Defence planning: Whatever the question, there’s only one answer

By John Owens

Friday May 6, 2022

Defence white paper 2016
Defence white papers tell a compelling story. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

OPINION

Recent commentary on Defence and its planning – including on the proposed budget increases and around the announced build-up of ADF personnel – has emphasised it is more important than ever that Defence’s flawed planning processes are addressed. The series of Defence white papers tell a compelling story.

In 1976, the year of the first Defence white paper, the Cold War was in full swing. The US had lost in Vietnam, and stated it would seek to avoid similar situations in the future. China was in the turmoil, with Mao in his final illness before his death in September. The USSR, active in Africa and Latin America, maintained huge forces threatening Europe. Indonesia was aggressive, having invaded East Timor late the previous year.

So, faced with these strategic risks, what did Australia need for its defence?

Three brigades, 10 ships, six submarines, and about 100 combat aircraft.

In 1987, when the USSR was mired in Afghanistan and failing economically; when the US was resurgent under Reagan; when China was eight years into reform and hopes were high that political reform would follow; and when Suharto was well settled in Indonesia and relations were generally okay: what did Australia need for its defence?

Three brigades, 10 ships, six submarines, and about 100 combat aircraft. Gee, that’s lucky, that’s what we’ve got!

In 1994, when the Cold War was over, the USSR had fallen and the Warsaw Pact was no more; the US was the sole superpower; Iraq had been vanquished; China was pragmatic and sensible; Indonesia was still under Suharto, but forces for change were brewing; what did Australia need for its defence?

Three brigades, 10 ships, six submarines, and about 100 combat aircraft. Weren’t you listening?

And so on for 2000, 2009, 2013, and 2016, plus the numerous Defence updates and similar documents that have come out at other times.

I think the point is clear. Over the past 50 years, whatever strategic question Australia faces, the answer is three brigades, 10 ships, six submarines, and about 100 combat aircraft. Although there have been minor changes, and we have generally kept up with technology (as well as adding some important enablers like AEW&C, electronic warfare aircraft, and refuellers), this is the basic force structure that Australia’s defence planners have judged sufficient to meet any contingency. 

Three brigades, 10 ships, six submarines, and about 100 combat aircraft will do the job.

Whatever the job is.

This is not to say that Defence does not put effort into white papers. I saw this first-hand when I was head of the infrastructure division in 2008-09, when whole teams were set up to work on the 2009 White Paper. Most areas of Defence, including my division, had to produce white paper companion papers (in our case we proposed closing bases, thereby learning the iron rule of Defence basing that you can close any base you like, provided it is not within four years of a federal election). 

So Defence acts as though its white papers are genuine processes for coming up with defence force structures to meet our strategic circumstances, but the outcome is always almost the same each time. In policy-wonk-speak, Defence undertakes (or pretends to undertake) ‘rational-comprehensive’ policy processes, only to produce ‘incrementalist’ policy outcomes.

It turns out that what we settled on in the post-Vietnam War period – three brigades, 10 ships, six submarines, and about 100 combat aircraft – was and is about what governments are prepared to fund with between about 1.8-2.5% of GDP.  And because three brigades, 10 ships, six submarines, and about 100 combat aircraft in practice means that the three services get about the same amount of money each, there is a kind of prisoners’ dilemma at work – none of them wants to rock the boat (or plane or large armoured vehicle), in case they end up losing out. 

What explains this?

At the top level, it’s probably because our strategic circumstances have been relatively benign for most of the period since Vietnam. We had the long peace from 1972 to 1999, where deployments were few and limited. And since 1999, we have had the luxury of being involved in operations of choice where we could define our involvement to suit our structure. 

I also think defence ministers who couldn’t or didn’t want to get to grips with the strategic issues – and the force structure implications – have also contributed, coupled with uninterested cabinets. No minister has seemingly wanted to take on the Services or the Defence mandarins to make substantive change or make the public or cabinet case that spending should be other than 1.8-2.5% of GDP.

And of course, it’s the Services and the Department themselves. White papers are major career enhancers for public servants, so there are always those who want to be seen to be writing them, even if the outcome is completely predictable. And, as noted above, under the current construct the services all get one third each of the pie, so they’re not going to whinge much either. 

But this can’t go on. Thanks to Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, our strategic circumstances are no longer benign, and we can no longer afford the luxury of having a “one size fits all” approach to Defence planning and force structure.

So although some recent developments have been promising, we need to get serious on defence. Get the government really involved and committed to following the logic of strategic risk to its logical conclusion, whether that logical conclusion is more or less money, more or fewer platforms, more or fewer troops, more or fewer bureaucrats (although I’d always plump for fewer).

Get Defence to cut through the bureaucracy, and focus on delivering capability quickly. Buy in-service equipment, with far fewer modifications to suit alleged Australian conditions, and stop using Defence as a barrel of pork for electoral purposes. None of this is new, but it is more urgent now.  We did not do these things in the 1930s, and we can’t make that mistake again.


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