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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 17:03 | SYDNEY

Here's what the army is for

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9 March 2011 13:14

Hugh White's post on US Defense Secretary Gates' recent speech to West Point cadets asks, 'What is the Australian Army for''. I was waiting for this question to come. 

What with Iraq yesterday's news, Afghanistan having only a few more years to run and the China question looming large, the role of the army in future conflict is a valid issue. Unfortunately, the focus on China and the air-sea battle doctrine could consign Australian land forces to at worst an invisible role and at best a support role, as they were for the two decades after Vietnam.

I have always suspected that Australia's grand strategists have an unhealthy disregard for the strategic utility of the army, because the army is relatively low-tech and high-risk, manpower intensive, dirty and difficult to understand unless you're from it. The fact that Australia is an island too large to defend means strategists have always looked to the navy and air force to defend the mainland and our sea lines of communication, and to provide some high-tech assistance to our great and powerful ally.

Unfortunately, reality has nearly always gotten in the way of theory, and the ADF has operated almost exclusively in the land environment since World War II. From the post-Cold War period of peacekeeping in Cambodia, Rwanda and Somalia through to the Timor peace enforcement mission to Iraq and Afghanistan's counter-insurgency operations, land forces have provided flexible options for government in support of the UN or US.

By contrast, the RAN and RAAF have largely provided enablers to these operations.

In the nearly 40 years since Australian forces withdrew from Vietnam, the RAAF has fired shots in anger once (F-18s during the invasion of Iraq), as has the RAN (HMAS Anzac in support of UK forces during the invasion of Iraq). Neither service has lost anyone killed on operations in that period. This is not to belittle the contribution of these Services, which has been vital in a low-risk, supporting way.

What has allowed the ADF to contribute so well to so many disparate operations is that it has retained the understanding that no-one can predict the future, so robust land forces provide options that can be employed in a wide variety of contingencies. The intellectual dead-end of the Defence of Australia approach very nearly consigned the army to the role of a beefed-up Army Reserve. I trust that the 'China-as-future-threat' brigade keep that in mind when they approach the issue of how the ADF should be structured in the future.

Although Hugh quoted the Gates speech, he neglected to mention this crucial point in the early part of the speech:

And I must tell you, when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect.  We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged. 

Based on this observation and historical operational return on investment, why aren't our strategic theorists asking 'What's the RAAF combat capability for'' or 'What are the air warfare destroyers or 12 submarines for''

Photo by Flickr user atomicShed.

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