Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:41 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:41 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: How not to do defence planning

27 January 2009 13:46

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Chris Skinner has this reply to my previous post (my thoughts follow):

General Molan has good reason to complain that Australia does not make clear what the ADF should be able to do. However, who better than him to offer some ideas that we can discuss in a public dialogue.

I think Australia for too long has projected a pathetic dependence on the goodwill and commitment of other countries, notably the USA, for our continuing security. Ample demonstration of this attitude occurred in 2008 in a desultory discussion of the reliance of Australia on trade shipping (mostly foreign flagged) and the expectation that this was far beyond Australia’s capability to protect. How would Britain have fared in two world wars with such a supine attitude?

So if we cannot defend our trade, can we at least defend our offshore resources and territories? Apparently we think we can, and what’s more we have the capability to project force to do this. Looking to the region, can we gather our own intelligence and undertake our own surveillance and reconnaissance? Again, apparently we can do this, mainly by use of submarine covert operations and special forces.

Finally, can we project a credible threat to a putative adversary that might consider any of the following courses of action?

  • Interfere with Australia trade shipping and aircraft.
  • Invade or interfere with Australia’s offshore territories.
  • Threaten other Australian interests such as Australian nationals in other countries.
  • Interfere with Australia’s offshore resources in territorial waters, exclusive economic zones and continental shelf extensions thereof.

Well, with suitable stand-off land-attack weapons, I would assert that we can indeed mount a threat from air and submarine launch platforms. And all of the above is what we can do even before we start calling in the cavalry via the ANZUS and other treaties, let alone diplomatic and UN Security Council action.

So I say to General Molan – if you agree with the above, please say so, and if not, please give us the benefit of your better appreciation.

Chris Skinner challenges me to ‘offer some ideas that we can discuss in a public dialogue'. As an observer of the security scene and once an operational practitioner, and with the White Paper coming up, his challenge to me is fair. I propose to meet the challenge in short and separate stages. The first is to suggest how not to do it, the second is to suggest what to do, and the third is to offer something concrete. I would welcome comment and criticism on each stage.

With respect, what not to do is exactly what Chris may have done, mixing contingency planning, specific scenarios, long term defence planning and hope. It is important to keep these separate, especially hope.

Defence planning is a game which I have normally observed from the sideline, with a few short run-ons. My background is as an operational commander, that is, the user in operations of the results of defence planning. Defence planning is as much about the egos of those playing as it is about any honest attempt to reach clarity and consensus so as to produce capability that works. That is not unique among bureaucracies doing strategic planning. What complicates the issue in the security/defence environment is the money involved, the political impact, the consequences of failure and the infinite ability to obfuscate by claiming secrecy.

Where I do agree with Chris is on the need for Australia to express its sovereignty to the maximum extent possible in its long term defence planning. If I played the game as it is often played in Defence and in Government (and I do this to demonstrate the point – please excuse me), I would address each of Chris’ points in my most patronising 'Yes, Minister' manner, without of course offering my own view which might make me accountable. I would say:

  • No country in the world can achieve its strategic objectives on its own, so we will always be dependent on some other countries to some extent, but to what extent and how does that impact our capabilities?
  • Australia’s trade in ships and aircraft (ours and foreign) travel throughout the world. No single country can protect them all – what are our limits?
  • We should be able to defend our offshore resources and territories, but against what and for how long?
  • Subs and special forces (SF) have a role in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in our region, but with only a few subs working (to be generous) and with our SF overcommitted (by official admission) far off shore, what price regional ISR?
  • In deterring a potential adversary in the situations mentioned, what adversary are we deterring, are we deterring them now or at the end of a 10 or 20 year defence planning cycle, and who can predict the future anyhow?
  • How many air and submarine stand-off land attack launch platforms (at what opportunity cost) might we need to mount a threat and against who and when? And even if we had some fantastic number, what end effect might it have?
  • When we call in the ‘cavalry’, what role do our forces then play and how integrated should we be with our allies? And if we ultimately rely on our allies in some extreme scenario, what price must we pay now in relation to supporting our allies in their current wars?

These unanswered questions invariably result in a withdrawal of the uninitiated from the strategic planning battlefield, for the simple reason that they are so complicated, and also, as I hope to show, unnecessary. The field is then left clear for the strategic industry to play to its own tune and its own prejudices.

I played these games for some years, naively assuming that all parties had good intentions – that is, clarity and logic leading to real capability that actually worked. In many cases, however, the aim is to win the argument or avoid embarrassment while appearing to provide clarity in defence and security planning. And after any number of White Papers, we see an ADF that by its own and the Minister’s admission, has a large number of its capabilities unable to fully perform in operations.

Chris asks: If we cannot defend our trade then can we at least defend our offshore resources and territories? His answer takes me back to the point that I made in my initial post, because he then says, 'Apparently we think we can and what’s more we have the capability to project force to do this'. I understand this sentiment, but Chris has a greater level of confidence, and as much hope, as I have. We might have F/A-18s, but what can they really do? How far can they project anything and for how long? What ships and subs can we project force with after 40 years of White Papers?

If all our materiel actually performed the functions for which they were purchased, and if they were fully manned, trained and stocked, my confidence might approach Chris’, but they demonstrably do not. I sometimes think that the magnificent work that a small number of our tactical forces are achieving in combat may work to the detriment of strategic level planning because we all think that things must be going swimmingly.

I think there is only one determinant of defence planning. That determinant is based on a long demonstrated inability to ever correctly predict the future for more than about five years. The determinant of defence planning, then, that I believe predominates is to gain the maximum flexibility in capability within the budget allocated.

No rocket science there. Flexibility allows us to respond to the best of our ability to today’s conflicts and to adapt effectively to tomorrow’s conflicts. Finance is normally the most important issue anyway, no matter how we dress up clever analysis. Then when every intelligence prediction fails, as they inevitably do, we can at least do something. But still, this determinant is based on the often flawed assumption that what we buy actually works, but so often it does not.

Having looked at what not to do, I will address in a future post how I think we should handle the question, and then offer something concrete.