Monday, June 11, 2012


Each Service genuinely believes its method of fighting war and resolving conflict is the best. That's why we have inter-service rivalry. Of course each general/admiral/air marshal wants promotion . . . but they're also convinced they've got the answer.

I reckon a recent speech showed this rivalry is back - in a big way - in Australia.

The Art Gallery's Gandel Hall shone brilliantly. On one side ceiling-high, guilt-covered doors stretch to the roof. A wall of windows mirrors their imposing presence on the other. Some spaces are simply beautiful - their proportions ''work''.

On Tuesday night the cold outside was kept at bay by happy conversation as the guests entered. Everyone knew the Australian Strategic Policy Institute hosts a good dinner and, even if there were a few empty seats as the diners sat down, it was probably just because the promised topic (something to do with the role of the Air Force supporting a maritime strategy) sounded an overly complex match for the delicate wines.

But instead of the advertised theme, Air Marshal Geoff Brown reverted to his own simple, favourite subject. Beginning with grand strategy, the Air Marshal quickly reviewed the role of the military. Then he gradually refined his focus until finally, he revealed the message of those who truly believed. It's pure, it's simple, and it can be summed up in one word: ''airpower''.

Almost exactly a year ago, ASPI's Andrew Davies distilled this thinking into a pithy quote. ''The answer will remain 'F-35' (buying more Joint Strike Fighters), pretty much independent of the question'', Davies asserted. And that's exactly where Brown ended up on Tuesday night. Australia faces many strategic challenges, he suggested, however none of these potential tasks or missions can be accomplished unless our forces control the air. To do this, he insists, we need 100 - not 75 or 80, but 100 - JSFs. And with that bald affirmation he sat down.

The speech signalled two things. Firstly, and particularly in these years of fiscal stringency, inter-service rivalry is back in town. There won't be enough money to buy everything that's wanted or needed. In practical terms such competition between the services never really ended despite all the smiles and obeisance towards ''working as a joint force''. But now this rivalry has a hard edge and it's becoming far more than a simple squabble for resources. This is the second aspect of the coming clash. It's actually a conflict between two very different world-views and methods of dealing with strategic problems in a time of limited finances.

Michael Evans, a brilliant strategist working at the Land Warfare Studies Centre in the 1990s, effectively constructed the doctrine surrounding maritime expeditionary operations. He pointed out that airpower alone couldn't achieve the results the politicians were likely to want. The deployment to East Timor suddenly brought home the accuracy of Evans's predictions. It was as if everyone slapped themselves on the forehead. Of course you needed boots on the ground and ships to take them there. That's why his theories were particularly welcomed by the admirals and generals. They suddenly found their services were being dealt back into the game with a new, clearly articulated strategy.

But the theory still needed a midwife to bring it to life. This was to be Defence's (then) deputy secretary Hugh White. He carefully prepared the 2000 Defence white paper, which became perhaps the most rigorously, fiscally challenged document prepared over the past twenty years. On a number of occasions White personally took John Howard and other cabinet ministers through the details of exactly what they wanted the forces to do, explaining exactly how much achieving these objectives would cost. The eventual result framed the Defence Force through the Howard years.

Then, in 2009, Kevin Rudd's white paper was produced. It also included a blueprint for new military capacities, but there was only one and a half pages on how these could be funded. Unsurprisingly, the document itself quickly became little more than a defence enthusiast's wet dream. The minute the GFC hit the economy money was immediately withdrawn from the military and swiftly redirected to other priorities. Rudd's ideal was never going to be affordable: certainly not in the current political climate. Today not even a change of government would see the services jingling money in their pockets - the Coalition's having enough difficulty balancing the books as it is.

This is why, when the latest budget was unveiled, it became obvious the government's decided to adopt an even earlier strategy. Back in 1987, Kim Beazley had commissioned Paul Dibb to prepare the only other white paper that's actually managed to transform our military. Using geography as his starting point, Dibb focused on the key task - the defence of Australia. His study inevitably privileged two elements of the force structure: submarines and airpower. This latter element was crucial. And that's why Brown has picked it up now.

Brown points out what was accomplished in Libya. Western nations were unable to deploy troops yet achieved regime change. The initial invasion of Afghanistan - with airpower and Special Forces aiding the Northern Alliance - was successful.

Since then the deployment of infantry on counter-insurgency tasks has simply resulted in a long, drawn-out campaign of dubious effectiveness. Brown's challenge is immediate. We need to think clearly about exactly what it is that force can accomplish and match these objectives up with the resources we're prepared to devote to achieving it. Basically it means the first 1 per cent of GDP we spend on defence needs to be dedicated to the air force; he suggests that only after his service's needs are met that we can spend on other desirable objectives (like a navy and army).

The government is embracing his argument. One of the prime tasks of the amphibious fleet is, for example, the evacuation of Australian civilians from trouble spots. The air force could accomplish this (from an airport) before the navy got steamed up to deploy amphibious army units.

Until now, the forces have been able to unite and ask for ''one of these and one of those''. In the new fiscal environment it's a choice of either/or. Brown's making a strong case for his own service.

Expect the fireworks to continue.

No comments:

Post a Comment