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Limiting Australia's military options

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4 August 2008 13:07

I've been remiss in not commenting on former General Jim Molan's new book about his experience as General George Casey's chief of operations in Iraq. Paul Kelly, who summarises Molan's argument in this column, says Molan is critiquing the 'Australian way of war', but based on the quotes in the column, that seems altogether too polite. I haven't read the book, but it looks to me as if Molan is criticising the Howard Government for making token troop deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The current government seems to have a similar attitude.

The rub of Kelly's column comes in the closing paragraphs:

...it is Australia's enemies that will have a major say in dictating our future military engagements, not Canberra's strategic experts. We delude ourselves to think Australia can just decide how and when to fight.

Any Australian decision that it doesn't need the arms, protection, training and combat ethos for modern intensive warfare but prefers instead to limit the ADF to lighter East Timor-type operations and peacekeeping will have huge strategic consequences.

It will severely limit Australia's future defence and foreign policy options. It will also limit the capacity of the ADF for joint operations with allies and for leadership of regional coalitions.

That first paragraph is a major overstatement. The phrase 'Canberra's strategic experts' seems to be a polite but still derisive version of 'armchair generals', but it is a complete distraction. In fact, it is Australia's political leaders who decide when and how Australia fights, and they most certainly have exercised judgment in cases like Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously we would not have sent those forces were it not for the fact that we had an enemy to fight, but sending troops was never the only option and, in the Iraq case particularly, remains controversial. Those decisions were not forced on Australia by the enemy — they were our choice.

Kelly is right to say that, were we to build an army that was equipped largely for constabulary and peacekeeping operations, it would reduce our ability to conduct operations with allies and lead regional coalitions. I'm just not sure it will have the 'huge strategic consequences' he refers to.

As Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, we can only play a very minor part in these allied operations anyway, so no 'huge consequences' there. And what kind of regional coalitions does Kelly have in mind, in which Australia would need heavy land forces? It's hard to come up with credible scenarios.

Last, limiting Australia's future military options might actually be a good thing. Our recent military activism has had decidedly mixed results, and politicians might be less inclined to indulge in it if Australia lacks the means for it.

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