Friday 15 Oct 2021 | 21:00 | SYDNEY
Friday 15 Oct 2021 | 21:00 | SYDNEY

Do we take 'warning time' seriously?


James Brown


24 July 2012 14:24

Justin Jones' post on the continuing relevance of warning time as a strategic concept has been somewhat neglected and is worth returning to.

The concept of Australia having enough warning time to mobilise a larger defence force for a major conflict has underpinned strategic planning for some decades, and it is worth asking how useful the notion of force expansion and warning time remains. But before we can do that, it is also worth asking how seriously Australia has taken the notion of force expansion due to strategic warning anyway.

Richard Brabin-Smith has an excellent paper doing just that in the most recent Security Challenges journal (subscription required). He argues that Australia needs to get serious about reviewing force expansion in the 2013 Defence White Paper.

Brabin-Smith presents a vertical tasting of Defence White Papers since 1976, concluding that consistent attention to force expansion and warning time has been lacking. He argues that the 1976 White Paper, whilst trying to define the core force Australia needed, was instead focused on finding ways to reduce the force size and do more with less. The 1987 White Paper articulated the reserves as the nation's expansion force, but in the decade after 1987 the reserves were largely lacking in discussion of force expansion.

Brabin-Smith concludes that both the 2000 and 2009 White Papers imply that a period of strategic warning has not yet commenced, the 2000 defence planners concluding 'a full scale invasion of the least likely military contingency Australia might face' and the 2009 planners noting a decline in US primacy 'would require a more powerful force than the one presently contemplated'.

Brabin-Smith's concern is that, with the exception of the doubling of Australia's future submarine fleet, 'the government's current plans in many ways perpetuate the same kind of force structure that existed or was planned at the time of the 1976 White Paper', despite the changes occurring in our region.

Brabin-Smith also asks whether warning time has become shorter. I'd agree with the author Justin Jones pointed to and argue that it has. The old conception was that Australia would have time to mobilise from peace to war, but with the volatility of social-media fuelled diplomacy and politics, as well as an interconnected global economy, conflict arises much more quickly. During a Lowy Lecture last year, the Director General Capability of Australia's Special Operations Command concluded that Australia's special forces no longer plan for peace or war, but rather 'constant competition'. It's a useful way to think about what kind of conflict cadence we expect to prepare the ADF for. In an era of constant competition either there is no strategic warning time or it is measured in months rather than years.

So how to deal with shorter warning times? Brabin-Smith advocates entrusting more capability to our defence reserves. Tomorrow I'll explain why I would argue precisely the opposite.

Photo by Flickr user Alan Cleaver.