Peter Layton’s recent post raises some important questions about force structure but ultimately comes up with an overly simplified characterisation of the alternatives.
Peter describes the two ends of the force structure continuum in overly stark terms, and the reality is far more nuanced. The vast majority of Australia’s operational deployments have been multi-national activities, so describing one end of the continuum as conducting independent operations is simply not valid—especially in an increasingly networked world.
Aside from Australia’s operations in the South West Pacific during World War II, Australia’s operational deployments also tend be dominated by only one of the three services. A good example of this is the Timor-Leste INTERFET operation. As a consequence, Australia doesn’t have a tradition of deploying ‘balanced’ joint forces. To be sure, our tactical force contributions to US-led coalitions have tended to be employed under service component lines as Peter suggests. But this isn’t the other end of the force structure spectrum.
In fact, I’m not convinced that the continuum is a simple two-dimensional model and that we must once again chose a point on it to continue our force structure evolution. Given the financial constraints and competing pressures, the United States—as the pre-eminent global power—is entering a phase where it would prefer to provide support to regional coalitions rather than take the lead in every instance (Libya was an example of that). The emergence of regionally-based coalitions, in my view, presents an additional dimension to Australia’s force structure debate.
As we think about such a scenario, it’s worth reflecting on the immediate aftermath of INTERFET some 12 years ago now. Then, the discussion was very much about restructuring the ADF to be in a position to routinely command multinational coalitions in regional contingencies. Sadly, many of the force-level capabilities, including a Deployable Joint Task Force Headquarters, have withered away over the intervening decade.
Events in Libya and Mali are symptomatic of this. If this same principle applies to the Indo-Pacific region, then Australia had better get ready to take the lead for the next regional contingency that arises, be it in response to another earthquake, breakdown in civil society or other scenario requiring the deployment of Australian forces.
As an industrialised country that is committed to the security, stability and cohesion of our immediate neighbourhood and beyond, it’s entirely appropriate for Australia to restructure to be able to lead and provide force-level support to regional coalitions.
This can be achieved not only in the military domain but also in the diplomatic, development and law enforcement domains. Significant advances have been made over the last ten years, which has seen the development of deployable capabilities such as the Australian Federal Police’s International Deployment Group and AusAID’s Australian Civilian Corps. And it’s this type of national capability that the United States and our regional security partners would certainly value.
Marcus Fielding recently completed 28 years of full-time service with the Australian Army that included operational deployments to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Haiti, East Timor and Iraq. He is presently working on an analysis of the ADF’s operational deployments over the last 127 years.