Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 10:32 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 10:32 | SYDNEY

Is Australia serious about its defence?

14 June 2011 13:29

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

I opened up a line of discussion prompted by Dr Ross Babbage's article on the problems with Australia's defence policy after the last budget. I repeated comments by others that the ADF was an 'Aspirational Defence Force' and I specifically mentioned the JSF; that it was late, over budget and not meeting its promised performance. I complained about the lack of discussion on defence policy out of the last budget and concluded by asking if, in relation to defence, Australia was a serious country.

Since then, much has happened.

Many have contributed posts on the defence issues raised, a significant Lowy paper on an alternative defence policy for Australia by serving US Colonel John Angevine has been published, further issues have been raised in the media about the ability of Australian defence industry and the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) to produce destroyers and submarines in Australia, and a new Defence leadership team has been announced.

First, I would like to answer the posts provoked by my original writing, and in a later post address the alternative defence policy raised by Colonel Angevine.

Andrew Davies suggests that, for military campaign reasons, the JSF can still be effective, despite it being late and over budget, and Sam Baartz joined on the issue. Andrew speaks with authority, but Eric Palmer takes him on in detail.

This is an extraordinarily esoteric subject and it is very hard for we aviation laymen to assess public briefings on the JSF with the information put out by those opposed to the JSF. It is of overwhelming importance that the JSF be effective when it does come into service, regardless of how late it is or how expensive it is. I base my personal assessment of the JSF on its ability to work together within an Australian joint force under Australian joint commanders to achieve Australia's strategic outcomes, which probably involves winning.

If our base concept is that we buy single capabilities and assume that they will always work with the US as single capabilities, then we might as well adopt Marcus Burke's market-based approach. Cut out the middle man in defence (Australia), pay the US for our defence, as Marcus suggests, and lose our sovereignty altogether.

Nigel Brock asks if we are paying enough attention to the advantage that training gives the ADF, implying, I think, that even if we did not have the best materiel, the ADF could still win. I can understand this view, and it is an important question, but very hard to answer simply. If you embrace a myth of the tri-service digger and delude yourself, you are riding for a fall.

In my view it is a betrayal of every Australian to base a defence policy on inadequate equipment but hoping that the quality of our soldiers will pull us through.

I have also deep concerns about the ability of Australia to fight as a joint force, even with the equipment we have, because we rarely practice. I also do not see us producing senior joint field commanders of skill and experience to command the manoeuvre of joint forces, even if we had them. We have deep problems in this area.

Yes, our special forces fight very well indeed, because they are about the only force in the ADF allowed to train for war. I know that my concerns are shared by many senior serving officers, at least in the Army.

Peter Layton asks: if there are these problems, is it not all my fault because I was part of the senior command team for years? A fair question. My conscience is clear, however, in that when I was serving I raised these issues continually and with force. Since I have retired I have done the same. I believe in Constructive Subversion. The major share of the fault must go to the successive governments that have failed to fund their own defence policies, not to the ADF.

The ADF over the last 40 years have done brilliantly with the crap materiel that we have had to work with in just maintaining basic skills.

Marcus Pfister asks if we could man the equipment, even if we did have it. If you have to pay commercial rates for manpower, then you pay them. Why pay billions for submarines and then not have them work because of some outdated view that Defence should not pay full commercial rates for its manpower? Every time we pay something that gets closer to commercial rates, our recruiting and retention gets better. We are not competing for 18 year-old riflemen, so pay them on a different scale.

Once they get to the five or ten-year mark, we are competing with their family, so pay them more. We are competing with industry for marine engineers so pay them whatever it takes. The aim is to be prepared to defend Australia and there is nothing more useless than a submarine that does not work, or a cockpit that is empty.

Charles Lockyer supported my views and I was chided in a private email for my comment that the retired community was deathly quiet on the issue. My correspondent pointed out that many do fight the good fight, and that is right.

The only good thing that has happened to Defence since I wrote the original post is the announcement of the new Defence command team. But no matter how good they are (and they are good), if there is no money from Government for materiel or for training, they cannot, through dedication or resolution or force of will or some kind of ANZAC spirit, create the sinews of Defence. Government is responsible for defence, and I think it has two main aims in this area: minimise political embarrassment and save money for other objectives.

I will still be very polite to every American I meet.

Photo courtesy of the Australian Department of Defence.