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Defence White Paper 2013: What do we need?

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COMMENTS

6 August 2012 15:50

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

Professor Paul Dibb offers those who will draft the Defence White Paper 2013 two choices: a modified DWP2009 or an approach based on a new force structure designed to meet restricted funding. At the same time, he mentions the restricted military and strategic views that have characterised his approach to force structuring since 1986, such as 'refocusing Australia's post-Afghanistan defence policy on its own region of primary strategic concern', which have sensibly been ignored by governments. He also flashes past other views that have made a significant contribution to the disastrous state of the Australian Defence Force.

I addressed budget issues more generally on the ABC and responded to the philosophy behind Dibb's article in The Australian.

Paul Dibb misses the point entirely and has done for years. His basic argument is that we must structure our force to meet the available funding and he broaches a number of ways to do it. But it is an argument with himself, because it is impossible to do anything but structure the force to meet the funding: the government provides the money and the structuring stops when the money is finished.

No one with any brains thinks the ADF can structure what is not funded. It is also not difficult to fit a structure into a budget; any idiot can do that. You salami slice, do away with whole capabilities that exist or that are planned, you invent an entirely new way to wage war, or adopt some mixture of the three.

I have met lots of people in the ADF who dislike the risks the Government has created with its budget antics, but I have not met anyone who denies it the right to do so. Nor have I met anyone in the ADF who really believes that the Coalition, if elected, will immediately turn this Government's irresponsible funding around, particularly in the short term.

Where Paul Dibb misses the point is that he fails to start from the need. He mentions it but then gets right into the slashing and burning. In his advice to the drafters of the DWP2013, Paul concentrates on fitting a defence force into a given or assumed budget, while trying to scare those who think that there might be more funding in the future by saying it can only come from health or education.

There are at least two initial steps in a real world process. The first is to analyse the strategic environment and see what kind and size of defence force it demands of Australia. Paul dismisses DWP2009, which for all of its failings, was the last effort to assess the strategic environment; an environment that is getting more uncertain. The second is to apply the funding that the Government is prepared to supply to the force structure that Australia needs.

If you put all your intellectual effort into the second step (fitting the defence force the nation needs into the money that the government is prepared to provide) without getting the need part right, then you are more than likely to exacerbate the distortions within Defence, not lessen them. There is no benefit to meeting a budget with capability that is not relevant to the need created by the strategic environment; better to have no capability at all.

If you understand the needed force structure, based on an analysis of the strategic environment, but you can only afford a lesser force structure, you are more likely to make cuts that are relevant to the real world. We could achieve the budget easily by buying 1000 Spitfires rather than 100 Joint Strike Fighters, but because Spitfires would be irrelevant to the strategic environment, it might be smarter to buy fewer JSFs , or no JSFs, or to buy 100 subs and 12 JSFs, or as Paul advocates, keep the army as a paramilitary force. But you must start with the strategic environment, not the budget.

Finally, the underlying and subtle assumption that Australia cannot afford an ADF of the likes of Force 2030 is wrong. Australia can afford it. It is just that a dysfunctional government practising short-termism has decided that they will not fund it. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute makes an interesting observation in Crying Poor? The Affordability of Defence Expenditure, by Mark Thomson:

Conventional wisdom holds that Australia faces daunting fiscal pressures in the decades ahead due to its aging population and the rising cost of health care and other social services; the general argument appears in the 2003, 2007 and 2010 Intergenerational Reports produced by the Treasury.

The potential implications for defence spending were outlined by the treasury secretary in 2005. However, IGR-style fiscal analyses are a poor basis, even on their own terms, for constraining defence spending. More importantly, any analysis that focuses primarily on fiscal matters must, by its very nature, fail to address the more important question of making efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Australia is and will remain a prosperous country. The absolute affordability of defence expenditure at the levels proposed by even the most hawkish advocates is not an issue. But prosperity is not an excuse for profligacy; each and every dollar allocated to defence should be justified on the basis of providing superior benefit to the available alternatives.

I could argue the detail of what Paul Dibb is saying if he started from a basis of what the strategic environment demands. Instead, he fails because he concentrates on supply-side strategy. You must start at the need, then compromise sensibly.

 Photo by Flickr user Sifu Renka.

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