Requiring ‘balance’ in the ADF’s force structure is lazy thinking

The old defence dictum that talking dollars is a necessary condition for talking policy is applied in spades in Hugh White’s most recent book. After a discussion in the early chapters of our strategic challenges and the dangers we might have to confront, Hugh turns his mind to the investment in defence capability required to deal with them.

The section starts with a splendid introductory chapter on how decision-makers should think about defence capability—and notes that they all too often don’t. It ought to be required reading for defence planners (my ANU students will certainly be reading it). Most of my favourite rant topics are in there, including the significant extra cost of the last few percentage points of capability, the benefit of additional numbers (‘quantity has a quality all its own’) and the way in which cultural preferences within the three services skews the force structure away from purely strategic considerations. It would have been nice to see the sunk cost fallacy get a run too, especially given how strongly it influences defence decision-making, but you can’t have everything.

Hugh reserves particular criticism for the iconic ‘balanced force’ notion, and he’s right to do so. Requiring balance in force structuring is lazy thinking. After all, there’s no law of nature that says a balanced force will better meet strategic challenges than one in which certain capabilities are emphasised. It makes far more sense to think hard about the capabilities that will best enable our forces to prosecute the most vital missions. As Hugh notes, ‘In war there are no prizes for second place’.

Nonetheless, ‘balanced force’ has a certain rhetorical appeal that makes for a useful argument at defence committee tables and lets each of the services take its share of resources. The enduring attraction of the argument means that the ADF of today (or even 20 years from now) would be readily recognisable to defence planners from the Menzies government. That’s despite sweeping technological and strategic changes to the world the ADF operates in.

A great thinker like John Stuart Mill wouldn’t have fallen for balance as an end in itself. As he wrote in a different context:

I have heard a great deal, Sir, about the balance of the Constitution. What this means, I confess myself to be in ignorance. One would think it must be something unspeakably excellent, judging from the encomiums which are heaped upon it. It is in truth a mere metaphor. There seems to be something singularly captivating in the word balance: as if, because any thing is called a balance, it must, for that reason, be necessarily good.

So balance has to go. In that, the force structure ideas in this book aren’t entirely new. Rather, they’re refinements of ideas Hugh put forward in his 2009 Lowy Institute paper A focused force. (My modest contribution was the suggested use of the positively connoted word ‘focus’ to rhetorically counter ‘balance’.)  As he should, he starts with the vital military roles identified earlier and then tailors a force to deliver the desired outcomes. The major role of the ADF in this vision is to defend Australia itself—a territory-based approach that has little time for expeditionary adventurism or the long-distance deployment of ADF platforms.

The navy would get the biggest overhaul, with a submarine force greatly increased in numbers and augmented by other sea-denial weapons such as mines and land-based anti-shipping missiles. Investment in those would be at the expense of large and expensive surface combatants. I think the basic notion is right. I argued at the recent ASPI ‘War in 2025’ conference that large and slow multibillion-dollar platforms constrained to a two-dimensional surface have little future in the 21st century. In fact I think we passed that point decades ago, but, in the absence of a large-scale maritime conflict between near-peers since 1945, nobody noticed.

My one criticism of the sea-denial-focused navy being proposed is that it’s too submarine heavy at 24 to 32 boats. While Hugh and I agree that $3 billion surface vessels are a non-starter, I still see an important role for a large number of smaller vessels (including unmanned ones), especially in the anti-submarine warfare role. ‘Corvettes for everyone’ was my shorthand response when asked about my prescription for maritime forces at ASPI’s conference—shorthand for a few eggs in each of many baskets. Dispersed and numerous forces are much harder to defeat than a force that can only afford to lose one or two major units before losing a lot of its combat mass.

Another headline force-structure story in How to defend Australia is a reworking of the army to make it fit for defeating a large-scale lodgement of adversary forces on our territory. That’s a significant change of focus from the amphibious expeditionary approach that has occupied a lot of recent thinking. (I’m okay with scaling back on amphibiosity.) Perhaps realising that having an army that’s large, mobile and hardened enough to fight back a determined adversary presents a real challenge, the book’s prescription is for long-range missile forces to bombard any landing area.

I might be doing Hugh a disservice here, but I think the land forces chapter is included more out of a sense of completeness than a heart-felt conviction about the likelihood of prevailing in land battles on our shores. Rather than ‘fight them on the beaches’, I get a sense that the underlying vision is more ‘Battle of Britain’, in which a would-be invader is defeated at sea and by never being able to establish air superiority. The chapter on the air force reinforces that feeling by arguing for 200 fighter aircraft backed by substantial support forces and surface-to-air missile systems. I don’t have a lot to argue about there—air forces almost by construction fit the ‘numerous and dispersed’ model I think necessary in modern warfare.

I don’t know how confident Hugh is that anyone will be prepared to take a hard look at the roughly $250 billion of investment that will go into the defence forces in the next 20 years and make those hard decisions. I wouldn’t bet on it—there would be too many losers for it to be palatable to conservative service chiefs and to our political class with their narrow three-year (at best) horizon. The current lack of urgency to deliver major maritime platforms betrays a lack of strategic acumen.

While I don’t agree with all of Hugh’s prescriptions, I can’t argue with the idea that we need to be doing much more thinking rather than sleepwalking towards a dangerous future.