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National Observer Home > No. 45 - Winter 2000 >Articles

A Reality Audit: Some Other Thoughts on Defence

Major-General David Butler

Dr. Allan Hawke, the Secretary of Defence, in his address, "A Due Diligence Report", at the National Press Club on 17 February 2000 alluded to a culture of learned helplessness among some Defence senior managers, both military and civilian. His temple-cleansing oration identified three major problems: defence management has failed,the budget shortfall is approaching unresolvable proportions and there is confusion about the core tasks of the Defence Force. This represents an extraordinary indictment.

The Tange Reorganisation of the early 1970s, unashamedly drawing on the United States system as a model (although this will be vigorously denied), sought to inject rigour into the whole defence management process and bring diligence to the budget process. The Defence Department underwent a massive expansion as it absorbed and promoted the droves of public servants brought in to direct the effort. For a variety of reasons they have never got it right. Skilled public administrators do not always grasp the needs of an organisation which must achieve effectiveness beyond the demands of financial efficiencies, so the upheaval did not stop there. Reorganisations, with constant budget and consequent personnel reductions to control escalating costs, have followed almost annually. While each reduction has reduced the capability of the Defence Force, there has never been any official acknowledgement or explanation of the reduced capacity, nor is there evidence the Department has ever carried opposition to the loss of critical capability to the Minister on behalf of the Defence Force, or that the Minister has ever fought for the Defence Force in Cabinet. Units are still expected to achieve their original tasks,and meet now-impossible standards, despite their reduced capacity.

It is no wonder that the managers have been reduced to a sense of disempowerment in the face of never-ending analysis. Many senior bureaucrats have no real idea of the military consequences of their decisions and choose to ignore their leadership responsibilities. They over-ride Service concerns and are dismissive of the human factors in order to meet what is, essentially, their assessment of the political goals. If the management feels disempowered as a result, most servicemen are positively disenchanted with the almost total absence of leadership emanating from the senior levels. Yet Dr. Hawke prefaced his extraordinary assault on his Department by offering his utmost admiration for the Defence Forces' professional performance in East Timor. Once again the people of the Defence Force performed remarkable feats and succeeded in spite of the obstacles placed in their way. The two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and now East Timor have demonstrated the incompetence of our governments in military affairs and their insensitivity to the serving men.

There could not have been much margin for success in East Timor. Units were tragically below strength and poorly equipped, and the burden on the skeleton logistic and maintenance forces must have been well nigh intolerable. Frankly, the Government and the bureaucracy can take little comfort from the whole exercise; one has to wonder how much longer we can expect to get by on this basis. Dr. Hawke, with a dazzling iteration of management principles in his address, has evidenced a considerable understanding of the public administration systems which will be necessary to set his Department on the right track. One must hope he also understands he will need to apply plenty of old-fashioned leadership if he is to succeed. He will need to impress not only the coterie which surrounds him in his office, but also every individual in the vast organisation. This is no small order, and one which will probably set him on a collision course with his Minister and the Government from time to time. But there is no alternative if the matter is to be properly corrected.

It may have been that Dr. Hawke was just clearing his desk, or he may even be signalling his total support to his Minister; nonetheless, he has opened up the field and he can expect advice from many sources. Not all of this advice will be bad, and if properly accepted it may extend his whole approach. Sensibly he should apply a reality audit of every major decision before it is implemented. The whole problem has reached the stage where some fresh ideas must be injected, and this can happen only if there is a stepping back and starting again, free of previous constraints, by putting forward some ideas which should be further examined.

In this context the following matters should be examined carefully.

The generally current view of what the Defence Force should be able to do is very much as has been reported of Professor Dibb's recent presentation to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Dibb would propose that the Defence Force should be structured for the defence of Australia and the archipelago to our north, for medium intensity conflict, but not high intensity conflict, and to take part in coalition operations which make a major contribution to stability in South East Asia. In fairness to Dibb, who is very conscious of our limitations, he had not previously talked publicly about defence of the archipelago. In this case he was probably talking about conducting defensive operations in the archipelago as part of the maritime strategy, which may explain the misunderstanding in the report.

Now what is the reality of that first proposition? What does being structured for the defence of Australia extending to the archipelago mean? One is talking here about the structure for the defence of an entire continent, of 3 million square miles and with 12,000 miles of coastline, and operations in the vast archipelago. We have 19 million people to meet this totally unique task. Ready comparisons with any other nations do not exist and would be meaningless. Unlike Canada, for instance, the only approximately equal country in size and capability, we have no powerful neighbour to share the continental burden. Somehow we have arrived at what we believe is a maritime strategy, predicated on a need to take ourselves as far forward and away from the continent as is possible. A large proportion of the R.A.A.F. and of the R.A.N. is committed to the vanguard of this strategy. The bulk of the Defence Budget is committed to the provision, maintenance and operation of this force. The main force, predominantly the Army, is starved of funds.

The theory of this main task comes from the American concept of air power applied so successfully in the Gulf War. Using precision-guided weapons with massive destructive capability, the U.S.A.F. and the allied air forces, in a display of overwhelming power, brought the enemy forces to their knees. The world was amazed. While it is essential that we have an ability to obtain warning of developing enemy threats and the means to react to that information, can we go so far as to contemplate mounting credible defensive operations within the archipelago? The R.A.A.F. has some 70 FA18 high performance fighters and some 20 F111 bombers with which it will be expected to defend the vastnesses of our region, hardly a force that could bring overwhelming pressure to bear against a determined power. It could scarcely mount the additional suppression of enemy defences, physical and electronic, necessary to support its attacks. Nor, in view of cost, does the R.A.A.F. possess the number and variety of precision-guided munitions that would be necessary to achieve success against even a modest foe. Yet somehow the proponents of this theory talk as if a defence would be totally successful, as in the Gulf, and the foe stopped in his tracks.

Some would argue that the aircraft represent a deterrent. This may be true in part, but only until some one chooses to bring them to battle. Surely that would have to be the first task of any enemy who sets out to establish a dominance in the archipelago. In battle, a normal attrition rate would leave us with only about 30 aircraft after fourteen days. Since this represents such a sizable component of our Defence Force, would our commanders have the resolve to continue? Similar arguments could be produced which would challenge any proposal to commit elements of our fleet to operations within the confined and shallow waters of the archipelago without air support. The reality is that our maritime effort, as currently envisaged, could provide only limited delay and would not be decisive. If push comes to shove, can we really contemplate the prospect of successful defensive operations in the archipelago as the major play in our national strategy or should we set our dialogue to more modest aims?

Obviously, in the present circumstances it requires a considerable leap of one's imagination to envisage a large scale battle in the archipelago. The reality is that such a battle would engage the whole of the power of this nation and our allies and would not occur without repeated and significant warnings over some time. To attempt to meet the current strategic goal from the existing peacetime force levels is patently absurd. That is not to say that we should ignore our obvious responsibilities within the archipelago. We should always be reminded that the first prin-ciple of strategy is to seek allies and the second is to deny potential adversaries the opportunities of alliance relationships. From those sensible principles for directing our national efforts in peacetime, there is the scope for escalation of military effort to match evolving situations in times of conflict. However, the likelihood is that we may well be required to operate with tactical forces in the region in situations short of war, since that has been our experience over the past fifty years: an achievable and realistic goal.

One of our frailties in Australia over the years is that we have seldom given credit and authority to our national power. More often than not, most citizens accept that the nation does not really rate in the world scheme of things and leave it there. Few understand the concept of national power, and we tend not to think in these terms. By way of explanation, let me quote Correlli Barnett: the power of a nation by no means consists only in its armed forces, but also in its economic and technological resources; in the dexterity, foresight and resolution with which its foreign policy is conducted; and in the efficiency of its social and political organisation. It consists most of all in the nation itself: the people; their skills, energy, ambition, discipline and initiative; and their beliefs, myths and illusions. And it consists, further, in the way all these factors are related to one another. Moreover, national power must be considered not only in itself, in its absolute extent, but relative to the state's foreign or imperial obligations and relative to the power of other states.

On geo-strategic grounds alone, we are bound in many ways to the archipelago. Accordingly, the prospect of being involved in its defence, since it is related so directly to our own security, should be prudently assessed. While it is right that we should see the defence of the continent and the archipelago as being in some respects indivisible, the consideration of employing military means only is both limiting, and, in a sense, negative. We do not have the resources to provide a credible major defence in peacetime; even to suggest something along those lines underlines a division with neighbouring states which is not in the mutual interest. On the other hand, if we were to look more positively to use our national power in association with others within the region and commit the nation to the task, defensive bonds would flow naturally. Just as the Americans and the British have accepted our token contributions over the past fifty years and encouraged us towards self-reliance, so should we now look to our long term responsibilities towards the region.

Our national strategy should be totally embracive. The major thrust should be economic because we must look towards our own long-term national prosperity while promoting the absolutely vital development of self-reliance among the developing nations in our region. The application of the policy should involve a direct contribution from across the whole spectrum of institutions which drive our nation, public and private. The Defence Force is only one small part. An increased presence across the whole range of our national endeavour in business and technical associations within the region would create an environment of mutual trust and respect which would bind neighbouring countries.

In almost every area of our government, commercial and social interest, there are commonalities and associations capable of development which would be beneficial to all parties. There is the need to establish a financial centre for the region. We already seek to extend trade within it. Our provision of fresh food and agricultural products is growing and would advance dramatically should we accelerate our efforts on a national scale. Improvement to our infrastructure, including a massive injection of the new information technology across the whole of our agricultural industry, drought-proofing our country, enhancing our fast rail resources, the construction of rapid handling ports in areas such as Darwin and Gladstone, and providing airfields devoted to handling freight, should be undertaken as a national priority. There is also scope for the extension of the valuable assistance we provide in the fields of medical support, specialist medical and surgical programmes and the like for the region. The same applies to our engineering and construction companies, which should be encouraged to become more involved in the development of the countries to our north. The travel industry already has excellent associations in the region, but should we not be looking for even closer links, whereby it is promoted as a unit much as is done for Europe? Our educational system is already extending its facility in the secondary, tertiary and technical fields throughout the region. Everything should be done to expand these programmes. The list of other areas of possible interest and influence is substantial, and there are innumerable financial and commercial areas where we should extend our presence. The message should be that government direction and funding are vital to the extension of our influence in the region in the ultimate defence of our national interest and as a credible strategic goal.

Problems Arising from Big Ticket Items

The ramifications of this change in strategic goals would be significant. For years the hierarchy of the Defence Department has been seduced by so-called Big Ticket Items: the aircraft, particularly the fighters, the ships and the submarines. They absorb the bulk of the vote and it is obviously correct to exercise the greatest care in everything to do with their selection, purchase and provision, with so much of the taxpayers' money at stake. They have the priority of the whole Department. More than that, everything about them attracts a certain aura which illuminates those personally involved. The very process of decision-making is exciting. There are momentous studies on matters to do with them, from the nature of the painted surface to simulated training of the crew. The solutions are all monstrously expensive and require the considered inputs of everyone who is important - no matter that most have little, or no, idea of what the thing does in battle, or even know generally what happens in battle. Sufficient that they were present and qualified the outlay. The cynics would suggest that the responsibilities have been shared around and the egos stroked. The problem now is that these costs can no longer be met without exponential increases to the Defence Budget. The existing strategies and ideas offer no other course.

Until now, in view of limited resources, expenditures on the armaments to go with these high cost equipments have always been curtailed. Their strike power is to that extent diminished, and the aircraft cannot produce the devastating results of the U.S.A.F. The ships are also very much restricted in fire power and in their air defence capability. The theory that these items can be brought off the shelf in an escalating situation is open to question.

In practice the fighter force is committed almost entirely to the previously described strategic tasks. It has little capacity remaining to meet the other listed tasks: air defence, close air support of the Army, tactical strike and reconnaissance and the like. While the Services are structured to meet agreed roles in support of the other Services in war, no changes have been made to accommodate the loss of R.A.A.F. participation in tactical battles resulting from its current, almost total, commitment to the maritime strategy. For example, additional fire support units, artillery (including heavy artillery), multiple-launch rocket systems and helicopter gun ships (with missiles) have not been included in the Army Order of Battle to replace the loss of close air support.

Just as the rich get richer, so do the Big Ticket Items demand continual and seemingly unanticipated funding. There are continual upgrades in technology and refinements of capability in order to stay current - the list is endless and cash is absorbed as if by a sponge. The Department's commitment to its equipment is such that it cannot afford to get behind and allow its massive outlays to depreciate. Since the Government is naturally loathe to accommodate additional budgetary outlays, funds are sought through economies in the rest of the Department. More often than not there is real pain all around. For example, there are six submarines, which have cost in the order of $5 billion. Currently two of those submarines are undergoing refits costing $200 million in order to be quieter than they now are (but not silent, as they were contracted to be). Coincidently we have six infantry battalions, held at half strength to meet some of this expense. It is almost as if their capability is not critical to the nation's defence. Extraordinarily, those battalions are subject to training restrictions and are denied the opportunity to complete the advanced levels of individual training which would enable them to operate silently. The Department and the Minister have expressed no public concern at the diminished capability of the battalions. The cost involved would be considerably less than $200 million. The real point is that all the expense and effort devoted to the Big Ticket Items is justified by a definition of strategic priority which is plainly faulty. The important irony is that the bulk of the assets committed to this strategic function have been little employed operationally over the last fifty years. The burden has always fallen on the massively under-resourced Army. A more realistic qualification of commitments would go a long way towards overcoming the alarming budgetary problems within the Department.

In the face of all that has been said so far, Admiral Barrie's recent questions, What does it mean to be the leader of a small coalition operation such as we have in East Timor? and what reponsibilities does that give us if it is to become the endorsed role for the Australian Defence Forces? place the problem into stark relief. Barrie is not just addressing peacekeeping operations. His questions are quite general and allude to any military operation. Furthermore he is not referring to a chance, one-off opportunity. While the task in East Timor had a moral and humanitarian purpose, the Army had to employ strategic means to complete it. Foreign governments had to be approached to participate in the international force and the size and conditions of their participation resolved. The whole international force had to be assembled, mounted, moved and received in the theatre. Thereafter it had to be committed to operations on the basis of Australian planning and direction. The Army had responsibility for every facet of the operation, including the provision of supply and maintenance functions: a very tall order for its small, critically under-resourced forces. Surely Barrie's concern was expressed because it was the first time Australia has ever had to assume total responsibility. Even the great Monash, with the huge corps he eventually commanded, was always only a tactical commander and subordinate to a foreign army commander. Blamey's great gift to the nation was the creation of a truly national army for the first time. Lacking only strategic transportation, it was a coplete strategic instrument, but was prevented, by the development of overwhelming United States power in the Pacific, from being given a role commensurate with its obvious capability. Our involvements post war have been only token. Barrie is really asking whether we must now maintain strategic, as well as the traditional tactical, capability within the Army to meet a leadership role.

Should this role be accepted (and, on the face of it, the matter cannot be ignored) there would be a considerable increase to the strength and function of the Army, even to operate at Professor Dibb's suggestion of medium intensity. It is not clear what Dibb means in his qualification; there is no half-tactical battle once nations fight and men are being killed. Our tactical forces must be equipped to face any eventuality. Just as a warship has a complete armoury of guns and equipments to deal with all expected threats so do the Army's tactical formations need a complete outfit. One cannot make selective judgments about what will, or will not, be required on the actual battlefield ahead of the event. Judging from what Dibb has written in the past, one suspects he is saying he would deny the Army a need for tanks in our region. Presumably he imagines the terrain and close country in much of the region would limit the use of tanks. He, along with a number of other academics in this country, have long made much of this and ridiculed the Army for stupidity and needless expense. The truth is that there are very few areas in our region where tanks cannot be employed.

The reality is much more severe. In close country a dogged enemy can quickly increase his opportunities by digging in and enhancing his capability. The destructive power of field artillery and mortars used against him is dissipated by prematurely bursting in the tree canopy and, for that reason, cannot always be ranged directly on to the target. Furthermore, the weight of their projectiles is insufficient to penetrate bunkers. Light armoured vehicles are excessively exposed at the close ranges of the battle. Tanks, with the weight of their direct fire and their protection, can support the infantry to within yards of their objective. Without tanks the infantry have a very difficult time. Protected only by their shirts and supported only by their own small arms, machine guns and the few hand-held rocket launchers and the like in their armoury, they have a lonely and dangerous ten or twenty yards to cover in the face of very heavy fire to close with the enemy and root them out of their bunkers. Close air support, a range of artillery, including heavy artillery, and tanks must be available to enable the tactical forces to move at the face of battle.

Limitations of Australia's Defence Capacity

Our experience within the region has been that we have always been outnumbered, and it is reasonable to assume that this will be so in the future.In that environment we will never be able to hold every piece of ground, and we will need to accept gaps in our defensive areas and risk exposure on some of our flanks. Formation commanders will need to possess some mobile, hard-hitting resources if they are to have any real prospect to cover the gaps against a numerically superior enemy. By United States or N.A.T.O. standards anything we could mount would be well short of medium level in as much as we do not possess (nor is it likely that we could contemplate) the ability to manoeuvre at the highest tactical levels. One must understand the difference between a handful of tanks, which are absolutely vital in the face to face battles, essential armoured units within a primarily infantry formation, and the overwhelming power of massed armour and helibourne assaults delivered by formations (divisions, corps and armies). Australia would never be able to justify, or afford, vast armoured formations.Yet we must always possess enough armour to ensure our predominately infantry army has sufficient mobility to survive on the battlefield.

It appears that Dibb could profitably compare, in some detail, the Army's existing equipment with that held by similar powers, before forming any conclusion. The much vaunted night-vision equipment, which was such a success in East Timor, was commonplace on both sides in the Falklands War in 1972. When the Army sought to acquire it at that time, the bid was derisively dismissed by the Minister, with the rejoin der there was no place for wish-lists. The Army equipment provision has, long ago, fallen behind, not only our allies but also our likely adversaries. We should also reflect on the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mr. William Cohen's recent expression of concern that our inability to keep pace with technological change is jeopardising our capacity to inter-operate with the Americans. This was not the comment of some Assistant Under Secretary temporising on some matter currently under discussion. Here we have the man second only to his Commander in Chief delivering a very powerful statement about our situation. We cannot allow ourselves to under-estimate the importance of his comments.

The Preferred Direction for Australia's Defence

The experience of our post-war expeditions, underlined in East Timor, is that the smallest independent force the Army should commit to operations is an independent brigade, together with the attachments of divisional, corps and army troops which enable it to operate independently. We have also learned, from bitter experience, that a replacement force must be structured and working to eventually replace the force on operations. A force to meet unforeseen contingencies must also be in place. In total, to be able to hold a brigade group at readiness, the Army should maintain, as a minimum, three brigades up to strength (a division). With the prospect of our leadership roll over small coalition forces, and accepting that (like ours in all the years past) the contributions from other nations will be token and tactical, the Army should also maintain the supplementary back-up headquarters, support, supply and logistic forces necessary to round out the expected small and incomplete contributions of the other contributing nations. To do this and provide some mobility for the force, the Army should maintain a small, independent armoured brigade (two armoured regiments, two mechanized battalions (100 tanks all up)).

The whole force should be commanded by a Corps Headquarters/Deployable Joint Force Headquarters capable of commanding an international force in a theatre. Corps troops capable of supporting, supplying and maintaining a theatre must be at readiness. These should include heavy artillery and rocket troops, construction and resource gathering engineers (water, timber, rock, space, et cetera), intelligence and reconnaissance troops (ground and air, capable of acquiring targets out to 200 kilometres and engaging them), hospitals and specialist surgical units, heavy and aviation workshops, docks operating units, a petrol laboratory, extensive fuel storage and fire protection, heavy transportation units, ordnance depots, canteen and recreation units and other auxiliary units. At first sight this requirement may seem large - it would be to the order of 50,000 men - but the East Timor experience demonstrates its need. Importantly, it would hold and employ all the elements of a national army and could be rapidly expanded. For a responsible nation of 19 million people, connected to the most dynamic region of the world, it represents a sensible, balanced force which would be within the nation's means. Such a force could react to the situations in conflict resolution, peace-making, peace-keeping and limited war likely to be encountered in the foreseeable future by our nation.

These proposals offer some different ideas to meet the demands we now face. There are obvious strategic functions which we must continue to meet, such as those to preserve the integrity of our coastline, but our ends would be better served if we did not propose to operate a maritime strategy with our peacetime forces. This would free the R.A.A.F. for tactical employment, and so it would be used to far greater purpose in peacetime as part of the task force. The R.A.N., in a commitment to amphibious support and supply, would be better placed to direct its own operations. Most importantly, the budget commitments would be more likely to be held to the range of the attainable, as long as we are realistic and prepared to meet the costs of leadership in our region. Above all, a thrust along these lines would free us from the impasse created by the impossible and consuming burden reached with the Big Ticket Items and enable the Defence Force scope for development. A joint amphibious task force, at a reasonable state of readiness and backed by the right balance of corps troops, would be a prudent support to a national strategy directed to the acceptance of our obligations to the region and a sound basis for rapid development if required.



National Observer No. 45 - Winter 2000