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National Observer Home > No. 47 - Summer 2001 > Articles

A Necessary Re-Organisation of Australia's Defence

Major-General David Butler and Dr I.C.F. Spry Q.C

Before there can be a fundamental review of Australian Defence Policy to take account of major changes in our strategic environment and military technology, and the increasing costs and budgetary pressures for the Defence Department, there must be a clear and unequivocal statement of the Government's objectives to guide it. Indeed, it has been the failure of the various governments and their instrumentalities over the years to define a national strategy and articulate its objectives which has contributed some of the need for this review. This has undoubtedly been caused by the inability of the Government's strategic apparatus at the highest level to keep up. Largely unchanged since World War II and seldom used, it has been overtaken by the accelerated needs of the times. Furthermore, the organisational changes which evolved in the Defence Department to take up the void in strategic policy guidance attempted also to address the professional development of the military strategy. The result tends to be incomplete in both areas and has also contributed to the confusion. There is a need for some form of National Security apparatus, with the necessary authorities, to advise the National Security Committee of the Cabinet and to supervise the actions demanded by that Committee. Furthermore, there need to be establishment changes within the Department of Defence to direct properly the development and implementation of the military strategy.

To better understand what is sought one has to look to Clausewitz. His great dictum remains true today, and his further discussion of it is totally apposite to our need. As he saw it, war is always an instrument of policy. In failing to heed this opinion, we have looked at defence policy almost as if it is mindful only of itself and have arrived at solely military solutions to a geo-strategic problem of enormous complexity.

The continent of Australia and the archipelago are indivisible strategically and present a problem which by any measure will be greater than the capacity of any one government instrumentality to engage. For a nation of only 19 million people, this problem should attract all the wisdom and enterprise our small nation can bring to bear. The cost of defending it by military means alone defies comprehension. Yet somehow until now, we contented ourselves with the proposition that our tiny Air Force could stop any invader in his tracks. Not only would this be an impossibility, given the limitations of capability, but the the extension of the strategy leaves the bulk of the Air Force unable to address any other function.

In practical terms, in the post cold war/post colonial period, it is unreasonable to suggest that, within a decade, there will be any power which will mount and launch a thrust of the power and violence of the Japanese in 1941/42. But that does not mean the region will be free of conflict. There is continuing evidence of political, economic, ethnic and environmental discord which, if uncontrolled, could lead to conflict. The means which Australia could apply in these developing situations represent a gamut of capability far wider than just the Defence Force could apply. Indeed to satisfy our national interest, it would be wiser to look to the application of our full national power from the outset.

The problem here is that most Australians do not believe that Australia is a powerful force in the world, and tend to regard any such thoughts as pretentious and insupportable. However, there is much more to our position than this. Correlli Barnett defines national power thus:

"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."

Our national strategy should be totally embracive, and the political aim which drives it must be directed to long term survival. Since that survival will be predicated on our long term prosperity, the major thrust of our national strategy must be economic. The environment in which our strategy will evolve demands that we must be committed to the vital development of self-reliance in the nations around us. This strategy will engage the direct contribution of the whole spectrum of the institutions which drive our nation, public and private. The Defence Force is but one part.

With a wider government involvement within the region the military risk at the strategic level is considerably diminished. Strategic tasks, such as those to do with the integrity of our coastline, remain to be catered for, but the bulk of the Defence Force should be available for tactical employment within the region. Conflict resolution, peacemaking and peace keeping are the roles which come readily to mind. Whatever we do should be guided by the first principle of strategy, which is to seek allies, and the second, which is to deny any potential adversary the possibility of alliance relationships. The experience of East Timor suggests that Australia may be required to assume a leadership role of small coalition forces in some circumstances. The nature of the archipelago dictates that any tactical force must have an amphibious capability to be fully effective in the region.

These arguments are more fully developed in a series of propositions.

Proposition 1: Control of the Services by Defence Department bureaucrats A preliminary matter, but one of central importance, must be to consider, as a pre-condition of any Defence Review, the degree to which the Chiefs of the Services have, since the time of Sir Frederick Shedden, been progressively subordinated to bureaucratic control. This has proceeded to an extent what is not paralleled in other countries that are comparable with Australia.

This problem is faced squarely by Lt. Colonel Neil James in Working Paper No. 59, "Reform of the Defence Management Paradigm: A Fresh View", of the Australian Defence Studies Centre. This Working Paper has been recognised as an outstanding analysis, and as one of the most important contributions to policy discussion in the post-World War II period.

The Working Paper must be read in full in order to appreciate the nature of the difficulties that it examines. Senior bureaucrats, however well-intentioned, do not have the experience and practical knowledge that is necessary to enable critical decisions to be made on matters of service expertise, and especially on the design and maintenance of adequate military forces.

By examining the history of the Australian Defence Forces, from the inception of their control by Shedden up until the present time, the Working Paper concludes, at pages 7-8:

"In the 1920s and 1930s Australian governments mismanaged the politico-military interface. Governments were generally ignorant of strategy, insufficiently critical of British strategic decision-making, and obsessed with cost cutting; they were also cultural prisoners of the 'militia myth' that all Australians are natural soldiers and no regular forces or full-time professional commanders are necessary. Unfortunately, this combination of factors resulted in Australia placing its entire emphasis on a single defence strategy of questionable validity the 'Singapore strategy', with virtually no attention paid to the need for strategic flexibility and versatility or to alternative or back-up strategies.

In turn, the resulting force-structuring caused significant over-investment in warships rather than investment in a force balanced for the range of combat subsequently encountered in the Middle East and Greece during 1940-41 in general, and in the Sea-Land-Air gap to Australia's north during 1941-43 in particular.

This faulty investment particularly hindered the development of aircraft and land force mechanisation and firepower through the inter-war period. The mis-management of the politico-military interface also helped to hinder the development of any effective joint-Service command and control.

At the national level, the mismanagement of the politico-military interface resulted in an unhealthy reliance on civilian advisers, rather than the Government's principal military advisers, the Chiefs of Staff and the Army, Naval and Air Boards. This bureaucratisation of the politico-military interface in Australia did not occur at all, or to anywhere near the same degree, in comparable countries facing the same strategic crises.

It resulted in large part from the influence, bureaucratic intrigues and personality of Sir Frederick Shedden, Permanent Head of the Defence Department from late 1937 to late 1956 and Secretary of the War Cabinet for all of World War II.

The resultant disaster of the 'Singapore strategy' resulted in 18,067 dead, wounded and captured Australians. This disaster would probably have been avoided, or not have occurred to anywhere the same degree, had our governments listened to advice from 1920 onwards, such as the Chauvel Report, which pointed out the numerous flaws in concentrating on one vulnerable defence strategy.

General Laverack's term as C.G.S. was not extended in 1939, largely because he had so accurately highlighted the disastrous flaws in our almost total reliance on the Singapore strategy and naval spending. As late as 1938, the 'she'll be right' approach prevailed at the political and bureaucratic levels. Even then, this attitude changed only when there was a change in the British Government's attitude, not through any real perceptual change in the Australian bureaucracy or political class."

The Working Paper notes that Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, perhaps the greatest Allied strategist of World War II, "strongly believed that some constitutional, professional and practical aberrations in the politico-military interface and higher defence management had developed in Australia in the 1930s, and especially during World War II." In April 1946, for example, "Alanbrooke noted that the Australian C.O.S.C. were completely, and most improperly, subservient to Shedden who had acquired too much power. He was particularly horrified at Shedden's presumption and abuse of power and propriety in advising the government and answering international cables on clearly military matters without even consulting the Australian C.O.S.C." He also lamented the "restricted clerical outlook of Shedden and its detrimental effect."

Quite simply, Defence Department bureaucrats should be seen, and should see themselves, as administrative officials, who carry out decisions of the Minister and the Chiefs of Staff, and perform other appropriate executive and financial functions, and not as purported experts who determine military policy.

The Working Paper notes that the Morshed Committee of Inquiry into Defence Reorganisation in 1957 did not lead to substantial change or reform to many of the existing improper practices, and observed: "This was largely because membership of the Committee of Inquiry was heavily rigged in favour of civilian bureaucratic manager-ialism."

This is a concern at the present time. The current Review must not be conducted in such a manner as to continue undue Defence Department bureaucratic control. While it is not intended here to criticise the good faith of Departmental officers, it would be unfortunate if vested interests were to intrude upon a proper reallocation of functions.

Proposition 2

Much of the confusion over the current structure, identification of roles and budget allocation of the A.D.F. arises because

· There is no defined and articulated national aim and strategy.

· An adequate national security apparatus at the highest level which can accept the responsibility of preparing and administering the national strategy is required.

· The Defence Department, in the absence of the precise direction of a national strategy, has organised itself partly to fill the gap and so has cobbled together a document which is part national strategy and part military strategy.

· The result, which has not changed dramatically over recent years, offers only limited military guidance and is a long way short of what is needed. The Defence Department should be reorganised to be directed more properly to the military strategy Discussion

Australia, because it has always been accustomed to work from a subordinate position in alliance arrangements, has never analysed sufficiently its national power and how that power should be applied in the national interest. The Australian response has been largely reactive and immediate with little or no consideration for the longer term which may have more properly delineated the issues of Australia's particular concern. It may be correct that for most of the past century the issues which involved Australian security were relatively straight-forward and did not arise frequently. National security problems were dealt with by the Executive of the Cabinet, which was able generally to cope. Consequently this arrangement has continued largely unchanged since World War II. However the accelerating rate of change in the world today has exposed the weakness of this system. Without a precise definition of national strategy there is no structure capable of applying prompt and precise examination of the significant changes in regional security due to state disintegration, new forms of conflict yet to be categorised and threats from non-traditional sources. With the interplay of political, ethnic, economic and environmental factors, with sometimes disarmament and proliferation to be considered, the military, more than ever, is but one player in the sensitive national equation. A national security body, with essential authority, is now required to direct day to day oversight of the employment of our national power.

The frailty of the existing system is evident in the propositions listed in the Public Discussion Paper itself. For example, in the section entitled Australia's Nearer Region commencing on page 12, the challenges which face our nearer neighbours are listed, but the effects on Australia and the short and long term programmes which Australia should examine to deal with the consequences are not addressed. It is nice to say, "The emergence of democracy in Indonesia offers real promise of allowing that co-operation to deepen." What is Australia to do now and in the long term to foster and extend that co-operation? How is Australia's national interest, particularly in relation to our economic well being, to be satisfied in these arrangements?

On the other hand, what if the significant economic, political and social challenges and separatist and sectarian issues in some parts of Indonesia succeed and shatter the Indonesian nation? What should we do now and in the long term? What could be the consequences of a divided Indonesia within the region and particularly to us? The Western Alliance has a critical need to ensure that the passage of oil to Japan remains unimpeded through the archipelago. How should Australia be engaged to assist in the guarantee of continued supply? What options could be played and what must be held in train?

Papua New Guinea is in a parlous state, yet of all the countries in the region, it is the one which is absolutely vital to Australia's security. What is Australia to do over an extended period to re-establish a sufficiently strong interest with Papua New Guinea to ensure that no other nation is able to establish an influential political, economic or military position in Papua New Guinea? How should Australia's national power be applied to meet these extraordinarily difficult, sensitive, long term goals?

In the face of analysis along these lines, how can we ever imagine that some power will emerge which will sweep through the archipelago with the style, speed and ferocity of the Japanese in 1941/42? Can we really live with a military strategy designed to defend our continent by possessing the capability to deny our air and sea approaches to hostile ships and aircraft? Can we devote so much of our Defence budget to such an overly simple, limited and ultimately inflexible solution? Should we not be looking for longer term, totally embracive, more flexible and sensitive strategies?

Proposition 3

The archipelago and Australia are geo-strategically indivisible. The archi-pelago, in a negative sense, is the most likely approach to Australia. On the other hand, it may be the bridge to our neighbours in the region who could offer the best defence we could secure.


We are already addressing something more positive than comparing the merits of defending the Australian continent with the possibility of devoting our effort to meeting regional commitments. The issues are much more complicated than that. However it is probably sensible to put the purely military issues of the maritime strategy to rest before going on.

As already discussed in Proposition 2, the policy of denial of approaches by sea and air forces really contemplates an enemy in great strength if he is to undertake such a bold strategy. Surely, his first ploy in the circumstance would be to bring our main force to battle in circumstances unfavourable to us. In the face of enemy strength, one would need to expect a considerable attrition of our limited force. Our objective of denial would not be achieved, at best some delay would be applied. The major asset of the Defence Force, the Fighter Force, and the keystone of our strategy could be so diminished in the first series of battles as to be unable to contribute further to the conflict.

Some may well say we have achieved a considerable success in that the Fighter Force would prove a major deterrent, since nobody could take us on without first accumulating a major force to defeat us. Maybe; but there does not seem to be any economy in committing such a major share of the Defence vote to such an unlikely strategic task. Once dedicated to that strategic task there is no possibility that the fighters could be diverted to interim tactical deployments. With such limited assets at our disposal, can we afford to be structured so inflexibly? Should we not also consider the possibility of facing an encroachment which takes many years to develop and look to a more proactive strategy?

It is better that we look to other means to engage the region and involve our national power more imaginatively to achieve our long term goals. From our experience over the past fifty years we know there will be any number of conflicts as the developing nations find their way to self-reliance. The introduction of an Australian tactical force would be welcome at these times to support the other strategies we would already have in place.

In every area of our government and commercial and social interests, there are commonalities and associations which could be co-ordinated and applied to the national interest. There is a need to establish a financial centre for the region which may provide a critical advantage to Australia. We already seek to extend trade within the region. Our capacities would increase exponentially were we systematically to extend and develop our infrastructure. There is a need to apply a massive injection of information technology across the whole of our agricultural industry, to drought-proof our country, and to enhance our fast rail resources, rapid handling ports and freight airfields. The extension of the facilities we offer in the fields of medical support and specialist and surgical programmes would significantly extend our associations and influence. The same applies where we should encourage and assist our engineering and construction firms to expand aggressively their engagement in the region. Education is already involved and is extending its facility in the secondary, tertiary and technical fields, but we should be more active. There is much more: government

direction, funding and assistance is vital in the ultimate defence of our national interest and as a credible strategic goal.

Proposition 4
The capabilities approach over-simplifies a complex problem and pays insufficient attention to the holistic basis on which the A.D.F. is structured.


Chapter 5 in the review document provides examples of the dangers of this approach. Under the heading Air Combat, it is stated the key task of our air combat capability is to ensure we can destroy hostile aircraft approaching Australia or operating in our maritime approaches. Similarly our strike capability provides options to destroy hostile units before they are launched at Australia. But in this instance we are arguing on the basis of principle while ignoring the reality. We do not possess the combat power to create a condition of air superiority and thereby the ability to stop the enemy in his tracks. That one capability, air combat, does not completely express the range of roles which are available and should be considered.

Naval ships and Army formations, for instance, are structured on the premise they will receive guaranteed and immediate close air support in battle from the R.A.A.F. In this strategy the limited fighter force (71 FA 18s) cannot meet its air combat role and still guarantee close air support. What then is to be done to supplement the fire-power assets of the ships and formations to make up for the lack of close air support? There is no alternative but to increase the anti-aircraft assets for both the R.A.N. ships and the Army formations. In addition the Army would need heavy artillery, rocket forces, attack helicopters (with missiles), remotely piloted vehicles and more tanks.

For similar reasons it is imperative that Army formations and Navy ships must always operate with a complete outfit (that is, the structure and the complete weaponry for their role). Attempts to save money by tailoring units/formations (in effect, by reducing their strength) or by placing them on light scales (in effect, the same thing, but the uninitiated imagine the smaller groups will somehow be more mobile on the battlefield) before battle is joined, is a real gamble which is invariably exposed immediately in battle. Under-strength units just cannot sustain the pressure of active operations. Our experience in the last 58 years in the region has been that the Services have always had to operate outnumbered, and there is no evidence to suggest that this position is ever likely to change. We would be extremely foolish to exacerbate voluntarily the existing imbalance, or, even worse, to reduce capability before the enemy's complete capability is known to us.

Finally, just as the capabilities of the R.A.N. and R.A.A.F. are continually monitored and upgraded to remain current, so should attention be paid to the capability of Army units. In infantry battalions, for example, capability rests with the efficiency and endurance of the individuals. No one ever seems to question the capability of battalions or, more importantly, ever seeks to upgrade it. It is almost as if the six battalions are less important than the six submarines, for example. Yet to our knowledge, to save money, no Australian battalion in the past fifty years has formally undertaken the vital advanced individual training of every man which should follow the completion of unit training. Its purpose should be to take every soldier in the unit through to expert level and so dramatically extend the capability of the unit. Units would, in some circumstances, be able to operate on wider frontages in smaller groups. Units would certainly be better able to deal with the wide and ever changing demands of conflict resolution, peace making and peace keeping. Classically the followers would be turned into leaders .

The training involves taking every man to advanced levels of fieldcraft, stalking and tracking, shooting including sniping, navigation, endurance training, watermanship, mines and booby traps, first aid, close reconnaissance, signalling, fire control, climbing, abseiling and rappelling. Training would take about two years to complete and ideally could be undertaken after the unit comes to readiness having completed unit training. There is a cost increase and increased ammunition expenditure, but the commitment and outlay is infinitesimal in comparison with the outlays for refits and upgrades of ships and aircraft. The improvement in the capability of the small number of battalions would more than justify the outlay, and would probably represent one of the biggest advances for infantry in the world since Sir John Moore developed the Light Infantry in the Peninsula War. The units of the other arms and services would also benefit from advanced individual training. This programme would represent a force multiplier of remarkable proportions.

Proposition 5

Australia should maintain a joint tactical force with amphibious capability at readiness as the military contribution to a national strategy of developing involvement in the region. The force should be capable of commanding and maintaining small coalition forces when required.

The force structure, once determined, must be held complete, at strength, and remain inviolate (not subject to reductions or other attempts at economies). It should represent the irreducible strength of the A.D.F., the core force.

A suggested structure could be

· Corps/ Deployable Joint Force Headquarters

· R.A.N. Task Force with amphibious capability and the means to defend itself

· Infantry Division (three Brigades at Higher Establishment)

· Armoured Brigade (two Armoured Regiments, Two Mechanised Battalions)

· Corps Troops

Engineer units, including construction and resource gathering units

Artillery units, including heavy and rocket artillery

Signals units

Special Force and Reconnaissance units (ground and air, capable of acquiring and engaging targets out to a range of 200 kms)

Intelligence units, including Engineer and Artillery

Aviation units (fixed wing and helo): Attack, Battlefield, Transport and Support

Medical units

Transportation units


Ordnance and Supply units (food, POL, ammunition, etc.)

· R.A.A.F. tactical component

Fighter Wing

Bomber Element

Transport Support Wing


East Timor has advanced the perception of Australia's defence needs and capabilities. For the first time ever Australia has had to demonstrate the strategic ability to mount, launch and conduct a small international operation. Previously Australia enjoyed the comparative luxury, as a junior member of an alliance, of electing to offer the tactical capabilities it could most easily deploy and maintain. The East Timor deployment must have proved extraordinarily difficult as those strategic logistic units were not in being and had to be hastily contrived and we had no experience in assembling, mounting and deploying an international force. Even though it was only a small force it represented an enormous step forward for Australia. Having completed the task successfully, Australia will be expected to assume similar roles and responsibilities in the future. To be sensibly structured, the Defence Force will have to become larger and more capable as befits these newly established responsibilities. With the increased demand will come increased authority and opportunity within the region and beyond. The ultimate advantage will be to our national interest and will more than balance the outlay.

The nature of the region is such that any strategic force must possess a complete amphibious capability. That said, experience has shown us, again and again, that the basis of any force must be the brigade group. The smallest formation capable of independent operation, it presents a credible balance of all arms necessary on any battlefield. To maintain a brigade group at readiness requires a further brigade on stand by and one to meet any other contingencies all up, one division . The strategic leadership role for a coalition force will require corps troops able to provide the necessary combat support, supply and maintenance functions structured and at readiness. Furthermore, because the coalition force will receive largely token and tactical international contributions, it will be necessary to hold a small armoured brigade to provide the essential mobility for a predominantly infantry force. A Corps/Deployable Joint Force Headquarters will be required.

In the provision of a task force to deploy and defend the amphibious task force, the R.A.N. will offer a purpose and a national identity to the joint force.

The R.A.A.F. will provide a fighter wing and transport support which will guarantee close air support to the joint force.

In the past, the term core force was used to designate the basic capability maintained for subsequent expansion/mobilisation. In this new era of Australian strategic responsibility the force in being is very much a signal of our commitment and resolution. Any reduction of its strength or capability experience has shown us, again and again, that the basis of any force must be the brigade group. The smallest formation capable of independent operation, it presents a credible balance of all arms necessary on any battlefield. To maintain a brigade group at readiness requires a further brigade on stand by and one to meet any other contingencies all up, one division . The strategic leadership role for a coalition force will require corps troops able to provide the necessary combat support, supply and maintenance functions structured and at readiness. Furthermore, because the coalition force will receive largely token and tactical international contributions, it will be necessary to hold a small armoured brigade to provide the essential mobility for a predominantly infantry force. A Corps/Deployable Joint Force Headquarters will be required.

In the provision of a task force to deploy and defend the amphibious task force, the R.A.N. will offer a purpose and a national identity to the joint force.

The R.A.A.F. will provide a fighter wing and transport support which will guarantee close air support to the joint force.

In the past, the term core force was used to designate the basic capability maintained for subsequent expansion/mobilisation. In this new era of Australian strategic responsibility the force in being is very much a signal of our commitment and resolution. Any reduction of its strength or capability would give a bad signal. To complement our embracive strategy the force in being should be inviolate, guaranteed from reduction, and called the core force as a signal of this new authority.


"A Reality Audit: Some Other Thoughts on Defence", Major-General David Butler, "National Observer", Number 45, Winter 2000.

Defence Review 2000 "Our Future Defence Force", June 2000.

Australian Defence Studies Centre, Working Paper No. 59 "Reform of the Defence Management Paradigm: A Fresh View", Lt. Col. Neil James, May 2000.

Australian Defence Studies Centre Working Paper ( In Press) "Australia's National Security Framework A Look At The Future", Carl Oatley.

"Defence Supremo, Sir Frederick Shedden", David Horner, Allen & Unwin, 2000


National Observer No. 47 - Summer 2001