Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:57 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:57 | SYDNEY

Defence: How will we know when to expand?

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

26 April 2012 11:01

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

Richard Brabin-Smith is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University. He was formerly Deputy Secretary of Defence and Chief Defence Scientist.

Let me make a contribution to the discussion of the 'core force' and expansion base initiated recently by Alan Wrigley. In my experience, these ideas, together with the other elements of the conceptual framework of which they were part, did indeed prove very valuable in helping to set priorities for force structure development, states of readiness for the force-in-being, and much else besides. 

They fostered a strategic, top-down approach to decision-making and helped keep at bay a bottom-up approach built primarily around the preservation of tribal totems. They allowed Defence to develop arguments that were both cohesive and cogent. It is a matter of regret that, with the passage of time, the influence of the core force and related ideas has faded.

But there was more to it than that: coupled with the idea of the expansion base was the concept of 'warning time'. The prospect of major assault on Australia was assessed as remote, and even if such a threat (an overused word) were to develop, it would take many years to do so. Australia would therefore be able to use this significant warning time to expand the Defence Force. Thus, during the 70s and the 80s and some way into the 90s, the time dimension was explicit in Australia's defence planning framework. This aspect too has become lost or at least mislaid, especially if the 2009 Defence White Paper is used as a guide.

Yet time is of the essence, and it is here that I must depart from Hugh White's response to Alan's post. I agree that, with the new Age of Asia, Australia's strategic environment is changing. But to address the question of how quickly these changes are taking place is as important as asking what the changes are and what their consequences might be. 

To my mind, and in spite of China's efforts to modernise its military forces, it is premature to announce the end of the preponderance of US maritime strength in Asia Pacific (and elsewhere). Will this predominance last forever? That's impossible to say, and it is possible to come up with versions of the future in which other countries will one day have such a command of defence technology and joint-force doctrine as to be able to eclipse the formidable capabilities that the US already possesses (and which it will continue to enhance well into the future).

But such a time is a long way off (decades, probably) and might never arrive. 

There is, in addition, the issue of policy choices for Australia, and how these might affect decisions on the size and shape of the ADF. But even here, experience tells us that it is necessary to have a sense of priorities: some national interests are more important than others, even within the region of which we are part. The North Pacific, with its potential flash-points, remains a considerable distance from Australia, and even the South China Sea, with its competing claims for sovereignty, can hardly be said to be proximate to Australia (though I would agree that there are some potential policy dilemmas for Australia here).

And a major assault on Australia? The challenges of major attack on Australia would be formidable, and much as was argued in earlier decades: the equipment, doctrine and skills required for contested amphibious assaults are specialist, expensive and difficult and time-consuming to attain, and Australia would defend itself with tenacity (a kind of Gallipoli in reverse). So time is of the essence here too.

I am conscious of having skated over many of the arguments (I've not mentioned economic influence and trade), but in summary, Australia's strategic circumstances are changing, and in thinking about their consequences we need to steer a course between complacency and alarm. But Armageddon is not just round the next corner. 

I would contend that, rather than having been overtaken by the future they were designed to prepare us for, the ideas of the core force, expansion base and warning time have come back into their own. They are now as important as ever. 

We do not need to panic about strategic deterioration but we do need to get a better grasp on the timescales that would apply to such deterioration. What would the indicators be? How and when might the Defence Force best be expanded? What could it mean for the size and shape of the core force, including any potential enlargement over the shorter term and consequences for Australia's industrial base? 

We might then be able to move beyond the seemingly half-baked arguments for doubling the number of submarines but not changing much else. The time for the core force is now!

Photo by Flickr user Aristocrats-hat.