Reader response: Reserves, force structure and budget cuts
14 Jan 2013|
The sappers demonstrated that they are as good as their regular army counter-parts by constructing ‘Patrol Base Panther’ during a major military exercise.  More than 30 Reserve soldiers supported by graders and plant equipment built ‘Patrol Base Panther’ as a staging area for battle group operations during Exercise Morshead Renascent which was conducted during 3-18 July.  The construction of Patrol Base Panther, which is identical to Coalition fortifications in Iraq and Afghanistan, marks a major milestone for 5 CER’s capability.  The Commanding Officer of 5 CER, Lieutenant Tara Bucknall said “building Patrol Base Panther was a golden opportunity to demonstrate that 5 CER is a highly-trained Reserve Engineer unit which has the same capacity as a regular army unit; albeit with longer planning time.”

In a recent post on force structure, Peter Layton dramatically highlighted the continuing tension between future capabilities and existing requirements. The problem is, of course, (as Andrew Davies likes to say) that there are a limited number of dollars, and each of them can only be spent once. This is a particular problem when it’s necessary to decide what equipment should be purchased. Similar considerations are also relevant when considering personnel.

It has been a long time (71 years) since Australia faced the prospect of being invaded, and this helps to go some way towards explaining the current structure of the forces.

It’s clear today that the prospect of Japanese invasion was more remote than was appreciated at the time—the Japanese discussed the possibility but the Army wasn’t at all keen on the idea. Nevertheless it was this ‘total war’ situation, together with the prospect of fighting island campaigns in the jungles of the Pacific, resulting in an enormous mobilisation. By 1943 the Army had swelled to more than a dozen divisions (11 infantry and 3 ‘armoured’); nearly 500,000 men, or more than ten times the size of today’s Army. As it turned out, there were far more people in uniform than the country could support. Additionally, manpower was needed for other vital tasks, such as growing food and supporting the general Allied war effort. That’s why, within a year, a decision was taken to significantly reduce the size of the armed forces in general and the Army in particular.

It took the fear of the Cold War turning ‘hot’ to get Australia back into the ‘big Army business’.  In 1951 a three-month compulsory national service requirement was reintroduced. This continued to provide a very large Reserve force until a revised selective scheme (requiring 2 years continuous service) was implemented in 1964. The regular soldiers had wrested power away from the militia. Because there was general recognition the country no longer faced a direct threat, the Army was restructured to fight expeditionary operations overseas.

The decision to send these conscripts to serve in Vietnam became, however, increasingly unpopular and in 1972, to considerable fanfare, Gough Whitlam scrapped this scheme the day after he was elected (even though by that time no nasho’s were serving overseas). Despite the occasional call for some form of national service, since that date no government has ever seriously considered any form of compulsory military scheme. The focus of the Reserves has, similarly, gradually begun to shift from its earlier role of providing an expansion base to a new one of swelling out active units or, alternately, operating in less demanding roles.

This system has evolved to suit almost everybody. The electorate isn’t agitated over national service; the regular military has been able to ensure that pay and conditions are attractive enough for volunteers; and there’s been increased incorporation of reservists. But that doesn’t mean it’s sacrosanct. One of the key reasons the system has been working is that in the past there’s been (although only just) enough money to keep the structure working soundly.

That’s no longer the case. Just as with equipment dollars, each personnel dollar can only be spent once. There isn’t enough to go around. Something has to give, and it’s not going to be the politicians. They’ve decided other priorities well and truly trump Defence.

In November last year Lieutenant General David Morrison, the Chief of Army, gave a speech at the University of Canberra. He emphasised that the current structure of three regular brigades (plus special forces) is already verging on the edge of the capability envelope. Additional cuts would be, he indicated, unsustainable. Unfortunately though, at an ASPI address a couple of months earlier, Air Marshal Geoff Brown had made it equally clear that he doesn’t believe the RAAF could absorb further cuts either. Indeed, with the likely increase in the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter it appears as if, rather then being the source of extra savings, the Air Force is likely to be demanding more money. And although the Navy (under Vice Admiral Ray Griggs) will soon set sail in their new surface combatants, the replacement submarine has already developed all the characteristics of a seriously problematic acquisition program. And that’s even before a decision has been made on which option is to be pursued.

What makes it more unlikely such competing demands will be resolved amicably is the current economic and political situation. Neither the government nor opposition are going to find any way of funding these compelling demands.

In this environment, where hard choices have to be made, it seems likely that the key decisions will not simply be about equipment choices. Cutting personnel costs will be vital. Because they’re sensible, the drafters of the new White Paper are going to steer well clear of any prescriptions about exactly which capabilities should be dropped from the order of battle. Nevertheless, increased reliance on some form of part-time force would appear to be the only way in which the military will be able to match the conundrum of decreasing resources at a time of increased ambition.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.