Policy Briefs | 29 March 2012

Inflection point: The Australian Defence Force after Afghanistan

In every era there are inflection points which require long-established institutions to re-evaluate their goals, strategy, structure and resource allocations to ensure their future health and relevance. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is no exception.

  • Alan Dupont

In every era there are inflection points which require long-established institutions to re-evaluate their goals, strategy, structure and resource allocations to ensure their future health and relevance. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is no exception.

  • Alan Dupont
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Key Findings

  • The Australian Defence Force requires re-evaluation of its goals, strategy, structure, and resources as it transitions form the Afghanistan conflict.
  • To enable the ADF to meet the challenges of the future there ought to be a much more informed and open discussion about defence strategy.
  • The Defence budget should divert funding from submarines and joint strike fighters to the Army who will be the most likely to deploy to operations within Australia’s region.

Executive Summary

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WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

In every era there are inflection points which require long-established institutions to re-evaluate their goals, strategy, structure and resource allocations to ensure their future health and relevance. As a major organ of state, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is no exception.

The projected withdrawal of Australian forces from Afghanistan will constitute a watershed for the ADF. After a similar period of high-tempo operations, the ADF lapsed into a post-Vietnam period of stasis that produced a hollowing out of the Army, a loss of hard-won counter-insurgency skills, and the failure to develop a truly integrated joint force, leaving Australia ill-equipped to handle the challenges of the 21st century. There is a real danger that post-Afghanistan uncertainty about future strategic challenges will lead to a similar period of drift and misplaced spending.

However, the risks of failing to adapt to new security circumstances are especially high for the ADF since there is no more important task than defence of the nation.  With Afghanistan’s end game in sight, and a new Defence White Paper on the horizon, it is time for a vigorous public debate about the priorities of the ADF so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the post-Vietnam period and prepare for the wrong conflicts, made worse by ill-conceived strategy and chronic underfunding.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

Preparing for major interstate conflicts should not be the principal determinant of the structure, funding and future capabilities of the ADF, since irregular wars are likely to be more prevalent and require a robust national response. Australia needs either to increase Defence funding or redirect some of the money currently invested in submarines and strike aircraft to other capability priorities identified in the Defence White Paper and accompanying Defence Capability Plan. The next White Paper should include a clearly articulated defence strategy and give greater emphasis to working more closely with our Asian neighbours.