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The military numbers game

11 Apr 2012 12:08

In his most recent Lowy lecture, Alan Dupont advocated a re-evaluation of the need for 12 submarines and 100 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) in light of the economic and strategic circumstances Defence is likely to face. His argument was not that there was no need for these hugely expensive platforms, but rather that the changing geostrategic circumstances since the last Defence White Paper called for a more fundamental review of the reasoning behind the quantity the Government plans to purchase.

This is entirely reasonable. But the difficulty has always been to understand the rationale by which Defence has determined the number of platforms it requires. Why do we need 12 submarines when we currently have six? Discussion as to how this figure was arrived at is not publicly available, either because the ADF's requirement for submarines is classified or because it wasn't based on a detailed study into such requirements and hence wouldn't stand up to public scrutiny. The problem is that we don't know.

COMMENTS

12 Apr 2012 08:52

I share Rodger Shanahan's suspicions about submarine arithmetic. I am sure that the number 12 was reached simply by doubling the number we ordered last time with the Collins class. And we bought six Collins because we had six Oberons before that. So yes, it was as arbitrary as the decision in 2000 to make provision for 100 Joint Strike Fighters. And yes, this is not good enough. 

But the problem goes deeper than Rodger perhaps believes, because it is not just about numbers. Here is Defence's deepest secret: there is no plan. 

There is no plan for how the ADF will be used to achieve Australia's strategic objectives. And that is because no one has decided what our strategic objectives are. In other words, we do not know what the ADF is supposed to do. That is why there is no systematic way to decide how many of anything we need. But even worse, it means there is no systematic way to decide what we need at all.

COMMENTS

12 Apr 2012 13:56

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

The answer to Rodger's question ('Why so many JSFs, subs?') is not difficult except in its political dimension. Which is a bit like saying that the health care problem in Australia could be easily solved if we could just get rid of the sick people.

We will not make real progress in defence policy until we recognise that governments (not the ADF, not funding, not the quality of the argument or the strategic situation) are the biggest problem in the security of Australia. This is because there is absolutely no incentive for governments to be any clearer on strategic issues than they are at the moment. The result is as Rodger pointed out: voters don't know why governments do things in defence so we cannot assess government performance and therefore cannot hold them accountable.

COMMENTS

13 Apr 2012 13:54

Andrew Carr, an Associate Lecturer in ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, writes:

Jim Molan makes a good argument that the Government is confused about its defence priorities, but unfortunately that's also true of the wider defence community in Australia. In just the last year we've seen major papers suggesting we should make offensive capabilities against China a core focus and papers suggesting we shouldn't make China much of a focus at all in our defence planning.

COMMENTS

16 Apr 2012 14:59

Derek Woolner is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the ANU. He is co-author, with Peter Yule, of The Collins Class Submarine Story: Steel, Spies and Spin.

Rodger Shanahan asks for a more rigorous examination of the reasons for adopting 12 as the number of boats to be acquired by the future submarine project. Richard Brabin-Smith's post gives us a clear understanding of how such decisions on national security should be made, with due regard for strategic priorities.

In reality this process is seldom apparent to public gaze and observers can fairly conclude that rigorous analysis is often honoured in the breach. The strategic underpinnings for the future submarine are outlined in the 2009 Defence White Paper (p.63) but with a studied brevity that the Government has since expanded on only slightly.

COMMENTS

17 Apr 2012 10:25

Alan Wrigley is a former Deputy Secretary of the Defence Department (1982-85).

When I began work in Defence's newly established Force Development and Analysis division in mid-1975, the finishing touches were being added to the latest classified document intended to set out a basis for Australia's future force structure priorities and its 5-year expenditure plan. It contained words along the lines of 'Australia is among the world's developed countries least likely to be subject to a military attack in the foreseeable future'. Blunt, yes, but these words have stood the test of time.

The broad basis for setting future force priorities then was that our armed forces should include, at a core level, all the key military capabilities likely to be required to counter any military threat that might emerge in the future and that would require a long lead time to develop. This core force would provide an expansion base of military and technical skills that would greatly reduce the time to build a more capable force as any credible threat began to emerge.

Dispassionate consideration would, I believe, show that such a starting point remains at least as sound today as it was then.

COMMENTS

18 Apr 2012 10:13

It's over twenty-five years since Alan Wrigley left Defence, but his name is still one to conjure with on Russell Hill, and his splendid post shows why. It displays all the qualities that made it such a pleasure to see him in action. At a time when there seems room to doubt that those advising the Government on such matters know what they think and are willing to push their ideas, Alan's clarity and mordancy is a welcome reminder of how it can be done.

But I'm not sure that the 'core force' concept remains as sound a basis for defence planning today as Alan suggests. His argument is essentially that this concept has worked for the past four decades, so why shouldn't it work in future? The answer is that circumstances have changed.

The core force concept was developed in the mid-1970s in response to big shifts in Australia's strategic environment in the late 60s and early 70s. The most important of these was the US opening to China in 1972, which left America's primacy in Asia uncontested by any major Asian power. The consequences for Australia were plainly stated in the 1976 White Paper. Referring to the major powers of Asia – China, India and Japan – it said (para 2.19):

COMMENTS

19 Apr 2012 16:47

A few notes to keep our conversation about the 'military numbers game' ticking along. First, I want to thank John Birmingham for bringing the attention of Fairfax readers to our debate.

Second, ASPI has entered the submarine debate with a new Strategic Insights paper, 'Mind the Gap: Getting serious About Submarines'. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but it seems to come down pretty hard on the idea that the Government can have both a bespoke, domestically-produced new submarine design and a doubling of the overall fleet. In fact, if it wants the first, we may even end up with no operational submarines at all in the early 2030s.

COMMENTS

23 Apr 2012 10:55

Canberra's submarine dithering illustrates the point that sometimes a decision not to make a decision actually amounts to a decision.

The longer Government defers or dithers on the actual steps involved in building a new submarine in Australia, the less scope it has for making such a decision. As time passes, the window for building in Oz sinks while the option of buying off-the-shelf from overseas rises. Thus, making no decision means that, eventually, the passage of time will mean only one decision is possible. And it will not be the outcome currently promised or proclaimed.

Style this the 'subterranean subs debate'. It is subterranean in the sense that a lot of argument is going on, but the central issue – whether to build new subs in Oz – is not formally or officially in play. 

The Government has a White Paper that says 12 boats will be built and they will be built here. This is what is known as a P-O-L-I-C-Y. The point about policy is that usually governments are supposed to act to bring the plan to reality. The words in the 2009 White Paper are clear enough:

COMMENTS

24 Apr 2012 09:07

Derek Woolner is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the ANU. He is co-author, with Peter Yule, of The Collins Class Submarine Story: Steel, Spies and Spin.

Posts by Alan Wrigley and Hugh White discussing the 'Core Force' concept as a methodology for planning military force structure raise old memories.

I worked for Defence Ministers Lance Barnard and Bill Morrison at the time of the concept's birth. The Whitlam Government had physically terminated the policy of forward defence by withdrawing the last of Australia's army and air contingents from Malaysia and Singapore. The size of the army had been considerably reduced by the abolition of conscription. The strategic environment had changed but what was to follow wasn't at all clear.

COMMENTS

26 Apr 2012 11:01

Richard Brabin-Smith is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University. He was formerly Deputy Secretary of Defence and Chief Defence Scientist.

Let me make a contribution to the discussion of the 'core force' and expansion base initiated recently by Alan Wrigley. In my experience, these ideas, together with the other elements of the conceptual framework of which they were part, did indeed prove very valuable in helping to set priorities for force structure development, states of readiness for the force-in-being, and much else besides. 

They fostered a strategic, top-down approach to decision-making and helped keep at bay a bottom-up approach built primarily around the preservation of tribal totems. They allowed Defence to develop arguments that were both cohesive and cogent. It is a matter of regret that, with the passage of time, the influence of the core force and related ideas has faded.

COMMENTS

27 Apr 2012 14:36

Andrew Farran, formerly with the Departments of External Affairs and Defence, writes:

Alan Wrigley reminds us of the 'watershed' in defence policy development that existed in the mid-1970s, but the pity was that the opportunity was not grasped to recast force-structure thinking derived from the past. The strategic basis paper at that time correctly assessed that 'Australia is among the world's developed countries least likely to be subject to a military attack in the foreseeable future'. (This is still the case.)

So instead, the 'core' concept was adopted, as described by Alan, which was to develop '(a)ll the key military capabilities likely to be required to counter any military threat that might emerge in the future and that would require a long lead time to develop. This core force would provide an expansion base of military and technical skills that would greatly reduce the time to build a more capable force as any credible threat began to emerge'.

COMMENTS

30 Apr 2012 09:15

Three quick points in response to Sam on fighter numbers and timing. He suggests that we could wait until China has, or is much closer to having, the ability to project serious power to our shores before buying the large numbers of aircraft I have argued we'd need to defend ourselves from China independently.

First, we need to be clear about what we are discussing. On the one hand, there is a question about what forces we would need to exercise middle-power strategic weight on our own account if (for any one of several reasons) we find ourselves in a more contested Asia and can no longer rely on the US to play the same role in our security as it has played for the past few decades. 

There is a quite separate question about when we need to start to build those forces. Sam may be right that we do not yet need middle-power strategic weight, but if and when we do need it, we will require a lot more than 100 of whatever frontline aircraft we buy.

COMMENTS

30 Apr 2012 14:31

This passage in Hugh White's latest post deserves a response (emphasis added):

Sam's confidence that China cannot project serious power as far as Australia is not justified by China's lack of capability per se, but by his confidence that another big power, presumably the US, would stop it. If China was not opposed by another major power, it could already project very substantial forces our way.

Actually, my confidence is justified by China's capability. I follow Chinese military developments pretty closely, but I don't know which 'very substantial forces' Hugh is referring to. Yes, China does have global power projection capabilities of some kinds: nuclear weapons, for example, and probably cyber-attack capabilities.

But Hugh's remarks are made in the context of Australia's combat aircraft fleet. What type of forces does China have that would justify more than 100 frontline RAAF aircraft?

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