The Australian Defence Force must find a new balance
23 Mar 2020|

It’s time to upend the idea of a ‘balanced force’ in Australian defence policy.

Defence leaders have talked for decades about the 60,000-person ADF as a balanced force, with a ­little bit of something to do many things.

Why break away from it now? Well, as economist Paul Samuelson said, ‘When events change, I change my mind.’ Since the government’s 2016 defence white paper, we’ve seen events that change the balanced force equation.

The national disaster that was our last bushfire season is one. Then there’s the rise of an empowered and assertive Chinese state with growing military means and a willingness to use them. America is now in explicit strategic and economic competition with China and Russia, while also acting more transactionally and selfishly than at any time since World War II. And now the coronavirus pandemic is demonstrating vulnerabilities across national and global economies and supply chains, from toilet paper to supercars like McLarens.

Defence needs to play a much bigger role in responding to national and regional disasters and the ADF needs greater offensive firepower, sooner than the future force in the white paper will eventually deliver.

Wedded to the balanced force notion, Defence’s instinct will be to minimise the impact that the prime minister’s drive on disaster response capabilities has on ADF plans and structures. The motive will be good—the ADF does need to focus on warfighting, given our worsening strategic environment—but the result will be perversely bad.

Minimising change will just lead to Defence doing what it did this last fire season in a slightly better planned, better organised and smoother way and applying the same conceptual framework to other disasters, like the current pandemic. Because Defence will be central to what the Commonwealth does differently, the net effect will be a slightly better organised and planned but still disastrous national fire season in our near future. That’s an outcome nobody can want.

Seeking to minimise the impact of the twin new demands on Defence—to be more central in domestic and regional disaster response, and to have more offensive power to be part of deterring Chinese military power—simply sets the ADF up to fail in both tasks. The balanced force will deliver a ‘reverse Goldilocks’—a force that is not too hot, not too cold, but unfortunately not just right.

Worst of all, Defence people and equipment not trained in or designed for responding to bushfires or other natural disasters (like pandemics) may become part of the problem, not part of the solution. An example is the ADF’s accidental sparking of the giant fire in Namadgi National Park that threatened Canberra when a military helicopter was used in an unexpected role.

It’s time to break with the idea that our defence capabilities are ‘structured for war, adapted for peace’. Natural and man-made disasters—whether fires, floods or epidemics—will be more frequent and more damaging in Australia, the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. Doing disaster response well requires organisation, training and focused capabilities. Volunteer and state and territory capabilities will remain key, but they will not be sufficient—as we have seen. So, Defence has an enduring role to play in our domestic and regional future.

Taking the decision, as ASPI’s Peter Jennings has suggested, to set up a disaster response command within Defence will start to provide the framework to contribute to the nation’s ability to mitigate the damage of natural disasters. But it will need to bring some real capabilities along. There’s an opportunity here demonstrated in the Pentagon’s new budget plan: some systems acquired for the previous strategic era are just not useful in our new era.

The C-27J Spartan is an example. Defence acquired 10 of these new aircraft as ‘battlefield airlifters’ to fly cargo and people into austere, difficult airstrips close to the fighting.

But that time is over. They’re built to go against the insurgent and terrorist adversaries or weak state militaries we’ve seen in recent decades and are unlikely to survive in the dense threat environment of a conflict with a peer-level state military like China’s. Trying to repurpose them for that sort of conflict would drive up their operating costs beyond what is sensible.

Defence could avoid building and operating a ‘strategic orphan’ capability by offering up the Spartans as a core contribution to the domestic and regional disaster response. They could also be made available for Pacific step-up tasks. This positive contribution to the nation’s needs and to the prime minister’s agenda would cost less than the current plan for the C-27Js.

Abandoning the ambition to deploy these aircraft into a military threat environment that would be difficult to survive will mean no longer having to invest in complex and expensive electronic warfare self-defence systems or battlefield airlift training for crew. The political value to the government and Defence from such a clear move to step up disaster response capabilities would be significant, because the capability lift brought from this standing fleet would be immediate.

Breaking the balanced force means structuring a small part of Defence for disaster response, and then ruthlessly prioritising the larger part of the organisation for warfighting. It will make it easier to argue the budget case for investment in new offensive power—all the weapons that the ships, aircraft and land vehicles in the white paper don’t yet have. And it will make it less likely that the warfighting force will be organ-harvested to pay for and do disaster response.

Looked at with the blinkers of the balanced force removed, there will be other capabilities whose reason for being are now not clear. If they aren’t useful for warfighting and can’t be repurposed for disaster response, they should simply be let go.

How far Defence’s current review may go along this path isn’t clear, but we’ll probably see soon. It’s a necessary shift and it will help Defence be a positive contributor to the domestic and regional security challenges we face.