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Canberra's 9/11 decade: The ADF

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COMMENTS

12 September 2011 14:19

For the ADF, the 9/11 decade involved the most diverse set of deployments and highest operational tempo since Vietnam. The different demands made on the ADF reached beyond the alliance and the US war on terror to complex issues of neighbourhood and region and also to the strategic choices of the Asian century.

The starting date for this spread of operations is the deployment to East Timor in 1999 rather than the new era that dawned on that clear September day in New York and Washington in 2001. Indeed, Osama bin Laden said Australia's role in taking East Timor from Indonesia made Australia a legitimate target. Beginning with East Timor helps to illustrate the big forces that have tugged at and even tormented the ADF over a dozen years.

Three extremely different sets of demands have pulled at the ADF: the wars of the US alliance, the responsibilities in the Melanesian Arc and the tough planning choices emerging along with Asia's giants.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

The demands of waging war have drawn Australia even deeper into the alliance with the US, and the Afghanistan conflict has also opened up a new relationship with NATO. Two excruciating and extended conflicts have put no real dent in the deep commitment of Australia's people and polity to the alliance. The one dip in popularity that occurred was repaired after George W Bush departed.

For the ADF, both Iraq and Afghanistan have had some similarities with Vietnam. The ADF has again served as a junior alliance partner with the operations of army units confined to one province. In Vietnam, the Australian Army judged that it had done its allotted task and won the war in its specific part of the country; the aim in Afghanistan now is the same.

The ADF avoided the great soul-searching that tore at the US military after Vietnam, and aims to again emerge with its professional pride intact after Iraq and Afghanistan. Such tough pragmatism will be needed as coalition forces in Afghanistan stretch towards the 2014 exit. Plus, the end of this extended bout of expeditionary warfare will not diminish the demands already evident from the other pressures on the ADF during the 9/11 decade.

The Australian Arc

Call it the Australia Arc rather than the Melanesian Arc of Instability. It's more polite and is explicit about the power that takes responsibility for stability in the region. Under various operational titles, the ADF has been deployed as a garrison force in East Timor since 1999. And RAMSI in Solomon Islands has been running since 2003. The ADF is on its 25th rotation in the Solomons.

Through the 9/11 decade, the neighbourhood kept reaching out to remind Canberra of this thought: 'Australia needs to worry a little less about the small problems it has with big wars, and address some of the big problems that it has with small wars.' That elegant opening thought from Mark O'Neill's Lowy Paper was echoed by the former chief of Army, Peter Leahy, who expressed Army's frustration that 'Australia's strategic policy community has been unduly focused on the least likely fight'.

The Asian century

For Australia's defence planners, the immediate realities of terror and war in the 9/11 decade have sat uncomfortably beside the need to focus on what an ever-more powerful and richer Asia will demand in the decades ahead. The duality at times has produced a strangely divided defence debate, where important parts of the subject often have little connection with each other.

This mental juggling act will be on display again at the AUSMIN talks in San Francisco this week. Asia is driving huge spending projects — new generation planes, doubling the submarine fleet —  along with another bout of 'go-north-go-west' soul seeking with the ADF Posture Review.

All these demands have kept up the cash flow. The ADF budget grew from $13.85 billion in 2001-2 to $26.5 billion this financial year. (Back in 2001-2 that was 1.8% of GDP; this year, ditto.) Money never buys happiness, of course. For an ADF being pulled and pushed by so many demands, getting the budget is only the start of the 'choices and chances' dilemma: get today's job done while thinking about tomorrow's task. 

Defence was mugged in the May budget because it couldn't actually spend the cash as quickly as planned on kit. That problem is part of the reason for the blizzard of reviews swirling around Defence at the moment. Still, there are worse headaches than having difficulty burning through your budget. As Greg Sheridan wrote on Saturday, Stephen Smith has been telling friends privately that being Defence Minister is just like being Foreign Minister: 'except that you have cash, capacity and assets.'

The cash and capacity is partly a reward for what the ADF has been doing through the 9/11 decade. What gets used, gets rewarded. In the same way, it has been the era of Australia's special forces — this is a small empire which is growing. Last week, for instance, responsibility for maintaining parachute capability was transferred from Army Forces Command to Special Operations Command. In an institution with the sense of tradition that is the Australian Army, that amounts to a revolution.

The SAS went into Afghanistan in 2001 and will probably be the last out, deep into this decade. If Australia does perform an overwatch role beyond 2014, that job will be done by special forces (which have also sustained half of Australia's casualty deaths in Afghanistan).

The 9/11 decade has been demanding and traumatic for those on the front line of the ADF. But conflict always opens up opportunities for an officer corps and both grows and changes the bureaucracy. That is why the civilian or public service side of Defence has just experienced a mould-breaking moment at the very top — a 30-year Army veteran who was the inaugural commander of the Special Operations Command has just become Secretary of the Defence Department.  

Next time, Canberra's 9/11 decade: the Public Service.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.

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