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Digital age overtaking defence numbers debate

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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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24 April 2012 09:07


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

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.

The Government needed a basis for capability development focused on the needs of national defence that didn't reproduce by default the structures of previous strategic policy. It also needed a political focus for defence after the Vietnam withdrawal that accommodated the official advice that Australia faced no foreseeable military threat for decades to come.

The Core Force concept provided both. As Alan Wrigley says, the ordered process driven by the concept was possible because the military operations that arose during its time were discretionary. That is, government could choose those missions for which the existing capacities of the Defence Force were adequate and decline international invitations where they were not. The old habit of expanding military capabilities by claiming operational shortcomings was stymied.

Over time, the Core Force approach was criticised for, in effect, spreading capability development too thinly, with some areas unable to retain sufficient expertise to facilitate future expansion.

It was replaced in the 1987 White Paper by force structure priorities more rigorously based on the requirements for defending Australia, driven by considerations of strategic geography and regional military capabilities developed in Paul Dibb's 1986 Review of Australia's defence capabilities.

Nonetheless, the 1987 approach did not remove a weakness of the Core Force concept. There was little stimulus to concentrate on the boring bits of military capability. Australia's intervention in East Timor in 2009 illuminated an almost complete blindness in force structure processes of the logistics requirements for supporting a force in the field. This became a dominant issue as Australia entered a decade of sustained military intervention overseas. As that decade proceeded, capability planning fragmented, with 'operational deficiencies' and ad hoc political decision-making eroding the Dibb-like process laid out in the 2000 White Paper.

Today, the utility of the Dibb approach is diminishing. His methodology of analysing regional military capabilities was useful because Australia could respond with a military force structure of significant advantage. Now this advantage is diminished and the trend is worsening with increased Asian prosperity.

The 2009 White Paper responded by wishing a level of performance that would outstrip anything available to Asian nations. Alas, this is increasingly revealed as a fiction. The F-35 fighter suffers delays and cost increases, the submarine project is something like a decade behind schedule and funding is insufficient to maintain the momentum of the 2009 White Paper's recommendations.

I agree with Hugh that we're into a fundamentally different strategic era. The situation is analogous to that of the early 1970s and Australia needs a new strategic concept to plan for its armed forces to meet the emerging strategic challenges. This doesn't mean I agree with Hugh that some sort of trigger point has been reached that demands we focus on acquiring more platforms (planes and submarines). This is because the numbers of such physical equipment is no longer the determinant of military success.

On the night of 19-20 March, a gross of cruise missiles and a leisurely early morning fly-over by three B-2 stealth bombers largely destroyed Libya's ability to detect threats, command its own forces and direct its weapons. NATO forces then conducted an unimpeded bombing campaign that, within a week or so, destroyed Libya's conventional military forces and reduced them to insurgents within their own country. The warning for all is that you must be fully competent in the digital facets of warfare or risk being reduced to third-world status at the beginning of any military conflict.

China is certainly aware of this development. It is, for instance, building its own global positioning satellite network to prevent the US hampering the People's Liberation Army by recoding the existing system's signals. And it has for some time conducted a sustained cyber intrusion campaign against Western government and commercial computer networks.

So, the numbers of fighters that Australia might buy are less critical issues than the capacity of its aerial early warning fleet or the conversion of Super Hornet fighters to electronic warfare aircraft. A little project to be decided in 18 months or so, to provide the Collins fleet with a networked warfare capability, will be as important as the number of future submarines Australia might buy, for this will largely determine how the Navy uses its new fleet and what it can expect to achieve with it.

I doubt Australia will end up buying 100 F 35 fighters and I suspect it will be close to the middle of the century before the RAN operates a 12-submarine fleet. With their glacial pace, both projects are likely to be overtaken by the momentum of the digital and social worlds. A chunk of the fighter role probably will be diverted to combat drones, as is already the planned for the RAAF's new maritime surveillance capability. The Navy, of late able to provide crews for only about three submarines, will find it difficult to quadruple the effort.

The new concept we need to guide the development of Australia's military capabilities must change from those we've used in the past. It must grapple with the pace of digital and societal change and provide security in an era where Australia may not be able to expect significant technological advantage over its neighbours. Having more of one sort of platform or another may be nice but it won't be the issue that determines Australia's future military competence.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

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