Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 21:29 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 21:29 | SYDNEY

Caught in a trap? Defence and its ministers

13 July 2010 13:10

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

Both Nick Bisley and Graeme Dobell recently addressed the issue of Defence 'capturing' its ministers, with Graeme saying that 'only a few ministers have been taken prisoner in recent times'. He claims that '...John Howard heads the list (of those who were captured). He loved Defence and the budget reflected his passion'.

I hope that we are not to interpret this as meaning that anyone who increases the Defence budget has been 'captured' by Defence, that this shows weakness in a minister or government, and that the only good minister is one who cuts the budget. I would hate to think that this is an example of the trivialising attitude that Defence consists only of 'boys and their toys', the corollary being that Defence should be controlled by starving it of funds and making it incapable of operations.

Such a view could indicate a bias against Defence spending in general, and that would be a shame.

My memory is that, because of decades of under-resourcing, the ADF's operational capability at the time of Howard was a very sad affair indeed. When options were requested for East Timor and then for Iraq, the lack of capability amazed the Government, which had looked at Defence as purely a bureaucratic challenge and not as something that it should have been insisting was able to deliver operational capability. Perhaps Howard was acting maturely and responsibly in funding Defence, rather than being 'captured'.

There was a much greater element of luck in our success in East Timor than is healthy at any time. Whether our involvement in Iraq is supported by readers or not, it would have been appropriate that Defence be able to deliver military options to government that covered a relatively broad range of capabilities appropriate to the circumstances. Any government deserves that. The ADF is still severely limited in operational capability, as is seen by the efforts it has to go to in making a small part of our army capable of conducting relatively normal land combat operations in Afghanistan.

The recent ASPI reviews of the three Services and ASPI's Almanac still, in general, concentrate on counting equipment rather than on what operational capability the ADF can deliver.

Defence is about to go into a backward funding phase yet again, where cuts are dressed up as savings; as a result, the limited capabilities we have will suffer. It might take a future minister who has not been 'captured' by the strategic studies industry to adequately fund Defence so that its capability might actually approach that required by the Government's own strategic forecasts.

Photo by Flickr user Brenda Anderson, used under a Creative Commons license.