Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:34 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:34 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Defence choices are generational

21 June 2011 11:06

Anton Kuruc writes:

I am not sure what to make of Peter Layton's riposte to Jim Molan. Yes, the Government calls the shots and Defence is but one of many competing priorities. I don't think anyone in uniform would bother to dispute such an uncontroversial statement. The more substantive point that Jim Molan seems to make is that governments that cut Defence restrict the strategic flexibility of their successors a long way into the future. For example, many of the problems that were realised in East Timor and later dated back to decades of underfunding Army.

This started with the Dibb White Paper and the Defence of Australia doctrine that arose in the 1980s, if not earlier. But the implications were not felt until the early 2000s as we suddenly found ourselves concurrently operating in South East Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East and Central Asia. Cutting the number of regular infantry battalions in the 6th Brigade in the late 80s suddenly looked like a very bad decision. The promises of the high tech Revolution in Military Affairs of the 90s seemed totally misplaced to the reality we unexpectedly faced. It is not too much to suggest that no one in the mid 80s and 90s foresaw the situation we would find ourselves in only a decade or so later. 

The government of the day can only deploy the resources its predecessors, going back decades, had invested in. This is especially so for long-term investments in the capital equipment program and higher end collective training schedules. These cannot be changed quickly; just think of how long it took to 'rush' the M1 Abrams into service. Because the Government of the day rarely uses the capability it invests in, it has very little incentive to think hard about the long-term strategic consequences of these decisions.

In detailing the capital equipment program and designing high-end collective training schedules, the government and military deal in fundamental uncertainty. No one can know what the Air Warfare Destroyer will be doing in fifteen years, just as no one could have foreseen with any certainty that our Blackhawks would be deployed to East Timor 15 odd years after they came into service. I am sure that Jim didn't foresee his role in Iraq when he was a Commanding Officer. 

The point is not that governments don't have the right to cut defence funding — they certainly do. It's that governments almost never come clean with the public on the real long-term strategic implications of those cuts. Nor do they have any real incentive to. If a week is a long time in politics a couple of decades is an eternity. Governments never seem to moderate their long-term strategic aspirations to match the more modest means they are prepared to invest in ensuring the nation retains long-term strategic flexibility.

Underfunding our defence force now means increasing our reliance on the US into the future. This reduces our longer-term strategic flexibility. I think this is the real nub of Jim's posts.