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December 01st 2013 print

Michael O’Connor

Long-Term Defence Planning on Short-Term Electoral Cycles

I wrote in the June Quadrant (“Why Defence Will Not Be an Election Issue”) that both major parties would ignore defence partly because defence is very rarely of interest to the electorate and, in any case, the federal budget was in such a dire state that there would be no money. The Coalition produced a policy of sorts but emphasised the budget problem and virtually put defence on the long finger with a statement that while aiming to spend 2 per cent of GDP, it would likely be ten years before such an ambition could be achieved. Labor was quiet except for Kevin Rudd’s maniacal brainstorm about transferring the Sydney naval base to somewhere in Queensland, a notion that made him a laughing stock to anyone who understood that the Sydney naval base, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, is effectively not moveable.

In an interview with the Australian shortly after being sworn in as Defence Minister, Senator David Johnston reiterated the new government’s inability to implement any defence strategy but made a radical commitment to a future strategy based upon the defence of Australia’s trade routes. In reality, such a strategy is radical only because it has never been declared as such despite the fact that it drove Australia’s real strategy in both world wars as well as our primary alliance arrangements, first with Britain and, since 1942, with the United States. Around 60 per cent of Australia’s GDP is directly or indirectly dependent upon overseas trade, most of it ship-borne. Its protection is a fundamental national interest that we share with our principal trading partners. Because it is an offshore interest, this far more than some mythical invasion is what should drive our principal defence programs.

Unfortunately Johnston went on to emphasise a commitment to the twelve-strong new submarine program as well as an interest in the American Littoral Control Ship, by definition a short-range inshore naval vessel. These are certainly interesting programs but lack fundamental value for the defence of trade. They hint at an enthusiasm for superficial and novel items rather than basic thinking about strategy and force balance.

If the new government is serious about defence as a primary national responsibility, it should take the opportunity for a top-to-bottom rethink about how we look at the challenges ahead. The money that will be available will be sufficient to maintain the current defence force and meet contractual commitments. The government has indicated that it will produce a new defence White Paper in 2014. This should not be just another exercise in futility, as have been past such documents, but rather a radical overhaul of our national approach to military security.

Above all, what is needed is to define a contemporary defence force and its development over a thirty-year rolling cycle. A thirty-year program as a broad structure of combat systems can be developed around the approximate life cycle of defence force capabilities and can be modified according to strategic changes, to obsolescence or to force of circumstance. Such a program offers more certainty, allowing the defence force leadership and industry to plan with greater confidence. The principal difficulty has nothing to do with external strategic events, only with the dubious discipline of the three-year electoral cycle.

Such a program offers the possibility that the planners can acquire systems rather than platforms. For example, the RAAF has not at any time over the past four decades been able to deploy an air defence system that combines combat aircraft, air-to-air refuellers and airborne early warning and control aircraft. Thus it has been confined to mainland bases unless arrangements can be made with allies to access their bases in time of conflict. And that, of course, poses political problems even in an alliance. It now has that system in place although it is still very small.

Lacking sufficient modern armoured vehicles, armoured artillery and adequate combat helicopters, the Army is not able to deploy a modern all-arms force capable of high-level operations. Its Special Forces, which have taken many years to develop to their current state, are therefore, apart from some technical units, almost the only element capable of deployment into combat in commitments such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever the view of the importance of those commitments, the fact remains that the Army’s combat capability is seriously limited. Worse, as we discovered in East Timor, the ability to sustain even a small brigade-size force of 2000 to 3000 troops for more than six months does not exist. The Army’s reserve forces have become a useful source of individuals rather than formed and trained units. They are seriously under-manned and the ability to turn them into a readily available force is politically constrained, not least because their civilian employers are reluctant or unable to spare them.

Despite the fact that the Navy this year celebrates the centenary of the Fleet’s arrival in Australia, the Navy remains the poor relation of the defence force. In the light of Senator Johnston’s commitment to a maritime strategy, the RAN is too small for its current tasks, never mind those that would be required for a maritime trade defence role. Currently the navy has four guided missile frigates that are twenty to thirty years old and therefore likely to spend increasing time in dock. These ships are to be replaced by three large and capable destroyers that are, however, unlikely to be completed within ten years. Eight smaller and relatively less capable frigates are between seven and seventeen years old. The navy should be planning for their replacement, with building commencing not later than 2020. The overworked and battered patrol boats are police vessels rather than warships.

Of course the navy also has the six much-maligned Collins-class submarines. These large diesel-electric boats had a long gestation and have been plagued by operational and maintenance problems. They are very capable vessels when fully operational, but are now approaching middle age. There exists a theoretical commitment to build twelve submarines of a new Australian design but no decision has been made on any design or timetable. Any new submarines would need to begin coming into service by the mid-2030s at the latest—assuming, that is, that the Collins’s troubles are overcome. Given the government’s financial problems, there is probably no urgency and, indeed, the whole project calls for a serious rethink.

While submarines are valuable weapons platforms, their value in trade defence is limited. This is especially true of the diesel-electric boats that would have difficulty in remaining in the vicinity of a surface force and remaining stealthy. In trade defence, they have more value in interdicting an enemy force than in close protection. One must also question the justification for twelve submarines. The number seems too conveniently close to double the six currently in service, and there are suspicions that the figure is related more to keeping the submarine-builders in business. In any event, the navy has had difficulty in providing crews even for the four boats that are normally operational.

No matter how capable the new and existing ships are, eleven surface combatants do not constitute a force capable of all the maritime tasks including trade defence, given especially that they must also protect their supporting tankers and the amphibious warfare ships in service or currently under construction. The proper number is likely to be in the range of fifteen to twenty, observing that, at any time, one quarter will be undergoing essential maintenance or modernisation.

Of course, trade defence is not possible without the co-operation of our trading partners. A crucial challenge for the government will be to develop the current levels of naval co-operation with the United States, Australia, Japan and regional countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia into a well-structured system. This will be difficult for a variety of reasons but that is no excuse for not getting on with it, at least to the extent of developing and exercising a joint command structure.

Given the lack of adequate funding now and in the near future, the government needs to focus attention on the defence organisation, the Australian Defence Force and the Department of Defence. As it stands, this is a product of the 1973 reorganisation under the direction of Sir Arthur Tange. The structure has been repeatedly modified, usually as a result of external inquiries but also, like most organisations, arising from internal pressures. The result, based upon performance estimates, is a mess. At the centre of the mess lies the so-called diarchy, the equal standing of the department and the ADF. Nominally existing only at the top, the effective diarchy is replicated throughout the whole structure. Frequent inquiries have suggested abandoning the diarchy but it seems to have sacred status.

Originally intended to provide for superior policy formulation by better-educated civilian officials, the diarchy has become, in the words of one former departmental head, a system for exercising civilian control of the military as well as a bureaucratic empire of mind-numbing complexity ruled at great expense in money and time by process rather than by disciplined and effective performance. Of course, the notion that Australia’s military require some sort of oversight to prevent a military coup is derived, one suspects, from the “better” education that these officials received in their undergraduate days. In any case, the public service has no constitutional authority for such a task; that is a function and responsibility of the defence minister. The proper role of the department should be to provide administrative, logistic and financial support for the ADF in areas such as equipment purchasing, personnel administration, finance and the like. It should operate subordinate to and under the direction of the chief of the defence force and the minister. The new government has an unrivalled opportunity to direct this reform and save not only money but also highly qualified personnel in the process.

Recent years have seen the exacerbation of the perennial difficulties of delays in equipment programs, an unusually large maintenance task arising from high operational tempos and the severe cuts to budgets applied by the Gillard and Rudd governments. In trying to cope with this nightmare, Defence has tended to withdraw from any serious forward planning and concentrate upon familiar processes. The government did not help, asking for and receiving new defence White Papers in 2009 and 2013. Neither was much help and, lacking any financial commitment, they have effectively become museum pieces, like their predecessors. The new government has talked about yet another White Paper in 2014. It should forget about that and get on with management reform as a priority and developing a thirty-year rolling program instead of the five-year vision of a succession of White Papers and similar documents produced by the bureaucratic behemoth of the defence organisation. The government’s financial difficulties offer an opportunity for serious and far-reaching reform.

The opportunity also exists for generating serious and mature debate about Australia’s defence. To take just one example of our problem, the government’s commitment to spending—eventually—2 per cent of GDP on defence is meaningless. Two per cent of GDP might not be enough; it might be too much. We simply don’t know because we don’t know what it is for. It does not even provide a basis for comparison with other countries because the cost structures vary considerably. Personnel costs, for example, account for as much as half of any defence budget, so a high-wage country like Australia is likely to spend more as a percentage of GDP than a low-wage country such as, for example, Indonesia.

In the context of a national conversation about defence, the government—and opposition—must lead. Defence won’t, because it fears government retribution if it tells the truth. Thus Defence’s contribution tends to be spin rather than analysis backed by facts. The media, currently, are no help. There are few if any sophisticated defence writers in the media, while those that do look at defence concentrate on the occasional scandal. The various community groups are under-resourced and effectively buried.

Labor in government focused too much of its defence thinking upon industry. The Coalition was marginally less preoccupied with defence industry jobs but, in the recent election, the minor parties operated at the silly end of the spectrum. Thus the Katter group boasted a commitment to manufacturing all military uniforms in Australia. That seemed to be the sum total of the group’s defence policy. The Palmer party was wholly focused on veterans’ issues—nothing to do with defence—while the Greens were plain silly with their “policy” set out in two pages of dot points which were largely irrelevant and internally contradictory. My own personal canvass of candidates in my electorate elicited no response whatever from the major parties, their candidates being much more focused on local issues that were state or municipal responsibilities.

In part, the neglect of defence by the wider body politic seems to have a constitutional basis. Under the Constitution, the responsibility for defence rests with the executive government, the ministry. The parliament’s responsibility is to vote the money as part of the overall funding of government and no more. The parliament can exercise some oversight through various committees but these have no authority and can simply be ignored by the government. Moreover, in the remote event that the parliament did threaten to withhold money, it would become a matter of confidence in the whole program of government and the threat would collapse.

How then to commit governments to a long-term defence policy, one that is free of the shifting enthusiasms of governments and parliaments over a thirty-year period? One possibility that would be anathema to most politicians would be to implant the program in legislation that could be debated in public. Inevitably and for valid reasons, amendments would be required but only by recourse to parliament and thus to the wider public through the media. It would make defence a true political issue instead of one that was normally buried. Such a radical step would require great political courage, a quality that, like Sir Humphrey Appleby, our over-powerful bureaucracy does not like to see in a government. Now might be a good time to ask whether Australia has a government of courage.

Michael O’Connor, a frequent contributor, is a former head of the Australia Defence Association