Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 10:04 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 10:04 | SYDNEY

How many people make a 'growing debate'?


Mark O'Neill

18 September 2008 15:26

An article (subscribers only) on page 10 in today’s AFR ‘Special Report’ on Defence by Shane Nichols caught my attention. Nichols asserts that ‘as global combat forms evolve, a debate is growing about whether the infantry must rethink its role’. Nichols cites an interview with APSI’s Andrew Davies and  his recent ASPI Insight Paper, Asian military trends and their implications for Australia in support of this claim. 

For those who missed it, Davies’ paper contains powerful echoes of the ‘Defence of Australia’ (DOA) conception of Australia’s strategic future. He describes a future where the physical defence of the Australian land mass against a large, Asian, conventional threat is the key determinant of our national security interests. Davies goes on to advocate a ‘two tier’ Army, consisting of a cadre of Special Forces troops for ‘war fighting’ and another tier of troops for ‘regional stabilisation’ missions. 

We should be naturally cautious with respect to highly proscriptive solutions to the uncertain or unknowable – as the future certainly is. There is more than a grain of truth in strategist Colin Gray’s maxim, 'The future is not foreseeable: Nothing dates so rapidly as today’s tomorrow'. It is a matter of record that the defence force capabilities and structure that DOA left us very nearly came unstuck in what proved to be the relatively benign tactical circumstance of East Timor. Advocacy of proscriptive defence posture must be critically and skeptically evaluated in light of three criteria: the guaranteed uncertainty of the future; prudent military experience and knowledge; and the likely cost of ‘getting it wrong’.  Against these criteria it is apparent that any implementation of Davies’ advice with respect to a ‘two tier’ army would be poor public policy.

A final point regarding Nichol’s piece. I was surprised by the use of the term ‘growing debate’. Where is this debate taking place?  I am bemused by the idea that a journo quizzing a physicist working at a strategic think tank might constitute ‘growing debate’ about the future role of Australia’s infantry. If I can get Sam Roggeveen  to interview me about (pick a subject), could The Interpreter then reasonably claim a ‘growing debate’ about the subject?

Photo (of Speaker's Corner, London) by Flickr user StefZ, used under a Creative Commons license.