Force Structure 102: getting the balance right?
15 Jan 2013|

Balancing the force?

The next White Paper’s conclusions on the overall force balance will be closely studied. While whether current or future wars receive priority and the numbers of wars to be fought concurrently might be big strategic decisions, it’s the force structure decisions that will identify the big financial winners from the White Paper.

There is a wonderful myth in Australian defence planning that the correct force structure is some ideal ‘balanced’ force. It’s myth mainly because everybody has their own unique idea of the ‘right’ balance. Rather than being permanent, the balance sensibly changes overtime as people consider the emerging circumstances and decide what to focus on. Each White Paper in ways large or small rebalances the ADF. The last White Paper’s decision to build 12 submarines was one such rebalancing.

In simple terms, military forces can do many things, but there are really only three broad types of wars they can be organised for: civil wars (including counterinsurgency), conventional interstate wars and nuclear wars. The weighting of the force between the various types of war is one of the balancing criteria.

One option is to prepare a force that is capable in all aspects of warfare. This ‘spread evenly’ option is for those who really do think the future is uncertain. If you don’t know what will happen, it makes sense to invest across the board to have capabilities useful in whichever future you find yourself. There are particular techniques to use to sensibly plan such force structures, but a problem with this option is that the investment is thinly spread and the force created potentially lacks depth for particular short notice events. For such crises, the force devised may be good qualitatively but could lack numbers, and quantity has a quality all of its own. To be viable, this approach needs to carefully watch for indicators of strategic change and to evolve a timely response. This is inherently not easy for large bureaucracies.

The alternative then is to favour one type of war over the others in the balance of investment. In effect, a punt is taken on what the future will be. By so doing, you won’t be prepared for all possible futures but maybe those other ones won’t arise. This is the most common path chosen—even if hope is not a strategy. Of course, for some of us we can ‘outsource’ some of the possible future wars to our more powerful allies—as we do with the United States and its nuclear umbrella.

There are some who favour weighting towards the civil war option. They focus on the concept of persistent war, where low-intensity conflicts bubble on for years and where intervention by external forces—that’s us—in some form is deemed inevitable. This gloomy judgment has some logic behind it. In the last 20 years civil wars have been the most common form of conflict and the next forty years look likely to be similar—at least in an historical extrapolation—with sub-Saharan Africa the most likely theatre of operations, although parts of the East and South Asia are also possibilities. A problem with such interventions is that while there may be good moral justifications, the strategic rational can be weak. These are mostly optional ‘wars of choice’ that we invite ourselves along to.

Civil war options are seen by some as favouring land forces. As the Iraq War showed, large numbers of troops on the ground can be important and, once troop rotation for these long conflicts is considered, sizeable land forces seem essential. Well maybe—it depends on your intervention objectives and strategy. There are now those who think that actively helping some favoured local ground force to win might be better. The resulting peace may be messy but then again the alternative ‘Iraq approach’ left a rather unstable country also—and at a much higher cost to the intervening forces. If intervening to help others win, then airpower proved successful in the Libyan conflict while there are other indirect alternatives available using Special Forces. Mali appears to be next for this treatment.

Opposing this are those who favour interstate wars. Civil wars might be more likely but interstate wars, even if becoming rare, are more important. In this view it’s wiser for your military insurance policy money to be spent preparing for a conflict that, if it happens, may have really serious consequences for the nation. This is a reasonable argument; interstate wars have happened before and they could plausibly happen again. Although, because democracies evidently don’t make war on each other, and the number of democracies is gradually increasing, finding an opponent to make an interstate war against requires going progressively further and further from Australia. Interstate wars are held to favour naval and air forces, if only because Robert Gates, the recent US Defence Secretary, cautioned that large-scale land forces have no sensible role in big wars on the Asian continent. A problem with this approach is that a lot of money might be spent building a force structure of little relevance to real world problems that subsequently arise. There might be high self-inflicted opportunity costs.

In the 1990s some thought that having a force structure able to fight interstate wars meant that civil wars could be also easily handled. That idea died in the 2000s. America’s armed forces comprehensively destroyed Saddam’s military but the force structure that won that brief interstate war was quite unsuitable for the civil conflict that followed. The US needed to seriously rebalance its force structure to prevail. This message underlay Rupert Smith’s ‘war amongst the people’ concept; these new wars called for a different force structure to the older interstate wars between the peoples. One size does not fit all.

Which brings us nuclear wars. Except in very lopsided instances, only deterrence makes sense when contemplating nuclear wars but this is an area even middle powers can usefully contribute to. Australia’s hosting of the Joint Facilities is part of this in providing situational awareness for US conventional and nuclear forces, while at the other end of the burden-sharing spectrum is Germany’s strike aircraft standing alert with US-shared thermonuclear bombs. Pakistan and North Korea now loom large in our thinking mainly because of nuclear weapons. North Korea may only have a few, but its erratic behaviour multiplies their significance. Pakistan with perhaps the world’s fourth largest nuclear stockpile suffers from internal turbulence that makes the country of concern to all. Spending to deter or prevent nuclear war can be seen as the ultimate insurance policy against a really bad outcome.

The 2009 White Paper punted for interstate war, perhaps best seen as a triumph of nostalgia for past times over contemporary realities. For the life of the White Paper the ADF was deeply involved in fighting a civil war in Afghanistan – to say nothing of peacekeeping in East Timor – but the White Paper determined civil wars were of little import in the force structure balance. Moreover, this White Paper famously fretted about a potential conflict with China while simultaneously pretending that nuclear weapons did not exist. In imagining a scenario worse than the darkest days of the Cold War—an open conflict between the two major powers—the dominance of nuclear weapons in shaping outcomes was overlooked in favour of such a conflict taking the form of conventional interstate conflict. This is not an approach that hard-headed realists would advise.

The 2013 White Paper will though revisit the wistful 2009 determination. In this forthcoming battle for the next White Paper’s budget allocations, which balance of investment option will triumph? Who will be the winners and losers both between and within the Services? This will depend in no small way on which vision of future war prevails—at least until the White Paper after next?

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW. Image courtesy of Flickr user hans s.