Saturday 30 May 2020 | 07:07 | SYDNEY
Saturday 30 May 2020 | 07:07 | SYDNEY

We know what the ADF owns, but what can it do?

19 January 2009 12:40

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq. Jim's earlier post on defence spending is here; it prompted a reader reply and some thoughts from Sam, which you can read here.

There is, of course, a real opportunity cost in defence spending. Every dollar spent on defence cannot be spent on hospitals, the poor or the infrastructure that creates wealth for us all. The greatest contributor to our security in Australia and the West is our economic strength and the social stability that this brings.

There is no greater security priority for our governments than to re-establish our economic stability, and I would expect that that will happen relatively effectively in the next two years. The current economic crisis is the greatest own goal in the game of international security that  we and our allies have ever kicked, but it is likely to have a shorter time frame than defence planning.

I am not a proponent of mindless or unlimited  defence spending. But I make the following  points. We tend to decide on how much defence spending is enough by focussing on hardware and the grand total of military units and spending, not on what we can do with it all. We citizens are asked to be content that we have so many guns and ships and planes, and it is only implied that we can actually do something with them. The patronising supporting documentation for the public consultation on the Defence White Paper is an example of this and is as close to a lie as you can get without going to jail. 

There is no point in having air warfare destroyers or JSF or regiments if they cannot work together, if they are not trained and manned, if they do not have even moderate stocks to sustain them, and  if all of our intellectual effort is expended on our current small deployments.

My argument is that in deciding on how much is enough, or how much you should cut, the focus must be on what we can do with the elements within defence. The ADF looks impressive on paper when the numbers are listed, but above a very low and basic level, does much of what we have  actually perform the function for which it was purchased? How satisfied are we that what we have gives value for money across a range of contingencies? 

I do not believe that the ADF has ever met its own government’s strategic guidance over the last forty years, which means either the guidance or the ADF is wrong. The next White Paper will be almost impossible to judge unless there is some openness on what the ADF is supposed to be able to do, not what it has. The end product of defence spending is what real options are offered to government, not what we buy. No one can answer the question of how much is enough unless there is a public commitment to what the ADF should be able to do.

Our allies, who are serious about the use of a full range of military force, commit to action in their defence papers and do not see it as a breach of security. We should do the same.

If the Government has not stated what the ADF must be able to do, then when it comes time for adjusting (cutting) the defence budget, there is a tendency to keep the big expensive platforms, yet cut everything that gives them meaning. A classic example was ships ‘fitted for but not with’ and aircraft without electronic warfare defences. I would hope that in our democracy there is a greater chance of this not happening if the Government actually said what the ADF was able or supposed to do, and we could make a judgement about the ADF and about the Government.

But I am reminded of the movie ‘The Castle’, where every price offered in the Trading Post was met with an Australianism: 'Tell ‘im ‘e’s dreamin'. And perhaps I am.