Defence shopping list points to more overseas trips

This week saw a minor flare-up in Australian defence politics, with the release of a video of Australian troops misbehaving in Iraq.

Apart from demonstrating yet again the power of user-generated media websites like YouTube to become powerful news sources in their own right, the episode also showed how hard it is going to be for Prime Minister John Howard to meet his target of 2,600 extra troops for the Australian Army.



The immediate media focus revolved around the content of the videos themselves — since removed from YouTube at the request of Defence – which showed Australian troops conducting fictional interrogations, and to quote The Australian’s delicious phrase, ‘fraternizing with Iraqis’.

But little attention has so far turned to the broader problem the videos suggest of poor morale in the Australian Defence Forces, which have been struggling to maintain recruitment levels for half a decade now.

A quiet but fundamental shift is taking place in Australia’s defence policy. Put simply, Australia is refiguring its high-level strategy away from the “defence of Australia” paradigm, and towards a 21st century where the ADF will increasingly be deployed overseas.

This shift will have major implications decades from now, because it means Australia will be much more likely to be involved in low-level, so called “fourth generation” conflicts — scrappy, low-intensity (but still highly lethal) civil and guerrilla wars in the pattern of Iraq, Lebanon and, in our own region, Bougainville.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, the Australian Army has largely been configured for continental defence. The Army’s current size of around about 25,000 full-time soldiers significantly overstates the number of troops that can actually be deployed for any length of tine. Until very recently the Australian Army had only 5 active battalions, a number John Howard has now announced he will increase to 8. This means an extra 4,000 full-time active servicemen, most of them infantry.

There are significant changes being made to the location and composition of the Australian Army. The existing parachute battalion based in Sydney will move to Adelaide and become a mechanized unit, equipped with upgraded M113’s and ASLAV’s and trained to work in support of Australia’s new Abrahms tanks. New battalions will be based in south-east Queensland, Townsville and Darwin.

This is part of the Hardened and Networked Army initiative announced last year, which most analysts think is necessary if the Australian Army is to operate safely facing complex threats in urban environments. As the Americans have found to their cost in Iraq, the global spread of shoulder-launched RPG weapons means that soft targets like trucks and humvees are lethally vulnerable to guerrilla attack.

It’s an initiative that many defence policy experts are welcoming, and it is in line with the ongoing redefinition of Australia’s strategic policy since the 1980’s era of Paul Dibb.

Older readers will remember the Dibb Defence Report of the 1980’s and the subsequent policy developed around it that focused on the ‘defence of Australia’ as the principle tenet of our strategic policy, emphasizing the so-called ‘sea-air gap’ to Australia’s north.

As long as Australia controlled the seaborne invasion route to Australia’s north — which, with the largest and most lethal Navy and Air Force in the region, it has always been able to do comfortably — then the size of the Australian Army could be limited to what was necessary for small-scale peace-keeping and regional policing missions.
It was a policy that was very successful for the RAAF, which maintained its position as the arm of the service with the most expensive toys, and the Navy, which was able to commission and deploy the Collins-class attack submarines. The Army suffered in comparison in terms of budget and prestige.

The East Timor crisis changed all that. Deploying even 5,000 troops to the small island stretched the Army to the limit, and again revealed the ADF’s shortcomings in strategic lift vehicles like big cargo planes. East Timor showed that the ADF would be unable to deploy two significant operations at the same time. Meanwhile the security situation in places like the Solomon Islands continued to degenerate.

Since 2002 and the resultant criticism of the ADF’s capacity by commentators like retired SAS Brigadier Jim Wallace, Australian defence strategy has begun to shift.
Like it or not, we’re now building a new ADF. Its new shape will be largely expeditionary, allowing the ADF to create combined arms teams that can be deployed to distant shores and hold territory on the ground once they arrive there.

The Prime Minister has explained the decision to expand the army as ‘self-evident’ — suggesting the recent troubles in East Timor and the Solomons make it inevitable that Australian troops will continue to be deployed in troubled Pacific ‘failed states’.
But where will the ADF find these young recruits?

Defence’s own figures, as stated in their budget papers, reveal that recruitment is running well behind target. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the average strength of the permanent ADF has been falling since 2003 – in 2003-4 by 46 positions, in 2004—05 by 221, and in 2005—06 by another 624. The Army needs to significantly lift its game in recruitment simply to break even — let alone to add new units.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

It’s a problem that other developed nations are also having to face. In the United States, the extreme difficulties faced by the US Army in maintaining recruitment levels led in 2004 to a fast-propagating internet rumour that the draft would be reintroduced.

Indeed, a recent book by well-credentialed US defence analyst Philip Gold, The Coming Draft, lays out the argument that while the draft remains perennially unpopular, it may end up returning to US policy debates as the only proven way to staff the United States military at current sizes.

Given the flap over the Australian diggers ‘letting off steam’, as Prime Minister Howard called it, it’s unlikely the debate in Australia will progress to a discussion of the draft. But nor is ADF recruitment likely to fill the gap — despite huge expense. According to ASPI, the ADF has spent half a billion dollars over the last 10 years in recruitment campaigns, including high-profile advertising during football grand finals and the like, but to little avail. One recent defence survey suggested that 30% of ADF personnel were considering leaving.

Brendan Nelson has an unenviable ministry for his political ambitions just now. The problems of Defence just keep growing. Apart from the ongoing inquiry into the death of Private Jake Kovco, there is the apparent inability of the Defence accountants to use a calculator, and the continuing scandal of military justice. Then there’s the gear we’re buying — it’s hugely expensive, expeditionary in purpose, but doesn’t necessarily work.
Other top gear we’re about to or have recently acquired includes:

  • C-17 heavy lift cargo planes; these monsters allow the ADF to finally fly its own gear overseas.
  • The Joint Strike Fighter; principally a close support fighter-bomber, this plane is unlikely to match the air-to-air combat capabilities of the next generation of Russian fighter planes our neighbours like Malaysia are buying.
  • The M1A1 Abrahms tanks; essential to the Army’s plans to mechanize, they have been sold to Defence as essential for urban combat.
  • The Air Warfare Destroyers; at $2 billion each, the AWD’s main role is to provide air defence for maritime task forces.
  • The Boeing Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control radar planes; these airborne radar and command centres are essential to the useful operation of the JSF, but have run into software problems and will be vulnerable to the next generation of anti-aircraft missiles.
  • The Wundurra cyber-soldier project; a key part of Networked Army plan, the US version has run into trouble.
  • The ARH Tiger attack helicopters; seen as critical to the future fire-power of the Army, attack helicopters fared poorly in the recent Iraq conflict against small-arms fire.
  • The Bushmaster armoured personnel carrier; crucial for protecting troops in urban areas, but highly unreliable.
  • The Global Hawk reconnaissance plane; flies without a pilot but probably needs one — 4 of the 7 prototypes crashed.

Even a cursory knowledge of Australia’s military history suggests that these new capabilities will be used, and that Australian troops are likely to be far more engaged in the low-intensity wars of the future.

These are transformative times for the ADF.