Rethinking Australia’s Force Structure



In the past month there have been significant updates regarding topics of Australia’s defence. The Defence Minister’s office announced that there would be a competitive tender process for the Collins Class submarine replacement but would rule out Saab from the bid because they have not built a submarine in over two decades. This of course has not come without its critics. And of course there was the debacle regarding the Prime Minister’s ‘discussion’ with ‘military planners’ about the possibility of sending combat troops into Iraq. This was in all probability a result of poor journalism but Defence officials quickly corrected that error by The Australian.

The reason I bring up these news updates is to draw attention to the fact that what is reported in conventional media is usually focused on developments in the ADF’s new kit or new announcements in operational deployments. After all, shiny new toys and forays overseas for a just cause remind the general public how their money is being spent and for what purpose. It is easy to look at the pure statistics of particular assets and equipment, pointing to figures such as payload or troop capacity in order to assess the level of ADF capability. I would argue that it is more important to look at how a particular force structure can achieve the strategic goals, but this must first start with defining those goals.

The purpose of any Defence White Paper is to provide the overall evaluation of Australia’s strategic context, its priorities and how it will achieve these aims in a broad sense. The 2009 and 2013 Defence White Papers both had elements that were worthy of praise; the 2009 White Paper made a significant pledge to boost Australia’s strategic edge by committing to purchasing 12 submarines while the 2013 White Paper provided strong analysis on Australia’s geopolitical context. Critics of both argued that neither was able to demonstrate how any government would have been able to fund these significant acquisitions touted in the White Papers.

Andrew Davies, from ASPI, maintains that the best predictor of future ADF structure will be its current one. The real question, however, is: ‘should the current structure determine the future one?’ For military planners to dismiss what they currently have for future planning would certainly be unwise. This is just a reality that must be acknowledged and to ignore it would be to the detriment of any analyst or planner. It would be interesting to see, however, what an Australian Defence Force would look like in five years time, for example, if the upcoming Defence White Paper wiped the slate clean and completely redesigned the structure of the ADF in order to meet the goals as outlined in the upcoming White Paper.

Analysts, such as Stephan de Spiegeleire, have long argued that defence planning needs to be based on the foundation of capability-based planning. In layman’s terms, the end result of what you want your military to be able to do should guide your planning, not what your kit can do for you. Once you have a situation where your operational concepts are driven by the limitations of the equipment, your strategy is reactive to the circumstances. Even if it is not possible to purchase a particular asset because of fiscal constraints, that process alone will at least provide a benchmark for the final decision. In any case, the strategic parameters are then being addressed rather than a simple process of ‘out with the old and in with the new.’

I am not saying that I have the solution to solve the ADF’s structure out to 20 or 30 years. History would tell us that even if we prepare for a particular strategic circumstance there is always the risk that a small blip on the radar today might just blow up into a large problem in 10 or 20 years time that our current ADF structure might not be well prepared for. In any case, by defining our strategic interests early and begin structuring a force to meet those goals we will at least be well positioned to achieve some level of goal attainment. By whittling down to the core of our strategic interests and defining the ADF’s goal we will be able to truly understand what it is that is needed in order to best protect Australia.

In the past month there have been significant updates regarding topics of Australia’s defence. The Defence Minister’s office announced that there would be a competitive tender process for the Collins Class submarine replacement but would rule out Saab from the bid because they have not built a submarine in over two decades. This of course has not come without its critics. And of course there was the debacle regarding the Prime Minister’s ‘discussion’ with ‘military planners’ about the possibility of sending combat troops into Iraq. This was in all probability a result of poor journalism but Defence officials quickly corrected that error by The Australian.

The reason I bring up these news updates is to draw attention to the fact that what is reported in conventional media is usually focused on developments in the ADF’s new kit or new announcements in operational deployments. After all, shiny new toys and forays overseas for a just cause remind the general public how their money is being spent and for what purpose. It is easy to look at the pure statistics of particular assets and equipment, pointing to figures such as payload or troop capacity in order to assess the level of ADF capability. I would argue that it is more important to look at how a particular force structure can achieve the strategic goals, but this must first start with defining those goals.

The purpose of any Defence White Paper is to provide the overall evaluation of Australia’s strategic context, its priorities and how it will achieve these aims in a broad sense. The 2009 and 2013 Defence White Papers both had elements that were worthy of praise; the 2009 White Paper made a significant pledge to boost Australia’s strategic edge by committing to purchasing 12 submarines while the 2013 White Paper provided strong analysis on Australia’s geopolitical context. Critics of both argued that neither was able to demonstrate how any government would have been able to fund these significant acquisitions touted in the White Papers.

Andrew Davies, from ASPI, maintains that the best predictor of future ADF structure will be its current one. The real question, however, is: ‘should the current structure determine the future one?’ For military planners to dismiss what they currently have for future planning would certainly be unwise. This is just a reality that must be acknowledged and to ignore it would be to the detriment of any analyst or planner. It would be interesting to see, however, what an Australian Defence Force would look like in five years time, for example, if the upcoming Defence White Paper wiped the slate clean and completely redesigned the structure of the ADF in order to meet the goals as outlined in the upcoming White Paper.

Analysts, such as Stephan de Spiegeleire, have long argued that defence planning needs to be based on the foundation of capability-based planning. In layman’s terms, the end result of what you want your military to be able to do should guide your planning, not what your kit can do for you. Once you have a situation where your operational concepts are driven by the limitations of the equipment, your strategy is reactive to the circumstances. Even if it is not possible to purchase a particular asset because of fiscal constraints, that process alone will at least provide a benchmark for the final decision. In any case, the strategic parameters are then being addressed rather than a simple process of ‘out with the old and in with the new.’

I am not saying that I have the solution to solve the ADF’s structure out to 20 or 30 years. History would tell us that even if we prepare for a particular strategic circumstance there is always the risk that a small blip on the radar today might just blow up into a large problem in 10 or 20 years time that our current ADF structure might not be well prepared for. In any case, by defining our strategic interests early and begin structuring a force to meet those goals we will at least be well positioned to achieve some level of goal attainment. By whittling down to the core of our strategic interests and defining the ADF’s goal we will be able to truly understand what it is that is needed in order to best protect Australia.

Nam Nguyen is Australian National Security and Defence Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au for more information.

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