Angus's Vision and Brendan's Toys


On 16 May, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, released a shiny new document that purports to outline the ADF’s views on the ‘Joint Operations in the 21st Century.’

The Australian   and The Age reported mainly on the emerging threats to Australian national security identified by the ADF document including climate-change refugees, resource depletion, (especially fish stocks, likely to be a serious issue for the Australian Navy in future decades) and the perennial worry of Australia’s fragile near neighbours in the Pacific.

Joint Operations in the 21st Century is one of those highly conceptual ‘vision’ statements that tries to look into the future and forecast the sort of conflicts the ADF will be asked to participate in. This is obviously a crucial plank in any strategic plan for the sort of force structure the ADF will need.

In the main, it is a valuable document because it says some very sensible things about the way the ADF will need to operate. The very term ‘joint’ in its title is encouraging, stressing as it does the necessity for future ADF operations to encompass all three major services of Army, Navy and Air Force as well as crucial, ancillary national security agencies, like the intelligence agencies and police.

The document is also strong on IT, arguing that so-called ‘Network Centric Warfare’ is here to stay and will become critical to any future operations, and it even rolls out a Network Centric Warfare Roadmap to show us the way ahead in an era when an innocent PC can become the viral spawn of evil bot warriors.

‘Stealth’ technology  is another big area of emphasis, and rightly so. Modern missiles and explosive weapons are rapidly making big, slow-moving targets like tanks and warships vulnerable. Iraq has proved a four-year study in just how dangerous moving about a contested urban space can be, in even a heavily armoured vehicle.

‘Force protection’ is the new buzz-word for defence planners in this new age of asymmetric warfare   but force protection is difficult in counter-insurgency situations like Iraq, Afghanistan or the hypothetical nightmare of a destabilised PNG. Hence the need for weapons platforms you can’t see, and special ops units you can’t find.

But a deeper read of the ADF paper reveals a worrying disconnect between the document’s content and the actual shape of Australian defence policy as it has developed particularly under the current Minister, Brendan Nelson.

While many of the concepts outlined in Houston’s think-piece are prudent, some of them are plainly unachievable within current policy settings. And the thrust of the paper’s conclusions have little to do with the sort of big-ticket hardware spending which has been characteristic of recent Defence budgets.

To put it simply, Australia can’t afford Angus Houston’s new strategy, unless we take some hard decisions and cancel some of the expensive new toys Brendan Nelson has ordered.

A recent publication by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) Mark Thomson puts it in perspective. I’ve been critical of ASPI in previous columns for New Matilda, chiefly because of their stubborn refusal to acknowledge the strategic debacle of Iraq and to ask the obvious questions of the Howard Government concerning why we are still committed to the failed war there. But even a critic of ASPI should acknowledge that Thomson’s detailed analysis of successive Defence budgets has been hard-headed and realistic. By doing his sums diligently, Thomson proves that Houston and Nelson’s numbers don’t match.

To quote from Thomson’s most recent publication, The Cost of Defence: ASPI Defence Budget Brief 2007-2008:

‘This year’s Budget capped off an extraordinary 13-month period that saw the Government promise more than $41 billion worth of new defence initiatives over 11 years; around $16 billion last Budget, $14 billion this Budget, and more than $11 billion in between.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding all the new money flowing into Defence, there remains a mismatch between plans and funding. Although the situation is better than it was last year, more money will still be required to deliver the Government’s plans for the defence force.’

This additional spending, it should be noted, does not include the planned $18 billion acquisition of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters or the $7 billion purchase of three Air Warfare Destroyers.

Nor does the current Defence budget look realistic in terms of personnel. ASPI notes that this is the first time in three years that the ADF has actually been able to recruit more people. In fact, over the four years to 2006-07, ADF staffing has actually fallen numbers grew 325 this year, but fell by 929 across the previous three; the current permanent ADF strength is 51,476. This makes the ‘Government’s plans to increase the size of the ADF to nearly 60,000 over the next 10 years look ambitious if not fool-hardy.

The larger problem is that the expensive new hardware Nelson has committed Australia to is not really in line with Houston’s strategy. The Air Warfare Destroyers, for example, are the opposite of stealthy big, lumbering capital ships will be as useful in the next naval war as battleships were at Midway (not at all). Similarly, on land, M1 Abrams tanks, Tiger attack helicopters and a new mechanised battalion is a force structure designed for big wars: ‘high-intensity,’ State-versus-State, conventional conflict.

But the majority of future conflicts are likely to be smaller, low-intensity, asymmetric wars. If the ‘War on Terror’ really is a ‘generational conflict’  that will stretch 30-50 years, then what we really need is people: infantry, special forces, reconstruction teams, engineers and plenty of human intelligence. Unfortunately, recruitment of these people is the ADF’s biggest problem, and one of its most expensive.

Therefore, for Australia to be able to afford Angus Houston’s new vision for Joint Operations, either future Australian governments will have to spend more than the 2 per cent of GDP we currently spend on defence, or we will have to give up one or more of the big toys.

This is why the recent Cabinet decision   to press ahead with the Seasprite naval helicopter program is so troubling. If you can’t cancel a $1 billion failed order for 40-year-old helicopters running f
ive years late, what can you cancel? Certainly not the Joint Strike Fighters after all, Angus Houston was the man who lobbied hard for them when he was the top fly-boy in the RAAF.

Then there’s missile defence a weapons system everyone agrees doesn’t actually work but a system that will cost Australia billions, should we ever be so foolish as to try and buy it..

It’s a problem that future defence planners and most likely, a future government are going to have to grapple with.

Over to you, Joel Fitzgibbon.

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