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National Observer Home > No. 44 - Autumn 2000 > Articles

Australia Defence — After Timor

Peter Westmore 

Events in Timor over the past year give warning that Australia cannot separate itself from developments in this unstable region of the world. They have shaken the foundations of current defence strategy: that the role of the Australian Defence Force (the A.D.F.) is to protect and secure this island continent.

Australia can learn from Clausewitzs celebrated and much reviled dictum, War is a continuation of diplomacy by other means. In it, the Prussian military leader implicitly asserted, as an axiom of strategic thought, that military forces exist to serve a nationÕs foreign policy objectives, and cannot be separated from them.

An examination of Australias defences cannot take place by simply looking at the defence budget, or procurements, or deployments however significant they may be; it must consider the strategic environment in which Australia exists at the present time.

One consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 is that the map of Europe has been redrawn: new free nations have come into existence in central Europe, and Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have broken away from Russia. The United States is now the worlds sole superpower.

It is remarkable that these massive changes have come about more or less peacefully.

However, a consequence of the end of the Cold War has been the reappearance of long-suppressed ethnic and religious tensions in the former Soviet empire, seen in the current war in Chechnya, earlier fighting in Azerbaijan, the fragmentation of Yugoslavia into separate states Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia and the horrors of Bosnia and Kosovo.

This new strategic environment has not led to the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama predicted, but rather, to a new multi-polar world, potentially as unstable as the world dominated by a global struggle between the two superpowers.

The Inner Rim

The inner rim of countries to the north of Australia from Indonesia, through Timor, West Irian, Papua New Guinea to the Pacific Islands are affected by instability which is of immediate strategic concern to Australia.

Indonesia itself is now subject to centrifugal forces which will strain its unity over the next few years. Apart from East Timor, ethnic and religious tensions have been suppressed in Aceh, Moluku and West Irian, with unpredictable long-term consequences.

While Australia has little influence over developments in Indonesia, much of Australias overseas trade passes through Indonesian waters, particularly the narrow Sunda and Lombok Straits.

Additionally, a breakdown in civil administration may lead to a mass exodus of refugees towards Australia. Boatloads of East Timorese fled to Australia at the time of the civil war in 1975, and thousands of boat people, mainly Vietnamese, arrived in Australia in the late 1970s after enduring nightmare journeys across the South China Sea to Malaysia, then Indonesia, before arriving in Australia.

Papua New Guinea went to the brink over the Sandline affair, which involved payment of $54 million to Sandline, a firm of foreign mercenaries, to put down the rebellion on Bougainville. In refusing to co-operate in this operation, the Army chief, Brigadier-General Jerry Singirok, was sacked by the Prime Minister of the day.

Less than a year ago, the P.N.G. Prime Minister, Mr. Bill Skate, was forced to resign on a vote of no-confidence in the P.N.G. Parliament. Some years earlier, the rebel Bougainville Revolutionary Army had staged an uprising which, for several years, effectively separated Bougainville from the rest of Papua New Guinea.

In Fiji, ethnic tensions between the indigenous Fijians and Indians led to a coup in the late 1980s.

Any one of these events could have led to Australian military involvement either to protect Australian nationals caught up in violence, or to participate in a peacekeeping force, as happened in East Timor.

While Australias intervention in East Timor, under United Nations auspices, succeeded in ending the bloodshed, it was too late to prevent the almost total destruction of East Timors infrastructure, particularly around the capital, Dili.

The intervention force was also assisted by the fact that political pressure, exerted in Jakarta, but probably originating in Washington, had been placed on the Indonesian armed forces to discontinue their assistance to the murderous militias which had gone on a rampage for about three weeks after the East Timorese, voting in the U.N.-sponsored referendum, overwhelmingly called for independence.

When it became clear that Indonesian forces were unable, or unwilling, to end the violence, the Indonesian government reluctantly endorsed the presence of the Australian-led International Force in East Timor.

However, if the T.N.I., Indonesias armed forces, had intervened against the U.N.-sponsored force, many Australian troops would probably have died or been wounded.

The Interfet operation was successful; but it could well have ended very differently, as did United States military intervention in Somalia and Lebanon, which culminated in unilateral withdrawal.

The fact that the T.N.I. accepted the Australian-led Interfet force was no doubt due to the good will built up over many years between Australian defence personnel and the T.N.I., through the Australia-Indonesia Defence Coordination Committee (A.I.D.C.C.).

The aim of the A.I.D.C.C. is to advance cooperation in defence policy and activities so as to enhance the mutual security of Australia and Indonesia.

To achieve its objectives, the A.I.D.C.C. co-ordinates all aspects of the Australia-Indonesia defence relationship, including:

¥ Establishing more effective personal contacts through exchanges, attachments and visits;

¥ Education, training, exercises and other activities;

¥ Facilitating consultations and exchanges of views on defence-related areas of interest;

¥ Evaluating and directing activities of working groups; and

¥ Establishing and recommending priorities for annual defence activities for endorsement by the Australia-Indonesia Defence Policy Committee, which consists of Australias Defence Minister and the Minister for Defence and Security from Indonesia, and their staffs.

Despite frequent criticism of military co-operation between Australia and Indonesia from both the left and the right it is this writers view that long-term links established through these channels at a government to government level, and between serving military officers from Australia and Indonesia, were vital factors in the success of the Interfet operation.

The future of East Timor remains uncertain. Apart from the ruined infrastructure, deep-seated hostility remains between the East Timorese themselves, and between most East Timorese and Indonesia.

Australia will have to steer a middle course: encouraging the East Timorese to undertake the task of nation-building, while rebuilding relationships with Jakarta and the T.N.I., which have undoubtedly been strained by events of the past year.

Australia may well have to play a long-term military role in East Timor, and arguably, should seek to establish its own military base in East Timor, as the United States has done around the world, to provide a military guarantee of East Timors independence.

It is possible that Australia will be called on to play a similar military role in other countries of the inner rim, if a breakdown situation occurs through the collapse of the political or financial institutions in island nations to the north of Australia.

A separate issue arises from the clear inability of Australias defence forces, working with the Customs Department, to secure Australias 12,000 km coastline, or its maritime exclusion zone.

The arrival of boatloads of people from China, and more recently, the Middle East, raises new issues for Australias defence forces. Additionally, Australia has become the target of international drug-smuggling operations, originating from the Middle East and AsiaÕs Golden Triangle.

These criminal operations have flooded Australia with cheap heroin which has contributed to the soaring toll of drug deaths every year. Anecdotal evidence suggests that almost all the drug interceptions which occur in Australia are the result of tip-offs from overseas, rather than Customs searches.

A major additional problem is the danger of the introduction of exotic diseases which could devastate many of Australias most important agricultural industries.

Due to an accident of geography, Australia does not have a number of serious plant and animal diseases, including for example, foot and mouth disease and rabies, which are endemic in South-East Asia.

If these diseases gained a foothold here, they would have devastating consequences for major export industries; and put another nail in the coffin of Australias struggling primary industries.

At present, responsibility for coastal surveillance, interception of illegal immigrants and drug smuggling is handled principally by three agencies, the Royal Australian Navy, Australian Customs and the Federal Police, all of which have suffered the effects of cutbacks in manpower and funding over the past twenty years.

For example, Coastwatch, which is run by the Customs Department, has only 90 people, of whom around 34 work in head office in Canberra. Just 40 are at sea. Its budget has been cut by $700,000 a year since 1996.

Unless adequate resources are devoted to these activities, part of which is the responsibility of Australias defence forces, Australia will have to pay a much higher cost in continued breaches of immigration and quarantine laws, a growing tide of illegal immigration, and potentially, damage to vital Australian industries.

The Outer Rim

More distant from Australia, but within the sphere of Australias strategic interest, is the outer rim of nations stretching from the Indian sub-continent, through Indochina to north Asia.

Events in each of these regions are of strategic concern to Australia, but Australias role is clearly more remote, for geographic reasons.

Australia faces a major long-term challenge from the rapid growth of the Indian Navy, recently documented by the Navy League of Australia. With its planned two aircraft carriers, 16 submarines, and almost 50 other warships, India will be able to project its power from the Red Sea, throughout the Indian Ocean to the Straits of Malacca by the year 2010.

When considered in the light of Indias and Pakistans nuclear tests last year, this is an ominous development for Australias defence forces, particularly the Navy.

Vietnam, like Cuba, has a Stalinist government ruling over a more or less anti-communist population. Its regime will remain in power for as long as it can prevent the holding of free elections.

Relations between China and Taiwan remain tense, and will worsen if Taiwan moves to assert its independence of the mainland. As with the conflict on the Korean peninsula, the United States remains the ultimate guarantor of peace in North Asia.

In light of Washingtons explicit commitments to the defence of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, it is inevitable that the focus of United States policy in the western Pacific will be concentrated on north, rather than south-east Asia.

The emergence of strong regional powers such as India, together with the instability in Indonesia and other island states of the inner rimÓ, reinforce the need for Australia to commit itself to a policy of self-reliance in defence.

Australia could well be called on to play a supporting role in peacekeeping efforts in the region. Where such a role would contribute to the peace and security of the region, it should be undertaken Ñ as Australia has participated in various United Nations missions in the past.

For example, Australia sent military forces to the Persian Gulf in support of U.N. Security Council resolutions relating to Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.

Australias Current Strategic Doctrine

Despite recent events, the last occasion on which Australias strategic doctrine was elaborated was in December 1997, when the former Minister for Defence, Mr. Ian McLachlan, released Australias Strategic Policy, a review of our strategic circumstances and the military capability decisions arising from that assessment to shape the Australian Defence Force (A.D.F.) to 2020 and beyond.

The Minister added, The review details a maritime focus for the defence of Australia and its vital interests, and a logical, structured approach to defence equipment acquisition. It moves defence policy away from a narrow focus on responding to low-level contingency scenarios. It stresses instead our capacity to defend Australia in a wide range of circumstances by focussing on our maritime approaches.

Clearly, the Minister and, more importantly, the Defence Department which was advising him, believed that the focus of Australias defence policy should be continental defence, based on the use of naval and air power to deter military challenges.

This is confirmed in the Ministers press statement, released at the same time. He said,

Australia's Strategic Policy builds on our understanding of the enduring fundamentals of Australia's strategic environment and the key long-term trends that are likely to affect those fundamentals.

The review identifies our key strategic interests as follows:

¥ avoiding destabilising strategic competition between the region's major powers;

¥ preventing the emergence of a security environment dominated by any power or powers whose interests could be harmful to Australia;

¥ keeping South-East Asia, especially maritime South-East Asia, free from destabilising disputes;

¥ preventing the intrusion into neighbouring states of foreign military forces which might be used to attack Australia; and

¥ preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction into our immediate region.

The Minister added, We consider that there are three basic tasks which the A.D.F. could be required to perform: defeating attacks on Australia; defending our regional interests; and supporting a global security environment which discourages interstate aggression. I made clear in my Parliamentary statement that having the capabilities to defeat attacks on Australia is the highest priority.

In light of the fact that the statement could not identify any potential military challenges facing continental Australia, it is hardly surprising that the real contingencies which Australia was likely to face were not identified, defence spending continued to be neglected, and when the challenge finally came, Australias limited defence capacity was stretched to the limit.

In light of events in 1999 in East Timor, it is remarkable how wrong was the direction of government defence policy.

What was really needed was a capability to deploy an expeditionary force outside Australia, together with adequate naval and air forces to protect both Australias coastline and its maritime exclusion zone.

As far as the Army was concerned, its role was far closer to what was required for the defence of Malaysia and South Vietnam in the 1960s, than the continental defence theory on which Australias Strategic Policy was based.

Had it not been for the clear-sightedness of the Prime Minister, Mr. Howard, supported by the Defence Minister, Mr. John Moore, in improvising to the rapidly developing situation in East Timor throughout 1999, Australia might well have been incapable of playing its decisive role in Interfet, the International Force in East Timor, which deployed last September.

In fact, the Defence Minister ordered deployment of the Armys ready reaction force from Townsville, in North Queensland, to Darwin, and the commissioning of the 86 metre wave-piercing catamaran, H.M.A.S. Jervis Bay, used for fast troop deployments, last June. H.M.A.S. Jervis Bay carries as many as 10 C-130 Hercules aircraft, and was vital in the deployment of Australian forces at short notice into East Timor.

The dispatch of the Australian force in East Timor, commencing on 18 September, stretched Australias defence capabilities to the limit. Army stores throughout the country were commandeered to ensure sufficient supplies for the Australian forces, and the size of Australias commitment to Interfet was so great that there were not enough trained troops available in Australia for troop rotations.

This is the main reason why Australia is to play second fiddle in the United Nations peace-keeping force in East Timor this year.

The first question raised by East Timor is why Australia, with some 50,000 regular personnel and 28,000 reservists, and an additional 16,000 civilians in the Defence Department, could not deploy 5,000 troops in East Timor on a continuing basis.

There are three separate reasons. First, under Australias strategic doctrine, the A.D.F. is organised for continental defence, and therefore is not geared up for military operations abroad. Secondly, it has a peace-time structure with serious management deficiencies highlighted by the Secretary of the Defence Department, Dr. Allan Hawke, to the National Press Club on 17 February 2000. And finally, despite the rhetoric, successive Australian governments have never seriously entertained the principle of self-reliance in defence, including defence equipment.

While the current recruitment drive to increase the size of the defence force is welcome, it needs to be accompanied by a structural review of the Defence Department and the A.D.F. to make them operationally more effective.

A separate question relates to the equipment needed by the A.D.F. It is not well understood that several of the most important operations in East Timor involved amphibious landings, where troops had to be deployed directly onto the beaches, rather than off-loading at conventional wharves.

Australia has very limited capabilities for such operations, and the navys H.M.A.S. Tobruk was fully engaged, together with H.M.A.S. Jervis Bay, the NavyÕs single troop deployment catamaran.

Theoretically, Australia should be acquiring such capability through the Amphibious Transport Ship (L.P.A.) Project, which involved two surplus American amphibious naval vessels, purchased in 1994, and renamed H.M.A.S. Manoora and H.M.A.S. Kanimbla.

The two ships have been white elephantsÓ, have cost hundreds of millions of dollars in repair and refit costs, and still have not been deployed.

A report by the Commonwealth Auditor-General last December was scathing in its description of the errors which led to the ships acquisition.

He summarised the problems as follows:

¥ Current cost estimates for the project had grown from $120 million to $308 million.

¥ The refit component of the project cost had grown from the original estimate of $8.7 million to $142 million, the great bulk of which had to be found within the existing Support Command Navy allocation, which in turn had put pressure on other ship repair and refit activities.

¥ In respect of H.M.A.S. Manoora, the delivery schedule had slipped almost two years after the original contract delivery date. H.M.A.S. Kanimbla is scheduled to be delivered over two years from the original contract delivery date.

¥ Some of the capability enhancements planned for both ships would not be incorporated for budgetary reasons, but would be considered at some time in the future.

¥ On completion of the present refit, neither vessel would meet all the requirements in endorsed defence capability documents.

He concluded that the final cost of the two surplus vessels could be $400 million, more than three times the original estimate of $120 million.

Another deficiency revealed by the Timor operation was the lack of command and control facilities on Australian naval units deployed in East Timor. This meant that by default, command and control of the deployment was exercised by United States naval vessels, which happened to join the deployment. In fact, the American cruiser, U.S.S. Mobile Bay, which has these capabilities just happened to be en route to Australia at the time, to participate in joint naval exercises.

But what would have happened if there was no such vessel on hand, or if the United States government had declined to participate in the Timor operation, as seemed likely for a time? Clearly, Australia must have such a capability, as well as heavy lift helicopters, which were necessary to deploy equipment into the mountainous interior of East Timor. Again, these were provided by two American naval vessels.

The warships most clearly capable of independent operation in an off-shore environment are aircraft carriers, which can also provide support services in peace-keeping operations. Timor shows Australia urgently needs aircraft carriers for effective future operations in the region.

While Australias Strategic Policy envisaged the acquisition of high-tech hardware to give Australia the technological edge over potential adversaries, the fact is that some of the major defence acquisitions have been a shambles, including the construction of the Collins-class submarines, recently the subject of a damning report by Dr. Malcolm Macintosh, former head of the C.S.I.R.O. and Mr. John Prescott, former head of B.H.P.

They considered the Collins class submarines to be probably Australias most important strategic asset for the decades starting 2000Ó, and like the F111 aircraft, to possess significant deterrent capabilities enabling Australia to have a stabilising influence in the region.

They described the lack of co-operation between the main parties involved the Defence Department and Navy, the prime contractor (the Australian Submarine Corporation, jointly owned by the Swedish firm Kochums and the Commonwealth, the former being the major shareholder) and various sub-contractors including AmericaÕs Rockwell/Boeing.

They advised that problems had developed in the diesel propulsion system, despite the fact that diesel engines have been functioning satisfactorily in naval vessels, including submarines, and in merchant ships for many years.

Other problems included faulty periscopes, cracked propellers, communications shortcomings, noise and mechanical failures. To address these concerns, they stated that deficiencies will require vigorous management if they are to be remedied in a more timely fashion than has occurred to date.

The principal problem concerns the combat system which, with a unique military specification, was included mistakenly in the opinion of the investigators with the platform (that is, the hull, machinery etc.) in a single prime contract.

While the United States and the United Kingdom had done much the same thing with their combat systems, they had recognised a problem, cancelled that route and according to the report moved to a much more reliable route based on commercial, off-the-shelf technology.

Australia however had persisted and tried, unsuccessfully in the event, to make the system work. With the aid of the U.S. Navy, it is now intended to install a combat system utilising commercial technology.

Included in the recommendations of the investigators is provision in contracts for periodical reviews so that changes can be made satisfactorily to both contractor and buyer.

Dr. McIntosh and Mr. Prescott did not dwell unduly on the past other than to try to identify those areas where failures have occurred and corrections must be made if further costly defence acquisition problems are to be avoided.

Some of the issues raised by the McIntosh/Prescott review were echoed in the recent address by the newly-appointed Secretary of the Defence Department, Dr. Allan Hawke, to the Defence Watch Seminar in Canberra on 17 February 2000.

He said that despite the splendid efforts of Australian defence force personnel in East Timor over recent months,

There is widespread dissatisfaction with Defences performance in Canberra from Ministers, central agencies within the public service, industry, and even from within the Defence organisation itself. In essence, we have a credibility problem.

Being from Transport (and Regional Services), my road test of a sample of Defences people about our mission, vision and values demonstrates that they are not well understood Ñ even at senior levels within the organisation.

Nor are all in Defence sufficiently seized with the importance of serving the nation through its ministers and the government of the day. It is far too inwardly focussed.

A major focus for myself and other leaders in Defence must therefore be to restore confidence both externally and internally. Improving our performance will be fundamental to this.

Mr Hawke described a complete lack of transparency in relation to Australias defence acquisitions, so much so that he was shocked to find that forward commitments for defence spending were way out of line with budget estimates. He said,

Our new investment commitment has increased markedly (1996-97, $1.4 billion; 1997-98, $7 billion; 1998-99, $1.8 billion; 1999-00, $2.3 billion). New projects have been approved at a rate significantly higher than what is affordable in the long-term and thats just in terms of the acquisition costs.

The number of approved major capital projects has increased from around 160 in 1991 to 240 today.

Many of these projects represent either a big increase in capability or are totally new. Airborne Early Warning & Control aircraft, A.N.Z.A.C. helicopters, the L.P.A. amphibious transport ships, missiles, electronic warfare systems, the new coastal minehunters, additional light armoured vehicles, and the Bushranger infantry vehicles, to name a few.

All of these projects bring with them a big downstream liability in terms of personnel and operating costs. Adding up all the projections is enough to badly frighten the horses.

As a consequence, he said, the Defence Minister had frozen all additional defence expenditures, other than that required for the Timor deployment, until the situation is sorted out.

One area of particular concern cited by the Departmental Secretary was the lack of responsibility accepted by senior personnel in the Department. He said, ÒThere are certainly elements of what I would call a culture of learned helplessness among some defence senior managers both military and civilian. Their perspective is one of disempowerment. This may, of course, reflect the inadequacy of our performance framework.

In contrast, as he noted elsewhere, the performance of Australian servicemen and women during the Timor emergency displayed courage, commitment and innovation, in difficult and dangerous circumstances.

The failures within the Defence Department should therefore be seen as a reflection on the administrative structures under which the Department runs, rather than its service personnel. The flawed Strategic Policy document is one product of this flawed administration.

A related area of concern is the state of Australias defence industries, which have been adversely affected by stop-go expenditure programs, based on short-term budgetary constraints, and the long-term run-down in Australias defence expenditure, measured as a proportion of G.D.P..

Yet defence equipment is becoming increasing complex and costly. The use of smart bombs, night fighting capabilities, advanced technology shells and guided missiles launched from surface or air platforms are becoming common throughout the world. To avoid the fate of the Irakis during Operation Desert Storm, Australia must keep abreast of such developments and, through support for Australian industry, ensure that wherever possible, there is a capability to manufacture such equipment in Australia.

Australian defence companies are innovative and technologically advanced, as seen in the development of the Anzac class guided missile frigates, over-the-horizon radar, the recently-deployed catamaran, H.M.A.S. Jervis Bay, as well as seismic arrays developed by Thomson Marconi Sonar, and equipment developed by Aerospace Technologies of Australia, Hawker de Havilland, and others.

These examples show that with clearly defined objectives, and adequate support, Australian industry can make a substantial contribution to Australias defence.

The Future

The starting point for any review of Australias defence is the revision of Australias strategic doctrine, to meet the reasonably foreseeable contingencies which will confront Australia over the next ten years.

These include the possibility of further breakdown situations in countries to the near north of Australia; the necessity to secure Australias long coastline and maritime zone; and commitments to participate in joint military operations, in conjunction with other nations, further from Australia.

Once the tasks are defined, the challenge will be to adapt the existing defence forces to meet those tasks, and for the government to devote sufficient resources to their achievement. Australias force structure needs to be determined in the light of the strategic doctrine, not independently of it.

Unless these issues are addressed, the establishment of new planning committees, to deal with Òorganisational effectiveness and organisational renewal, as outlined recently by the Secretary of the Defence Department, is unlikely to achieve what he described as fundamental renewal from within.

In fact, it may very well worsen the problem.

National Observer No. 44 - Autumn 2000