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Defence debate: Repair the defence forces first

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COMMENTS

16 April 2009 09:42

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in IraqThis is the fourth contribution to our debate on Australia's defence policy which started here. Here are parts two and three    

I do not dispute the intellectual basis of what Hugh says. His view of the future is as good as anyone else’s. It is disputed by the intelligence community but seemingly supported by the Prime Minister.

What is really significant is Hugh’s stark admission in several places that previous strategic guidance was wrong in many respects, and that even if it had been right, the ADF was never capable, and (without change) will not be capable of meeting previous strategic objectives.

This is an important point because the impotence of most parts of the ADF of today is a product of 40 years of disconnected defence policy and failed implementation. Why should we believe that this policy is any better, and why should we believe that it would be implemented in a way that actually produces usable defence capability?

Hugh may be right about China in 2040, but the gulf between strategic policy and actual defence capability, if this is adopted, is likely to become even wider. Hugh argues with great logic that ‘maritime denial’ has been the strategy for some years and is an appropriate strategy for the future Asian century. This may be appropriate, but that was a strategy that only existed in the minds of civilian and uniformed officials in Canberra, and had little or no perceptible impact on the defence forces. In fact, in the period of the strategy of ‘maritime denial’, actual defence capability decreased in almost every aspect.

White Papers are really justifications of what the government wanted to spend in the first place, so you cannot be too sceptical about them. We should only be judged on what we actually do. A strategy focussed on China that permits the government to spend very little in the immediate future, might be too much to believe. How easy for this and future governments to trumpet strategic change while avoid spending on defence, and so propel an impotent defence force into its impotent future.

If Hugh is right about China, and the historical patterns of under-resourcing of the defence forces are maintained (why should it not be), we will face Hugh’s future with an ADF that is at least as incapable as the ADF we have today — a terrifying prospect.

The big issue from this paper is not as much the future underpinnings of our strategy as the failure to produce actual defence capability. That cannot be denied now, despite how bravely and competently, or how well publicised, our few soldiers and sailors are performing on operations.

We do not need a major shift in strategy for the next few years, it will only distract us from what is critically important. We should not have such a shift until the destructive impact of the last set of strategic policies has been repaired. The immediate priority for the government is not to be subverted by images of heroic strategic leadership (which do not have to be funded for many years) but to the serious but less sexy duty of repairing the current defence force.

Preparing to confront China in 2040 is not the only defence priority that we have. We face a significant challenge at the moment. And we still do not have a defence force that can offer to government options to make a meaningful or effective contribution at reasonable cost, except for a few hundred members of our special forces.

So by all means discuss 2040. But this next white paper should be a consolidating white paper because of the parlous state of today’s ADF. If there is any spare money to spend on defence, every cent for the next five years should be spent making sure that what we already possess (or have ordered) is combat capable, making sure that it can be used against today’s threat, before launching out into some new and inevitably disruptive scheme. This should only take about five years and would provide government with the options it needs to successfully meet today’s challenges.

Then let’s look towards China in a future white paper. Otherwise we may lose our current wars and build for conflicts of the future on security foundations of sand.

Photo by Flickr user desertraptor, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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