusions for defence policy, including ideas that the 2013 Defence White Paper could usefully pick up.

Time is often the neglected dimension of defence planning, yet its consideration is central to practical defence decision-making, including the allocation of resources. Two examples illustrate the principle. First, readiness and sustainability can be major consumers of resources, so not all elements of a defence force are kept at short notice for operations. There will usually be a spectrum of preparedness: counterterrorist forces able to move within hours at one end of the range, and reserve forces mostly able to move only after many months at the other. Second is the idea of reconstitution or mobilisation: when threats emerge, the defence force will be expanded and, conversely, when threats go away, as at the end of the World Wars and the Cold War, forces will be reduced. So time is an important parameter in a government’s approach to defence policy and risk management.

In Australia’s case, the end of the war in Vietnam called for fresh thinking about defence policy. The emerging ideas of the Defence of Australia filled some of this gap, but there was a need also for an analytical basis from which to argue for levels of defence funding—else the prospective budget cuts at a time of evident ‘low threat’ would have been harsh. This led the then deputy secretary, Gordon Blakers, to develop the concept of the core force and expansion base. In brief, a force-in-being would evolve which would both meet the demands of those lesser contingencies that might arise in the shorter term, and be the base from which expansion would occur in the event of major strategic deterioration. Intelligence would be critical in assessing warning time and ensuring that expansion would be timely.

These ideas, first formally set out in the 1976 Defence White Paper, attracted a lot of hostile incredulity. But it was the 1987 White Paper that spelt out how Australia was different from ‘its traditional friends and allies in the northern hemisphere’: not only was there the absence of motive and intent for major assault on Australia, but it would take many years for any plausible adversary to develop the necessary levels of capability and expertise. The 1994 White Paper reinforced this central message, while the 2000 White Paper focussed more on the shorter term, and for the most part left expansion base issues as implicit. In many respects, the 2009 White Paper set out an orthodox approach to warning and expansion—but it also seemed ambiguous about whether we should start to prepare now for seriously adverse strategic developments.

In summary, over these past forty or so years, the ideas of force expansion and warning time have underpinned much defence decision-making and yet have also become neglected. In the early years, attempts at quantitative analysis and mobilisation planning produced little of practical value—in part because there was no pressing need for such study, and any attempt at detail would have become quickly out of date. And in more recent years, the focus on current operations and the shorter term has mostly crowded out consideration of the longer term. Whether these ideas, conceived at a time of no direct threat to Australia and at the height of the Cold War, still matter in this new age of Asia will be the subject of the second post in this series.

Richard Brabin-Smith is a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.