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Defence debate: Focused force goes too far

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COMMENTS

15 April 2009 16:48

Peter Leahy is Director of the National Security Institute, University of Canberra, and former Australian Chief of Army. This is the third contribution to our debate on Australia's defence policy which started here (the second part is here).  

The challenge for defence policy makers is to achieve a balance between current activities, the most likely future and the most dangerous future. Hugh White is right to keep an eye on the most dangerous future but not at the expense of current activities and the most likely future. His paper and force structure skews the balance. Hedging is OK, but Hugh’s 'focussed force' goes too far. It looks unbalanced to me.

Today the ADF is at war. The Army bears the brunt of that war. It is a war among the people conducting stabilisation missions and dealing with terrorism. It is a lethal, complex and ever changing environment in which asymmetric forces have access to sophisticated technology and firepower. 

This type of warfare is pervasive, persistent and the most likely shape of future conflict. As an aspiring middle power we need to be able to maintain capabilities across a range of futures and a range of operational scenarios. Hugh’s force denies us flexibility.

In the 1970s and 1980s Indonesia was the potential threat and we postured to defend Australia in the sea air gap. The Indonesians never came. Now China is presented as the threat.

The verdict on China is out. We should not assume that China will be a threat and posture against them. Secretary of Defence Gates is acting to 'separate appetites from real requirements' and focus on 'those things that are truly needed'. Closer to home, if recent newspaper reports are to be believed, it is clear that Australia’s intelligence assessment agencies do not share Hugh’s hawkish view on China.

Hugh is right to conclude that, 'Australia today lacks the land forces to achieve decisive results even in the modest objectives we have set ourselves in places like Timor-Leste.' He is also right to suggest that priority be given to expanding the size of the deployable light force. But he is wrong to propose that heavier capabilities be held or even diminished. 

Today’s battlefield is lethal and it is simply dangerous to assume that the levels of violence will be constrained. We owe our deployed forces the best equipment and protection we can provide them. This includes heavier capabilities. Our deployed soldiers should not be asked to accept the risk that they won’t be required.

Hugh concedes that the Australian Army should be built primarily to deploy overseas, not to fight on Australian territory. To do this it needs to be part of a balanced joint force of air and naval assets. His proposal to cancel the Air Warfare Destroyers project would seriously unbalance the force. Deploying and deployed ground forces need this type of cover. It is refreshing to finally see the rationale behind about 100 Joint Stike Fighters (add the numbers of F-111 and FA-18 together) but disappointing to see a further unsubstantiated suggestion that 200 might be necessary.

Putting aside the obvious budget issues as a problem for the future, Hugh’s proposals posture against the less likely future and run the risk of seriously distorting the force. In an uncertain environment balance not focus is required.

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