Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 01:07 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 01:07 | SYDNEY

Defence: Best of times, worst of times


James Brown


13 June 2012 16:21

Devising military strategy and operating a capable defence force is difficult even at the best of times. But for Australia this is not the best of times. The shifting global locus of power is leading to increased strategic uncertainty in our Indo-Pacific region, and we have recently seen a tough budget for Australia's defence force.

It is not the worst of times either: Australia enjoys an enviable geo-strategic location, a strong security alliance, good partnerships with neighbours, and a technologically advanced defence force. Though the defence budget was reduced by 10% this year, it remains the 13th largest in the world. Defence spending accounts for 7% of total government expenditure, 26% of government departmental outlays, and defence employs 102,000 Australians. Yet one in three Australians believes the ADF would not be able to successfully defend the continent if it were attacked.

In his recent speech to the Lowy Institute, the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) made it clear that the Australian Defence Force, and the way it operates, will change significantly in the coming years. Our defence capabilities are being modernised: the new ADF will be structured around the two 27,000 tonne Landing Helicopter Dock ships arriving from 2014, and an amphibious force certified ready for deployment from 2017. Our navy will accept new Air Warfare Destroyers into service, our air force new Joint Strike Fighters.

The ADF of a decade from now may seem only a distant cousin of the one we have now, and our soldiers and defence bureaucrats will have as many internal challenges to adapt to as external ones.

The CDF described Indo-Pacific Asia as two oceans joined in a single strategic system, a system in which Australia is potentially both fulcrum and anchor. A critical review of Australia's defence posture earlier this year found a need to alter our defence posture: to amalgamate defence properties into more efficient super bases, expand the capabilities of existing facilities in northern Australia, and develop new facilities to house the upgraded ADF. The 2013 Defence White Paper will need to weigh these recommendations against the financial strictures government has imposed on Defence.

The ADF's global disposition is changing. In the next 18 months Australian forces will draw down from their presence in Afghanistan, and presumably our headquarters and logistical support presence in the UAE will draw down too. Stabilisation missions will draw to a close in East Timor and the Solomon Islands during 2013. A modified Defence Cooperation Program will replace the East Timor mission whilst a Melanesian military contingent looks likely to replace the ADF in the Solomons. After Afghanistan, the Army at least is concerned about retaining hard-earned operational skills as the frequency of deployment diminishes.

Australia is critically examining its defence relationships, and determining how to participate in multiple 'communities of interest' in Asia while strengthening ANZUS. Though Australia has committed to enhanced interoperability arrangements with US military forces, Defence is also expanding its military engagement with China. A growing relationship with the Indian military must be balanced with deepening ADF engagement with Pakistan, particularly in training exchanges. A shifting political dynamic on the use of the military in Japan is prompting Australia to reconsider the possibilities of defence cooperation. We are exploring cost-sharing arrangements and pooling of defence capability with New Zealand, and considering the future trajectory of the Australia-Indonesia security relationship.

But we are not facing these challenges and shifting defence fundamentals alone. The challenge of austerity and a changing Asia is prompting deep critical thinking in defence forces across the globe about what the role of the military is, and what the chances of major future conflict are. Our allies are this month asking the same questions we are about the challenges of defence: in Canada, the UK, and the US. NATO is urging its planners to adopt Smart Defence, a plan for greater security with less money. In the US, a group of young military officers is taking an entrepreneurial approach to military problems and fusing ideas from outside of the military with challenges inside the military, calling it disruptive thinking.

Our defence force must be flexible enough to prepare for uncertainty and agile enough to respond to contingencies in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Our strategic planners must plan for regional power shifts as well as the evolving military strategies of our neighbours and friends. And the resources Defence can draw on are shrinking. Smart thinking on Australia's defence challenges and how to respond to them has never been more important.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.