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Defence: A return to the 'core force'

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This post is part of the The military numbers game debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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17 April 2012 10:25


This post is part of the The military numbers game debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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.

There has been too much nonsense about the 'need to forecast what might happen in the next forty years.' It is quite impossible and that should be obvious. Every Australian military commitment in  the past 30 or so years, with the possible exception of East Timor, has been essentially discretionary in response to what governments have rather loosely interpreted as ANZUS 'obligations', using forces which we ourselves chose to contribute. And today there is even less credibility to any threat-based analysis than there was in 1975 in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Recent writings on The Interpreter have called for a revaluation of the proposed numbers of the next fighter aircraft and submarines. In reality, to be blunt, there can be no sounder basis for setting time and quantity priorities than the 'core capabilities' process adopted in the 1970s.

In relation to the strike fighter, it is quite imprudent for Australia to scramble for early deliveries of the JSF, which is obviously still deficient in critical respects. The early models of every new US combat aircraft have historically been put into production hastily with still incomplete systems development. They later require costly upgrades or are relegated to National Guard squadrons as soon as 'debugged' aircraft come off the line. Until well-tested aircraft become available, our core needs can be maintained by the Super Hornet and/or upgraded regular F/A-18 Hornets such as seem to satisfy Canada's needs.

As a passing comment on the recent Shanahan/White exchange on strike fighter numbers, the figure of about 100 dates back far further than Hugh White's story. There were 100 Mirage fighters (pictured) ordered in the early 1960s. Shanahan's plea for a 'more rigorous examination of capability requirements' in Australia's strategic environment, with no credible threat, needs more than rigour — we could not do better than to return to a freshened-up 'core force' approach which accepts that any decision made now might need to be revisited at some later stage.

As for the submarines, if there was ever any basis for doubling the current submarine force numbers, it is likely to have been more related to at least moderating the grotesque unit cost of rebirthing the South Australian facility since the expensively developed skills of building the last six submarines will have drained to nothing before a new order appears. 

The size of the Collins class submarine was driven by a quite puffed-up value of operations as far from Australia as the Soviet Union's north Asian naval bases, to the detriment of their ability to operate in the mostly shallow waters of the Indonesian archipelago and the South China Sea. Existing and prospective submarines more suited to the regional  environment can be delivered by existing manufacturers at much less than half the cost and risk of the kind of submarine currently envisaged, and the numbers could be topped up if needed.

Finally, Jim Molan's proposition that Australia should rely on the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) as the 'institutional expert' takes us again into fantasy land, as does the notion that a 'generic operational concept' will solve everything. Decisions of the enormity of those so frequently confronted in the defence field and in our essentially benign strategic environment involve considerations far beyond today's military head, and to plan on the basis of a generic operational concept would be madness.

In more than a decade in Defence, I never found a top military officer who could rise above the experience and loyalties of a single-service lifetime or a perception that Australia's expenditure on defence was never enough. In our stable defence environment, national governments should always look for broadly-based advise on the huge expenditures involved in maintaining an appropriate defence force.

I am not suggesting that an analysis group such as was established in the 1970s could be created rapidly, even by a strong minister and a supporting CDF and departmental secretary. Its staff, both civilian and military, cannot be found from any specific pool. The past machinery was dismantled by the rightly nick-named 'Bomber' Beazley in the name of removing tension in Defence.

It takes courage for any Defence minister to question or, worse, set aside the advice of his military chiefs. The present minister can attest to that in far more modest issues relating to the hallowed 'chain of command'. But the cost to the nation of a contented military hierarchy in a peacetime democracy is high.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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