Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:02 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:02 | SYDNEY

Army be happy


Graeme Dobell

27 March 2012 12:02

An injunction from the Old Digger Almanac rises from the mists to take on fresh force as Defence turns towards a new era:

Army be happy with what you've got,

For Sea and Air must get what they have not.

The return to the basics (and basing) of Defence of Australia raises the prospect of the Army again being squeezed to let the Navy and Air Force get at big pots of cash. Some old doctrinal debates are set for a fresh canter.

Australia's completed Posture Review is due to go to the Minister this week, outlining the basing needs to bolster the defence of the north and west of the continent. Next, Defence will conduct a Force Structure Review. And then it will be time for a Defence White Paper. By the time the White Paper comes into view in 2014, most of the Army elements in Afghanistan will be heading to the exit; the big 'perhaps' is whether special forces will stay in an overwatch role. 

Post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, Defence will be off in search of the new day, transforming itself into a 'joint, expeditionary, amphibious force.' This is where history starts to haunt the Army. The previous era of jointery and Defence of Australia  – the 1980s and 90s – was a time of short rations for those in khaki. The Navy and Air Force would take care of the sea-air gap and all the Army had to do was mop up any survivors that struggled ashore. The intellectual architect of the approach, Paul Dibb (channeling Arthur Tange) still rates as an Army antichrist.

The Army sees the success in East Timor in 1999 as an incredibly close-run win that might just have been a major disaster because of decades of neglect. The Dibb-ist response is that Army is always happy to blame others for its own inability to think and manage or even carry water. 

Stepping by this history come Allan Hawke and Ric Smith with their Posture Review. In their earlier interim report, they re-do Dibb with their judgment about current and future basing needs in remote parts of the wide brown land:

Potentially significant weaknesses and risks have been identified in our force posture that mostly relate to the capacity of ADF bases, facilities and training areas, particularly in Australia's north and west regions; and our ability to sustain high tempo operations in Northern Australia and our approaches, the immediate neighbourhood and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

The Hawke-Smith thinking on where to spend the money is right out of the Old Digger Almanac:

In our view, Navy faces the greatest challenges in accommodating the practical and conceptual changes required by Force 2030. Air Force also needs substantial upgrades to some bases to enable it to operate its new platforms effectively. Army, by comparison, has fewer issues around basing though some of our conclusions have implications for the Army presence in Northern Australia.

What was that about Army being happy with what you've got? 

This time round, however, there are some reasons to hope that things will not be as dire for the diggers. Today's Army is not the peace-time soldiery of the 80s and 90s. Instead, it can draw on plenty of hard-won real world experience, after a dozen years that rank as the highest-tempo time since Vietnam. What gets used gets rewarded, as one of Canberra's better defence-niks is wont to observe. Army has earned its rewards the tough way. Plus, the Navy and Air Force run at the money trough is rather hamstrung by their recent record on big-ticket purchases.

The next White Paper is set to change the usual sequence of such august documents: the Paper sets out the high strategy reasons why Navy and Air Force need so much attention/cash/hardware, and almost as soon as the ink is dry, a real job arrives that has to be done by – you guessed it – the Army. 

This time, the major transformation coming over the horizon actually has the Army in the frame with its 'joint amphibious capability'. Translation: the Australian Army will look a lot like Marines. The Army outline of its marine future is Plan Beersheba. Wade past the Army-speak about a 'phased program to adjust Army's force structure so that it can generate optimal capability to conform to strategic guidance and meet the challenge of contemporary warfare' and how it is 'robust, relevant and affordable'. Beersheba, as promised, does reflect 'lessons learned over a decade of continuous operations.'

No one ever claimed the Army was good at explaining its own thinking, even to itself. To see what the Beersheba bumper sticker means, turn to the interpretation Hawke and Smith offer of what the Army's future will look like: the bases needed and the three manoeuvre brigades all organised around a common structure. The diggers might just have a chance at getting a bit of the pie.

Photo by Flickr user DVIDSHUB.