The Essential Service

An Army requires a theory of an Army … There must exist something in addition to its soldiers and tanks and guns—a concept, a strategy, a notion of who it is and what it wants to be, of what it is about and what it wants to be about.Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War (1989)

One of the most important acts of Australian public policy in the first decade of the twenty-first century has been the restoration of the Army as an important instrument of national statecraft. This achievement is all the more remarkable when one considers that, while this policy was mainly the work of the Howard government between 2000 and 2007, the Rudd Labor administration carried on the Coalition’s development of the Army until 2010. Such policy continuity represented a strong bipartisan recognition in Australian politics of the significance of ground forces in Australian defence strategy in the new millennium. Like Howard, Rudd acknowledged that the complexities of offshore operations in East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Solomons from 1999 onwards demonstrated the bankruptcy of the experiment from 1972 to 1997 of developing the force structure of the Australian Army according to the single scenario of defending Australia’s north from invasion.

It was this former policy that the Defence sub-committee of the parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade memorably described in August 2000 as producing a “phantom Army” critically short of manpower, equipment and logistics. What one Australian general has called “the Babylonian captivity of the Army” from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s had two serious consequences. First, it seriously weakened the joint strength of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and second, it denied Australian statecraft the traditional use of one of its most useful instruments in the form of usable land forces. Kevin Rudd was keen to avoid a repetition of these mistakes and in September 2008, in an important speech to the RSL National Congress in Townsville, he declared, “we need a first-rate and flexible land force—one capable of taking on challenges from contributing to high-end military engagements to delivering post-conflict reconstruction support”. As a result, the Rudd government’s 2009 Defence White Paper, Force 2030, stated that Australia required “an expeditionary orientation on the part of the ADF at the operational level, underpinned by requisite force projection capabilities”. Funding was pledged to ensure that Australia’s ground forces would be able to continue to pursue their transformation into a medium-weight and combined arms force. The aim was to ensure the future role of the Army as a key component of an ADF expeditionary force equipped with two new Canberra-class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs) capable of carrying 2000 troops supported by embarked armoured vehicles and helicopters. These helicopter carriers are, in turn, to be defended by three Aegis air warfare destroyers capable of firing long-range surface-to-air missiles.

The Howard–Rudd era in defence is, however, over—eclipsed by a combination of global economic downturn, a general Western trend towards military austerity and by Australian domestic political imperatives. The Gillard government’s $5.5 billion cuts to Australian defence capability in May 2012 have reduced spending on the armed forces to 1.56 per cent of gross domestic product—a level not witnessed since the Munich crisis of 1938. Since it remains unclear whether any future Coalition government will restore defence spending to 2010 levels, Australians should not expect a recovery in the ADF budget for at least a decade. As a result, we must assume that the future capacity of the ADF in general and, of the Army in particular, will remain clouded in deep fiscal uncertainty irrespective of which party occupies the Treasury benches. The aim of this article is, however, not to ponder the intricacies of party politics on defence capability or to bewail the unpleasant turn in political economy for the profession of arms, but rather to reinforce the intellectual case for why a strong, credible and expeditionary Army is vital to Australia’s national interest in the twenty-first century.

First, in order to establish a context for analysis, this article analyses the evolving strategic environment that Australia is likely to confront over the next two decades. This environment is likely to be distinguished by the intersection of global and regional forces in unpredictable ways so enhancing, rather than reducing, the need for a capable and flexible Australian Army as a component of the ADF.

Second, it is suggested that, if history has any lesson for Australia’s defence policy-makers, it is that elements of land power have been vital to the successful practice of Australian statecraft. Historically it has been predominantly soldiers that Australian politicians have deployed in order to uphold key national interests in times of security crisis. Given the current combination of financial austerity and a climate of uncertainty over the future acquisition of new air and sea capabilities—such as joint strike fighters and next-generation submarines—it is likely to be Diggers who will continue to carry the main burden of the ADF’s regional and global deployments for years to come.

Finally, this article recommends that the force structure of the Australian Army of the future must always be configured for expeditionary operations and carefully embedded within a clearly articulated ADF joint maritime strategy—as befits an island trading nation situated on the cusp of an economically dynamic Asia. Any Australian maritime strategy without a clear role for the Army will mean that the ADF’s air and naval platforms will be incapable of achieving balanced sufficiency for operations in what is defined as the nation’s “primary operational environment”—that area running from the eastern Indian Ocean through the Malay archipelago to the island states of Polynesia. 

Australia needs to be extremely careful that it does not come to view the ADF’s future solely in terms defined by Sino-American rivalry in East Asia. If such a posture is adopted there is a strong likelihood that aerospace and naval forces will dominate Canberra’s strategy. Involvement in anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) doctrines may become predominant to the extent that the Australian Army would be consigned to policy irrelevance. A narrow “China-centric defence policy” would be contrary to the national interest. Such an approach would serve only to prevent Australia from developing a flexible strategy and a balanced ADF joint force structure capable of meeting a spectrum of regional and global challenges that support the broader aims of the Australian-American alliance.

The next two decades will see the emergence of a truly global age that will defy easy management by either the USA or China. This analytical conclusion has been persuasively articulated by several of the world’s finest geopolitical thinkers including Saul Bernard Cohen, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. It is a view that tends to run contrary to the tsunami of recent literature on a rising China as a threat to international stability by Americans such as John Mearsheimer and Aaron L. Friedberg and Australians such as Hugh White. Their collective work tends to see the future through the zero-sum terms and neo-Cold War lens of Sino-American strategic rivalry—as symbolised by Friedberg’s 2011 book, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia—whose very title echoes A.J.P. Taylor’s famous study of European great power rivalry between 1848 and 1918.

In contrast, while Cohen, Kissinger and Brzezinski do not doubt that China will consolidate its regional position as an Asian superpower, they are far less convinced of the inevitability of Sino-American strategic rivalry along classical realist lines, or that Beijing will rapidly become a second global superpower. As Cohen writes in his 2009 study, Geopolitics: The Geography of International Relations, it is a mistake to see the future solely in terms of a Sino-American condominium of power:

In an increasingly complex geopolitical world, pervaded by the influence of globalism, power will be even more widely dispersed and hierarchy weaker, so that no single state or realm can expect to be dominant. The twenty-first century has become the “Global Century” not the “American” or the “Pacific” one. The very complexity of the [global] system requires the leadership of all the major and regional powers to keep the world in balance in the face of dynamic changes. 

In June 2011, Henry Kissinger, author of the influential book On China, argued forcefully against the idea that China will become globally pre-eminent this century: 

I would say that China will be preoccupied with enormous problems domestically and preoccupied with its immediate environment, during the 21st century. And because of this, I have enormous difficulty imagining a world dominated by China.

Observing that China has fourteen neighbours, all of whom would resist any attempt at outright strategic domination, Kissinger warned that “one must not confuse magnitude with global influence”. He predicted that China’s biggest contemporary problem will be the challenge of aligning its political institutions with its economic development, concluding, “I believe that the concept that any one country will dominate the world, is in itself, a misunderstanding [of the 21st century]”.

In some ways, Kissinger’s views reflect the content of the recent best-selling book by the Chinese scholar Zhang Weiwei titled The China Wave: The Rise of a Civilizational State, a study which is striking for its lack of focus on defence and foreign policy in favour of domestic issues including cultural exceptionalism, internal stability and economic growth. The American diplomat and RAND researcher James Dobbins noted recently: 

China is seeking neither territorial aggrandizement nor ideological sway over its neighbours. It shows no interest in matching US military expenditures, achieving comparable global reach, or assuming defence commitments beyond its immediate periphery.

As the Singaporean elder statesman Lee Kwan Yew observed in 2009: 

[the United States will be] the sole superpower for two or three more decades despite fallout from last year’s global crisis … Beijing is neither willing nor ready to take on equal responsibility for managing the international system.

Brzezinski, in his 2012 study, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, also views the geopolitical future in terms of an interactive and interdependent world. While acknowledging a dynamic shift in economic and geopolitical power from the West to the East, he points to a number of other major challenges. These include the strategic fragility of the “Global Balkans” (embracing the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and potentially parts of Central Asia); a global political awakening as a “cumulative product of an interactive and interdependent world connected by instant visual communications and of the demographic youth bulge in the less advanced societies”; and what he sees as America’s post-1990 deficient domestic and international performance as the world’s only superpower.

For Brzezinski, the emergence of an intensely nationalistic and militaristic China would be self-defeating in that it would alienate all of Asia. He notes that analogies between the nineteenth- and twentieth-century European inter-state system and contemporary Asia are intellectually superficial and take little account of the character of much of Asia’s inter-state history. “Long periods of peace among the European powers,” he observes, “were the exception rather than the rule … In sharp contrast … the national states of the East Asian system were almost uninterruptedly at peace, not for 100 but 300 years.” Noting that the motivating impulses of rival powers in an enclosed European continent were often based on nationalistic territorial conquest, Brzezinski goes on: 

In contemporary Asia, internal conflicts derived from ethnic diversity and pre-nation-state tribal loyalties rather than external territorial ambitions are more likely to the main cause of regional instability. Indeed, with the exception of Pakistan’s fears of India, the preservation of the stability of the existing states rather than concerns over territorial designs from their neighbours may currently be the more serious preoccupation of most of the military commands in southeast and southwest Asian states.

Domination by a single power along older European lines is thus unlikely and, “since America is not yet Rome and China is not yet its Byzantium”, a stable global order still ultimately depends on the hub and spokes of the American-led alliance system running from NATO Europe to Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia.

Australian policy-makers need to understand that the world in general and Asia in particular will have different geopolitical contours from previous eras. The emerging global age foreseen by Cohen, Kissinger and Brzezinski will encompass not simply the Sino-American strategic relationship but also a number of other complex and interconnected strategic transformations.

Currently, there are five strategic power transformations whose long-term outcomes we cannot yet know but whose dynamics we can at least sketch. The first transformation is the erosion of the European state system through a combination of political passivity, economic malaise and low defence spending. While NATO states such as Britain, France and Germany still possess credible military establishments, the European Union (EU) demonstrates little political will to build any collective military muscle. This situation is compounded by the failure to integrate Russia into any meaningful European security system. In short, what we are witnessing in Europe is a power withdrawal through the weakness of the trans-national European Union in global security affairs.

The second strategic transformation is the Islamic civilisational crisis that extends from North Africa and the Middle East through South and Central Asia to parts of South-East Asia. Al Qaeda and its various affiliates in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir, Yemen and Mali, and the national revolutions of the Arab Spring in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Syria represent different symptoms of a deep governance crisis in the Islamic world. In addition, there is the problem of Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear power alongside its Shia politico-theological animus against both the Sunni Arabs and Israel. The turmoil in Islamic civilisation represents a long-term power diffusion embracing insurgency, terrorism, civil war and a clear potential for nuclear and chemical warfare proliferation.

The third strategic transformation is the revolution in Asia-Pacific inter-state relations symbolised by the spectacular rise of China and the rapid emergence of India as economic powerhouses with large militaries and nuclear arsenals. The rise of these two great Asian states with huge trading hubs such as Shanghai and Mumbai represents a shift in global influence from the Euro-Atlantic world to an Indo-Pacific world. This shift is a historic power transition that replaces what we have traditionally seen as the Asia-Pacific with a new Indo-Pacific region in which East Asia and South-East Asia will increasingly be enmeshed and where latent tensions and disputes over North Korea, Taiwan and the South China Sea will require skilful management by regional states.

The fourth strategic transformation consists of the phenomenon of failed and fragile states alongside the increased influence of non-state irregular actors. Weak states run from Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia, through Papua New Guinea and several of the mini-states of the Pacific into a band of countries in North and West Africa from Mali to Nigeria. Much of this process of state decay is emblematic of a power failure by ruling elites in large parts of the developing world.

Fifth and finally, there is the security transformation represented by the rise of a new urban geopolitics which involves a massive power shift in global demography as up to one billion people are expected to move from rural areas into cities and towns over the next two decades. Much of this urban revolution will be driven by a rootless and potentially dangerous “youth bulge” throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. Since military conflict mirrors human habitat, aspects of warfare will come to involve cityscape as well as landscape, and the consequences for global security, stable governance and competition for natural resources from overpopulated megalopolises and extensive shanty cities from Karachi to Lagos may become serious. As Vijay Sakhuja in his 2011 study, Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century, points out, in the Indo-Pacific region alone, out of a collective population of 3.5 billion, some 60 per cent or 2.1 billion will live in littoral urban areas by 2030. In contrast to this non-Western global explosion of “urban youth”, the populations of the West—with the notable exception of the United States—will be plagued by a rapidly ageing demography.

The cumulative effect of these five interconnected strategic power transformations will, over time, present a range of novel global inflection points that will affect the conduct of Australian statecraft and the future use of the ADF. For example, there is likely to be delicate global-regional interplay between crises in the Islamic world, the transformation of parts of Asia, the rapidly changing demography of urbanisation and challenges emanating from fragile states. Such strategic pluralism suggests that Australia’s land forces will continue to be required to mount any number of future operations ranging from co-operative intervention “missions of necessity” in the littorals of the Indo-Pacific’s Malay archipelago—our primary strategic area of concern in which we can never afford to stand aloof—to participating in international peace enforcement or stabilisation “missions of choice” in areas of chronic instability in the Middle East or Africa.

We are entering an age in which any lingering notions that Australian soil can be defended by configuring the Army to repel mythical enemies landing in the wastes of our far north must be expelled from our policy calculations. Such an approach has been tried before and, by tying the Army like an unwanted dog to the barren Australian north it stripped our statecraft of one of its most effective instruments, namely land forces. Any policy-maker who believes that we can somehow return to the post-Vietnam War “Defence of Australia” school needs to come to grips with the strategic implications of what the Lowy Institute’s Michael Wesley calls the “new geometry of power” emanating from twenty-first-century global economic and security interdependence.

In his 2011 book, There Goes the Neighbourhood: Australia and the Rise of Asia, Wesley—in the spirit of Cohen, Kissinger and Brzezinski—argues that all major states will have their future rivalries conditioned by the forces of globalisation. He goes on to suggest that many Australian ideas about the strategic future, particularly in Asia, are mired in inadequate conceptual models drawn from European nineteenth-century balance of power theories or from bipolar Cold War patterns of thought.

Moreover, although contemporary Australian elites are often fond of debating the alleged decline of the United States, they seldom address a much more likely reality: namely that Australia’s own economic and military power is itself being rapidly eclipsed by the rise of Asia. By 2020 the economies of China, India and Japan will dwarf Australia’s, while by 2025 the Indonesian economy will be as large, if not considerably bigger.

With growing Asian economic power will come military modernisation and, as a consequence, in the new Indo-Pacific era, much of the ADF’s traditional high-technology edge in the air and at sea will disappear by 2030. Australia should not make the cardinal mistake of interpreting President Obama’s Canberra speech in November 2011 on the US “strategic pivot” towards Asia—symbolised by a small US Marine Corps rotation to Darwin—as a justification for lower defence spending. Australian defence policy-makers need to note the then US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates’s June 2011 warning:

there will be a dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress—and in the American body politic writ large—to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.

Although Gates was primarily addressing NATO countries, given the May 2012 cuts to our defence budget his warning is now highly pertinent to Australia. At a time when our closest ally, the USA, is facing a massive budget deficit and seeking increased partnership and burden-sharing from its closest allies, it is clearly in Australia’s national interest to develop a balanced defence force in which the ADF’s offshore strike capacity is carefully complemented by an onshore capacity of ground forces.

Gates’s speech on alliance burden-sharing coincided with the release of an American critique of Australian defence strategy prepared by Colonel John Angevine of the Brookings Institution in Washington and published by the Lowy Institute in Sydney as Dangerous Luxuries: How the Quest for High-End Capabilities Leaves the ADF Vulnerable to Mission Failure and More Dependent on the United States. Angevine warns that a conventional military threat to Australia will be extremely low for some years. As a result, any Australian quest to acquire expensive high-technology air and sea platforms instead of developing a capable land force for dealing with what Angevine calls “more likely low-to-mid level operations” will only “add additional burden to US defence planning, increasing costs, and limiting operational options to preserve Asia-Pacific regional stability and security”. He goes on to highlight the reality that it is the Australian Army that has traditionally been the service of choice in military deployments, observing that “the strategic outlook and the most likely threats confronting Australia will call for the ADF—specifically the Australian Army—to conduct operations on the middle to lower spectrum of operations in its near region”. In short, Australia still needs to rely mainly on the high quality of its Army to contribute to security in both regional and global terms 

In Australian strategy, land power has often been of more importance to statecraft than sea and air power. Indeed, one of the striking features of Australian strategic history has been the use that statecraft has made of expeditionary land power elements over the past century to achieve national political objectives. The concept of land power has been usefully defined by the American defence scholar William T. Johnsen as “the ability in peace, crisis and war to exert prompt and sustained influence on, or from, land”. In Australia’s case, because the Army has been drawn from a relatively small population base, land power has always been related not so much to size and mass but to the quality and employment of limited military forces to achieve disproportionate strategic effects for political ends. It is this qualitative approach towards the use of the Australian Army that runs from Monash and the volunteer Australian Corps on the Western Front in 1918; through Blamey and the 2nd AIF in the 1942–45 South-West Pacific campaign; to what historian Jeffrey Grey aptly calls the Regular Army’s “wars of diplomacy”—from Korea through Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam to East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Australia’s use of land power as a tool of statecraft is seldom properly appreciated either by military historians or even by the Army itself. Many historians still prefer to view Australia’s military history not in strategic terms, but through the lens of C.E.W. Bean’s heroic Anzac legacy of tactical battles—beginning with Lone Pine and running through Amiens to Kokoda and Long Tan. Meanwhile, in the Regular Army, the small size of the institution created in 1947 has reinforced a strong tactical tradition with a self-image based on the motto that the land force’s mission is to “win the land battle”. Yet, while battle is certainly the sternest of all military tests, battle itself is not the totality of what a modern Army might be called upon to perform. In this sense, Carl Builder’s notion that every Army must have “a theory of itself … a concept, a strategy, a notion of who it is and what it wants to be” is particularly relevant to the Australian Army now. The Army must always view itself not in terms of simply “winning the land battle” but as a force capable of exerting land power for strategic effect across the modern spectrum of peace, crisis and war—from humanitarian relief through peacekeeping to the ultimate test of warfighting. The Army must not allow success in battle to make it a prisoner of a tactical mindset. Rather, it must develop itself as the nation’s most versatile military instrument of statecraft and always be the ADF’s most ready element for offshore deployment.

One of the evolving myths in contemporary Australian strategic discourse is the notion that the rise of Asia to global significance, and the subsequent American “rebalancing” initiative in the Indo-Pacific, will reduce the role that the Australian Army will need to play in national security in favour of air and sea force projection. Given Australia’s acquisition difficulties with Joint Strike Fighters and replacement submarines along with their long lead times for operational deployment, doctrines such as the 2012 US Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) with its “cross-domain synergy” involving air-sea battle and anti-access and area denial capabilities directed at China, are hardly concepts that the ADF will be capable of emulating in the future. As John Angevine notes, in the event of any USA–China confrontation over Taiwan or in the South China Sea, any ADF air-sea contribution would be of minimal strategic relevance. As a result, it is likely that land forces will remain highly important when the ADF surveys its available joint capabilities for mounting effective operations in Asia. In the evolving global age, Australian military capabilities should seek to complement rather than replicate any of the high-technology assets of America’s vast superpower arsenal. In this respect, it is worth noting that, with the exceptions of Iraq and Somalia, every large land force deployment since the formation of the Australian Regular Army in 1947 has been in Asia—the area in which Menzies said that Australia must assume “primary responsibilities and primary risks”.

Indeed, the Army’s deployment to Korea in 1950 was a major component in Percy Spender’s diplomatic success in forging the 1951 ANZUS Pact. Asia has been the arena where the Regular Army cut its professional teeth—in the battles of Kapyong and Maryang San in Korea, and in fighting insurgent movements in Malaya and Borneo throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. Moreover, much of the modern expeditionary outlook of the Army was shaped by the 7000-strong task force serving in South Vietnam from the mid-1960s until the early 1970s. Today, the seminal experience for a generation of Australian Diggers is less Iraq and Afghanistan than the operation in East Timor. In the 1999 East Timor mission, Australia assumed a leading regional role, deploying 5500 soldiers. In contrast, in Iraq and Afghanistan the Army has fulfilled niche roles in US-led coalitions using a combination of tailored combat units drawn from the Special Air Service and the Commando Regiment along with cavalry, reconstruction, training and mentoring force elements.

Apart from its relations with its English-speaking peers, it is in Asia where the Army retains its most important military-to-military links with key nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. A cursory glance at the public statements of Army chiefs over two decades—ranging from Lieutenant-General John Sanderson, who led the peacekeeping operation in Cambodia in the early 1990s, to the present incumbent, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, who served in East Timor—reveals the primary importance that the Army’s senior leadership assigns to Asia 

In the years ahead, the Australian Army is likely to perform as an instrument of national statecraft in Asia in general and in South-East Asia in particular. This involvement will draw not only on the Army’s long history of deployments in Asia but will also reflect the rapid changes that are likely to occur in the region. In order to understand why, and how, Australian soldiers will contribute to the immediate region it is necessary to provide a snapshot of the strategic evolution of South-East Asia.

A major characteristic of the evolving Indo-Pacific region will be that South-East Asia will become, in the words of Vijay Sakhuja, a key intermediate strategic area, “the convergent maritime hub” between India and China. Something of the potential great power rivalry inherent in this situation is revealed by the fact that before the era of European colonial expansion, South-East Asia was seen by India as “Greater India” and by China as “Little China”. Today South-East Asia embraces vital sea lines of communication such as the Malacca Straits, through which 70 per cent of Asia’s global trade and energy passes. In geopolitical terms, Australia will assume a key strategic position as the southern anchor of the archipelagic island chain that divides the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Although Australia currently has a number of South-East Asian bilateral security co-operation arrangements including the 1971 Five Power Defence Arrangements (Australia, Britain, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia) and the 2006 Lombok Treaty with Indonesia, much more needs to be done. Australia will need to maximise its diplomatic, economic and military engagement with South-East Asia and come to grips with the new sub-regional dynamics stemming from a multifaceted security environment that has little formal architecture beyond the Association of South-East Asian States (ASEAN). The core states of the Malay archipelago are Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, all of whom flank the Malacca Straits. Collectively, these states comprise a key strategic zone—what Australian scholar Andrew T.H. Tan calls the “Malay archipelago security complex” which combines one of the largest Muslim populations in the world with globally significant sea lines of communication in a potentially volatile strategic cocktail. In the Malay archipelago, inter-state and non-state security threats intersect and embrace a mixture of maritime security rivalries, fragile governance, Islamist and separatist insurgencies, terrorism and piracy.

Not surprisingly, several experts have noted the need for increased regional security co-operation in South-East Asia. In 2009, Saul Bernard Cohen called for an improved strategic framework through the creation of a rapid-response regional defence force. Andrew Tan in his 2011 study Security Strategies in the Asia-Pacific has suggested that the long-standing Five Power Defence Arrangements might serve as a building block for improved security confidence-building measures and for future joint-service military operations. While both of these ideas have merit, we need to recognise that any increased security co-operation must, above all, seek to be sensitive of indigenous South-East Asian dynamics and include the sub-region’s pivotal state, Indonesia, in any future collective security agreement. In this respect, an awareness of the ill-starred fate of the Cold War-era South-East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) that existed between 1955 and 1977 is instructive. SEATO failed largely because it was multi-centred—rather strangely it included Pakistan—and lacked a true regional core. In addition, it contained external powers such as the USA, Britain and France and was thus bedevilled by conflicting strategic interests and internal political disagreements. As a result SEATO failed to respond directly to South-East Asian security concerns.

A modest but more practical security co-operation strategy for the future would be to leverage the Australian Army’s connections in South-East Asia and further abroad. Australian policy-makers need to understand that in Asia it is armies that dominate defence establishments. Not only are seven of the ten largest armies in the world found in Asia but in 2012 twenty-two out of twenty-eight current chiefs of defence in the Asia-Pacific are soldiers. As a consequence, one model for improved security might be regional inter-army co-operation through a local version of ABCA, the American, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Armies Program on army standardisation. A South-East Asian Armies Program (SEAAP) modelled on ABCA and comprising Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines would be a useful framework for focusing attention on complex areas such operational interoperability and the development of common doctrine for archipelagic coalition operations. A nascent infrastructure for any future SEAAP-style organisation might be initially developed from the larger Pacific Armies Management Seminar (PAMS) and the biennial Pacific Armies Chiefs Conference (PACC) that began in 1999.

In any event, there is a compelling case in the years ahead for stronger multilateral security architecture in South-East Asia to facilitate a better understanding of modern coalition operations. Security co-operation in developing cross-cultural and language skills, examining issues of weapons standardisation, interoperability, and testing doctrinal co-operation through the use of common exercises would all benefit archipelagic South-East Asian nations. Given the domination of armies in South-East Asia—particularly in Indonesia—any system of increased security co-operation needs to employ the Australian Army as a key instrument of regional engagement. Such military-to-military diplomacy would be a qualitative expression of Australian land power as “the ability in peace, crisis and war to exert prompt and sustained influence on, or from, land”.

Because Australia is the world’s largest island and is situated adjacent to the Malay archipelago—which contains the largest group of islands in the world (13,000 in Indonesia, 7000 in the Philippines, and 85,000 kilometres of waterways)—the correct strategy for Australia in the twenty-first century is clearly a maritime one with an integral role for the Army. In discussing the Army’s current and future role in a maritime strategy for the Indo-Pacific region, it is important to be precise regarding definitions. “Maritime” is an environmental term and not, as is often assumed, a naval service definition. Indeed, a maritime strategy refers to the use of balanced joint forces and represents, in the words of American historian Clark G. Reynolds, “the combined use of all arms—Army, Navy and Air Forces in seaborne operations”. Unlike naval strategy, a maritime strategy aims at control of the sea as a means not an end because goals and missions are always governed by the capacity of joint forces to achieve political effects on land.

In the wake of military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2013–14, Australia must not succumb to any temptation to return the Army to the dysfunctional “sea-air” continental defence strategy of the 1980s and 1990s. In 2004, the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade’s report Australia’s Maritime Strategy explicitly warned policy-makers against embracing a continental-based strategy. Noting both the proximity of archipelagic landmasses and littoral coastal populations to Australia’s shores, the report stated 

Previous White Papers [in 1987, 1994 and 2000] have focused on being able to mount effective military operations in Australia’s sea-air gap … Australia’s defence strategy must now be focused on mounting effective military operations in Australia’s sea-air-land gap so as to influence affairs in our region. An enhanced maritime strategy [employing land forces] is therefore supported as it gives greater focus on capability necessary to defend Australia and its non-territorial interests particularly in our region. [emphasis added]

As a result, over the last decade, the Australian Army has concentrated on developing itself as a medium-weight, combined-arms expeditionary force through such programs as the Hardened and Networked Army and the Enhanced Land Force schemes and, since 2008, through the Adaptive Army concept. These programs have as their ultimate goal the production of a deployable army of 28,000 soldiers capable of executing the kind of regional maritime strategy outlined in the 2009 White Paper. In December 2011, the Army launched a ten-year restructuring scheme named Plan Beersheba in order to create three interchangeable multi-role manoeuvre brigades. The aim is to streamline both land force generation and personnel rotation on operations. Plan Beersheba is accompanied by the conversion of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment into a nucleus for developing an Amphibious Ready Group for the new Canberra-class helicopter-carriers. Finally, the Beersheba scheme is underpinned by the development of the LAND 400 project (Land Combat Vehicle System) which is designed to give the future land force improved mechanised mobility and firepower during offshore deployments.

As a key component of the ADF, the Army is thus focused on being able to perform a range of expeditionary land power missions in Australia’s primary operational area from the eastern Indian Ocean to the island states of Polynesia. This area contains significant challenges involving actual or potential internal instability—ranging from civil-military crisis in Fiji through governance legitimacy in Papua New Guinea, to insurgency in parts of the Malay archipelago including Aceh, Irian Jaya, through to the Muslim Patani separatist campaign in southern Thailand and terrorist movements such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. Andrew Tan has gone so far as to warn that any intersection between the influence of transnational political Islam and regional insurgencies raises the spectre of a “Chechnya-style situation” developing in parts of the Malay archipelago.

All of the above suggests that the ADF must be capable of conducting joint expeditionary operations in the Malay archipelago involving both the seaward open ocean (which must be controlled to support operations ashore), and the landward littoral (that area inland from the shore that can be supported directly from the sea). In these kinds of operations, the Army must be ready and capable of undertaking a suite of missions in South-East Asian and South Pacific conditions. These involve regional engagement measures (military diplomacy, combined training exercises, international military exchange programs, and confidence-building measures); co-operative regional intervention operations (security force assistance programs, mentoring-training and stability activities up to, and including, the possibility of engaging in simultaneous combat missions); and littoral manoeuvre operations (involving projecting amphibious forces into the northern archipelago in entry from the air and sea missions). Such missions would simultaneously reinforce regional security and uphold Australia’s commitment to the American alliance. As John Angevine notes, an Australian military focused not on a hypothetical China threat but on assisting in covering key gaps in the middle and lower spectrum of the continuum of military operations would make a major contribution to regional and global stability. He writes: 

The Australian Army would be better postured and equipped for coalition expeditionary operations anywhere in the Asia-Pacific region against the persistent irregular threats [sic] by adding 2000 to 4000 more troops, specifically trained in amphibious assault operations, with the associated combat support enablers, and an integrated command and control information suite that would provide situational awareness at every echelon.

Such expeditionary operations would bring with them their own brand of complexity for the Army. In this respect, it is important to note that there is no more difficult type of military operation than a joint maritime mission, which involves an intricate mixture of force projection, joint entry operations from the air and sea, and logistical support. As a result, in developing future operating concepts, both the ADF and the Army must concentrate on detailed preparation for operational execution in a rapidly changing region. In particular, the Army in conjunction with the Navy must integrate “narrow seas”, estuarine and riverine concepts of manoeuvre into a coherent amphibious mission repertoire. Moreover, given the demographic realities emanating from rapid urbanisation of littoral areas, the Army needs to consider the uncomfortable implications of future urban operations in parts of South-East Asia. All of this preparatory work needs to become Builder’s “theory of an army” and should be carefully embedded in a comprehensive framework of joint expeditionary warfare. None of this inter-service work will be easy to accomplish. Indeed, the cultural challenge that joint expeditionary operations represent for the Australian services was recently outlined by the current Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison:

Our [ADF] culture needs to be expeditionary in nature, taking account of the new and significant force projection capability [of the LHDs], with a permanently embarked land combat force. The future generations of Army officers will be trained and exposed to amphibious operations from the outset of their careers, as a central pillar to how we fight. This will require an agile and joint mindset that we cannot claim to possess across the entire force at present.

Developing such a “joint mindset” will require close co-operation between the Army and the Navy in particular. There will need to be long exposure to such intricacies as the ADF’s Amphibious Deployment and Sustainment system, understanding of the workings of helicopter carriers, developing knowledge of distributed operational manoeuvre, managing ship-to-shore landing craft movement and employing a range of multi-service capabilities for both seaward and landward actions. Since the Malay archipelago contains not just a maze of islands, but innumerable archipelagic estuaries and riverine coastal systems, multiple skills in littoral manoeuvre will need to be mastered in using a variety of amphibious vehicles including tactical riverine boats and shallow watercraft vessels. A great deal of innovative joint military doctrine will be required in the years ahead in areas such as air cover and area defence in littoral waters, command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, and strategic logistics. Finally, there will need to be careful consideration by the ADF as to whether it can sustain any meaningful form of organic naval aviation, sea basing and maritime pre-positioning for regional operations.

A key uncertainty in achieving the proper degree of success in developing the above skills in an Australian maritime strategy that includes a key role for the Army will undoubtedly be one of available fiscal resources. The 2012 defence cuts have already forced the mothballing of Abrams tanks and armoured vehicles as well as the cancellation of a major self-propelled artillery project. It is possible that Plan Beersheba will not survive as it was envisioned in late 2011. The Army may have to face the agonising “Catch-22 situation” of whether to cut its personnel to fund capability, or to reduce its capability programs in order to retain personnel. No matter which course of action is chosen the result will be a weakened land force. Yet if, in the wake of withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Army is drastically reduced in both capability and personnel as it was after the Vietnam War, then Australia will find itself unable to execute a credible maritime strategy. In this situation, the ADF may become more dependent on the American alliance at a time when the United States is demanding more from its allies. 

Australia has entered a global age marked by intersecting strategic transformations whose outcomes cannot be predicted but whose repercussions are rapidly transmitted by the power of information networks and instant images. In an uncertain era, one of the few constants that Australia can rely upon is the versatility and flexibility of its Army as an instrument of statecraft. The Australian Army by equipping men rather than manning equipment has always been a cost-effective force. This reality has, however, not always been appreciated by Australian policy-makers who have, as events in the 1930s, 1980s and 1990s demonstrate, often starved the land force of adequate resources—only to find that in a crisis it is the Army that must be depended upon. Winston Churchill warned that, because an army is made up of human capital it is very easy to reduce its capacities, but the hardest of all tasks to restore them when they are again needed 

[An] Army is not like a limited liability company, to be reconstructed, remodelled, liquidated and refloated from week to week, as the money market fluctuates. It is not an inanimate thing to be pulled down … It is a living thing. If it is bullied, it sulks; if it is unhappy, it pines; if it is harried, it gets feverish; if it is sufficiently disturbed, it will wither and dwindle and almost die; and when it comes to this last serious condition it is only to be revived by lots of time and lots of money.

Australia must ensure that its army does not “wither and dwindle and almost die” in the decades ahead. The weight of our military experience instructs us that we can never rule out certain kinds of conflict in advance, no matter how unlikely these may seem at any given moment. In 1910, the likelihood that Australia would send thousands of troops to fight in France within five years would have seemed ludicrous. In 1947, anyone who suggested that within three years Australian soldiers would be fighting North Korean and Chinese forces on mainland Asia would have been dismissed as a fantasist. Closer to our own times, no Australian strategist foresaw the crises of East Timor, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq or of the unfolding Arab Spring.

Much strategic forecasting continues to resemble science fiction rather than accurate diagnosis. Our only recourse must be to keep our swords sharp, our powder dry and our historical memories crystal clear. To paraphrase Soren Kierkegaard, strategy, like life, is lived forwards but it is always understood backwards. It is imperative, then, that Australia maintains an ADF with a strong and flexible Army, one that is always capable of fulfilling its historic role of conducting expeditionary operations to uphold our global and regional interests as a liberal democracy. The Australian Army remains at once an essential service at the disposal of our statecraft and the essential service of the nation’s profession of arms

Dr Michael Evans is the ADC Fellow at the Australian Defence College, Canberra, and a former Head of the Australian Army’s Land Warfare Studies Centre. These are his personal views.

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