Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 21:06 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 21:06 | SYDNEY

Our security is at sea


Hugh White

10 March 2011 12:13

Rodger Shanahan's response to my post about the role of the Army hits the spot on two issues. First, he and Gates (whom he quotes), are right to say that we have not been able to reliably predict what the government might ask the ADF to do. Second, he is right that over the past 40 years, most of what the Australian Government has asked the ADF to do has clearly been for the Army, so it has done almost all the fighting.

Rodger implies that the best way to set future force priorities is to assume that the future will be like the past, and therefore we should keep maintaining an ADF, and an Army, that looks much like the one that has served us well until now.

I agree with one part of this. The Army we have today is broadly suited to the demands of the next few decades. But I disagree with Rodger's implication that the rest of the ADF can stay as it is, or even be scaled back. 

I'm not sure the past forty years is a good guide to the next forty. Since 1972, Australia has been protected by uncontested US primacy in Asia, which has blissfully limited both our strategic risks and the demands on our armed forces. The operations we have undertaken have been small, and the stakes for Australia have not been high. The next four decades will be different. US primacy will probably be contested, so the scale and nature of our strategic risks will grow, and we might well demand a lot more of the ADF.

While I agree that we cannot predict the locations and purposes for which governments might in future choose to deploy small contingents of the ADF for strategically marginal purposes, I believe we can predict with some confidence the circumstances in which Australia would depend on the ADF to face a really pressing strategic risk to our safety.

The concentric hierarchy of strategic interests set out in Australian defence policy papers over the past decade is intended specifically to do that, and — though I am not an impartial judge — I think it succeeds. We can draw specific judgments about the kinds of operations needed to defend those interests, and the kinds of forces we should therefore be building.

In other words, while we cannot predict wars of choice, which are decided by the shifting sands of politics, we can predict wars of necessity, which are governed by enduring geostrategic circumstances. And on that basis we can make sensible decisions about future force needs. 

Therefore, Australia should give clear — though not exclusive — priority to air and naval forces over land forces. Put simply, I think land operations are less cost-effective than maritime operations in defending Australia's high-priority strategic interest and hence, that air and naval forces rather than land forces should take priority. The kind of army we have today would be able to do much of what would be required of it over the next few decades in a more contested Asia. The navy and the air force need to change fundamentally. 

And just to reassure Rodger, that does not mean a blank cheque for the other services. As he says, we do need to ask what Air Warfare Destroyers (AWDs) and air combat forces are for. As it happens, I have addressed both of these issues directly. I argued in a Lowy Paper back in 2005 that there is no good reason to buy AWDs, and I take a hard look at air combat in a paper out soon in an Air Power Studies Centre volume. And I'm working on submarines…  

Photo by Flickr user Amanda M Hatfield