What is the strategic environment telling us about what the ADF needs to be able to do?
23 Jan 2013|

Afghan special police from the Provincial Response Company – Uruzgan (PRC–U) and Australian soldiers from the Special Operations Task Group continue to conduct partnered missions across southern Afghanistan as part of the transition of security responsibility from ISAF to Afghan control.

Andrew Davies has taken me to task on one part of my reply to Nic Stuart’s post on the use of reserve forces in the ADF. How do I plead? Not guilty, your Honour.

Apart from the discussion on the efficacy of Reserves, I made one simple point and I stand by that point. There is no point in coming up with single solutions such as a greater use of the Reserves, a sub or JSF or amphib-heavy force until there has been an assessment of the strategic environment. Rule No 1 for Force Structuring: It does not matter what you put in your force structure if you don’t know why you are force structuring.

An assessment of the strategic environment should and can produce an answer to the question that defence bureaucrats (in and out of uniform) have failed to address since I started looking at strategic guidance in 1976: What is it that you want the ADF to do? The consistent failure to answer this question effectively has produced decades of dysfunctional ADF force structure and inter-Service fighting. The failure by bureaucrats and politicians to link policy and strategy through some form of operational statement (ie what is it that the ADF is supposed to do) to tactics and materiel has meant that the ADF has never been able to operationally achieve the strategy (often implied) that emanates from policy. The only reason that this is not blindingly obvious is that Australia has not been tested. When the US was dominant and most world strategic problems occurred far, far away, perhaps this mattered less. Now it does matter.

Andrew has raised some other points that I would like to address in passing. I don’t believe that there is ‘some kind of Platonic ideal strategy out there waiting to be summoned’, nor do I think that there is ‘one true strategy’. But if strategists can’t come up with some strategy, why do we employ so many in Defence (PDF)?

Strategists have for years said that the unpredictable world defies a specific strategy, but that is a cop out of ginormous proportions. Unpredictability (or a lack of a specific threat) should lead to a strategy that gives rise to a broad based force structure. What I suspect happens is that strategists can clearly see this, but governments are unprepared to pay even for a modest 2% GDP broad based force structure such as Force 2030.

I do not ignore opportunity cost as claimed, nor do I deny the right of governments to spend as much as they like on Defence. But there’s no public accountability for governments, and let’s not pretend that there is. There’s no downside to removing monies from defence totally unrelated to the strategic environment—the current Government has just proved that. Have things got so much better and predictable in the strategic world since this Government argued for Force 2030 as the strategic answer in 2009 that they can now so dramatically cut the defence budget in 2012?

I don’t fully understand where Andrew is going on his point about ‘options’ and ‘one true path to security’. I agree that there isn’t one true path to security and there must be options. But at some stage, a real government must choose one course of action, which of course might be a mix of options. Surely in doing this, any responsible government would ask the question: What is the strategic environment telling us about what the ADF needs to be able to do?

As Andrew claims, I am not summing up any ‘top down’ approach. It’s far too convenient to put me in an inappropriate box and then ridicule the box. I’m stating a view that in order to conduct the force structure development process with any degree of integrity, it must start with the demands of the strategic environment which enables us to answer the simple question: What is it that you want the ADF to do? I don’t care whether it comes top down or bottom up! (PDF)

I enjoyed Andrew’s example of the ‘bottom-up’ approach for subs and it seems internally consistent. I just don’t see it as relevant to what I am talking about. What I am talking about is, in doing force structure, you must start with the strategic environment which tells you what the ADF must be able to do operationally even if there is no specific threat. A force structure can then be matched to the demands of the strategic environment (even if it is a broad based structure due to uncertainty) and this does not even vaguely imply infinite resources. Having linked strategy to tactics through some operational statement a number of times, (see one version here, PDF).

I reckon it comes to about 2% of GDP (but spent consistently over decades, not just once) and looks like Force 2030, and I thought that Andrew agreed with this and called it a ‘medium level hedging strategy for the ADF’. If you know what the strategic environment demands, then government decides if it is going to fund it and what the risk of not funding it is. If you don’t know why you are force structuring, it doesn’t really matter what you do.

I did not understand Andrew’s point about moral hazard in this context, but I reckon that there’s a moral issue for any government that’s prepared to take risk with the security of Australia, and not explain that risk fully to voters.

Jim Molan is a retired Major General in the Australian Army and is a commentator on defence and security issues. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.