Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 10:30 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 10:30 | SYDNEY

Defence: The 'core force' future is now


Hugh White

This post is part of the The military numbers game debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

18 April 2012 10:13

This post is part of the The military numbers game debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

It's over twenty-five years since Alan Wrigley left Defence, but his name is still one to conjure with on Russell Hill, and his splendid post shows why. It displays all the qualities that made it such a pleasure to see him in action. At a time when there seems room to doubt that those advising the Government on such matters know what they think and are willing to push their ideas, Alan's clarity and mordancy is a welcome reminder of how it can be done.

But I'm not sure that the 'core force' concept remains as sound a basis for defence planning today as Alan suggests. His argument is essentially that this concept has worked for the past four decades, so why shouldn't it work in future? The answer is that circumstances have changed.

The core force concept was developed in the mid-1970s in response to big shifts in Australia's strategic environment in the late 60s and early 70s. The most important of these was the US opening to China in 1972, which left America's primacy in Asia uncontested by any major Asian power. The consequences for Australia were plainly stated in the 1976 White Paper. Referring to the major powers of Asia – China, India and Japan – it said (para 2.19):

No more than the former Great Powers of Europe can we expect these powers individually to play a large military role in strategic developments directly affecting Australia’s security in the foreseeable future.

And so it has proved. In the post-Vietnam era, Australia has been able to assume that we would not find ourselves fighting an Asian major power either alone or in support of the US. As long as that remained true we did not need large numbers of air and naval platforms. We needed only a core force to maintain the capacity to expand the capability if circumstances changed.

The question today is whether the judgment made in 1976 is still true. I do not think it is, for reasons I have rehearsed elsewhere. The post-Vietnam era of uncontested US primacy is over. Australia can no longer assume that major strategic shifts, taking decades to unfold, would have to occur before we might face the need to fight a major Asian power either with the US or, much more problematically, without.

That is because the major strategic shifts have already taken place. We are already in a more contested Asia, with clear and growing risk of major power conflict in which our interests would be closely engaged. In other words, we are now in the situation the core force concept was designed to prepare us for. This is why I argue that, if we are serious about exercising independent strategic weight, we need many more than six or even 12 submarines, and many more than 100 frontline aircraft.   

(PS: can I just say that Danielle Romanes' riposte to my aid post makes a very fair point. Thank you!)

Photo by Flickr user roger.karlsson.