Force Structure 101
8 Jan 2013|
More tooth than tail?

Behind every book, article and blog post about contemporary defence issues, there lurks the author’s view of what is the ADF’s ‘correct’ force structure. This is never more evident than when there’s a White Paper in the wings. White papers usually represent the outcomes of numerous clashes between competing force structure options. Accordingly, advocates of various alternatives are out in force, both in public and behind closed doors, to try to influence the final result in their favour, This is especially so today when money and resources are scarce.

At the Cabinet level, force structure represents how the Defence budget is allocated—the ‘balance of investment’ in budgeting terms. When funds are limited, the first decision is which gets priority: the current force or the future force? We’ve faced this dilemma before. In the 1990s governments decided to fund the future force at the expense of the current one. This philosophy underpinned both the Keating Government’s 1991 Force Structure Review and the Howard Government’s later 1997 Defence Reform Program. At the time it seemed reasonable enough—there was no war and none threatening so the budget was skewed towards the future, when there might be. Personnel and operating costs were cut to free up funding for new equipment.

Smaller operating budgets meant less flying hours, less steaming days and less track miles. Reduced personnel costs meant a smaller Defence workforce. There was also considerable outsourcing of the ‘tail’, cutting of logistic stocks and transfer of functions to the part-time Reserve. Not surprisingly, when an actual operation like Timor-Leste turned up, where the current force rather than a future abstraction actually had to show up, the Army had worries over both manning the deployment over the longer term as its personnel rotation base had been cut, and in the sustained support of the deployed forces. With Navy the impact was subtler; as the Rizzo Review found, outsourcing to gain efficiencies cut Navy’s and DMO’s professional skills, contributed to the poor preparedness of Navy ships a decade later.

But what would happen if it the situation was reversed, and the emphasis was instead on the current force at the expense of the future one? In that case, we could find ourselves lacking the modern equipment needed to fight and win the actual war that eventuates. This is a matter of delicate timing. In the Reagan defence build-up of the 1980s, for example, the US Navy punted on the current force and invested in improved training, increased readiness and large stocks of weapons and focussed on winning the anticipated near-term battle with the Ruskies. The trouble was that Soviet leaders had no intention of going to war. The current force focus cost a lot but achieved little that proved enduring.

On the other hand, the USAF spent its cash preparing for a future war, investing heavily in precision attack systems and building new aircraft like the F-117, F-15E and the E-8 JSTARS. Unlike the USN, the USAF would not have been ready for a war with the Soviets in 1985. But by 1991 they had a super-modern force that completely annihilated the Iraqi military.

Even once a choice has been made between prioritising the current and the future force, there are other decisions to make; how many wars do you want to be prepared to fight, for how long and where? If you plan for one conflict only, the force can have more ‘teeth’ and be more capable with more efficient logistics gained through having a concentration of effort. With multiple simultaneous conflicts, the ‘teeth’ are constrained by the much deeper support tail required to sustain geographically spread deployments. Those sorts of questions are routine for American planners—and led to their ‘two major wars’ doctrine. ‘How many wars’ might seem a strange question for a middle power like Australia, but the last decade shows that we could be simultaneously involved in two wars and two substantial operational deployments.

The planned duration of a war is an important consideration, although it can be very different from the actual duration, as recent conflicts have amply demonstrated. If a short war is anticipated, the focus can be on the ‘teeth’ as the ‘tail’ is much less important. The combat force becomes a ‘one-shot wonder’ with little in reserve or in the training pipeline. For a long war, a larger and more costly logistic system needs to be built up, a training system maintained while combat is underway and sufficient trained personnel held in reserve to allow rotations into theatre.

There are then two ‘extreme’ choices for a force structure. At one end of the continuum is a highly capable fighting force focused on winning a single short, quick war, and with a strategy and doctrine to match. At the other is a force with constrained capability that’s designed around doing a few military tasks well but is well-resourced in terms of numbers of personnel and logistics, allowing multiple protracted deployments to be sustained. The key discriminator between them is the teeth-to-tail ratio.

‘Increasing the teeth to tail ratio’ is sometimes used as a synonym for ‘reducing waste in defence spending’ (PDF). To an extent that can be true but, as the discussion here shows, it’s also effectively making some serious policy decisions about the nature of wars being prepared for. These are the sort of issues that the next Defence White Paper will have to deal with.

What will the next Defence White Paper choose? Will it stress funding the future force or the current force? Will it opt for a one short war force or a multiple conflict, long war force? Choose a high teeth-to-tail ratio force or a low one? Which is best? There is actually no single right answer.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW. Image courtesy of Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar.