How stretched is our defence force?

The defence force is stretched but not over-stretched by current deployments but its ability to handle additional crises may be constrained (depending on the nature of the crisis).

With the current redeployment of forces to East Timor the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is working at its highest operational tempo, and across the broadest range of tasking and the greatest diversity of operational theatres, since at least the mid to late 1960s.

The ADF is busier than ever but is only two thirds the size it was at that time. It is well under half the size in certain key capabilities such as infantry and light armoured forces. Furthermore, these are exactly the types of military capability – as are amphibious ships and transport aircraft – that are most needed to mount and support deployments within our immediate region.

This is why both sides of politics agree that the Army needs at least 1500 more troops – on top of its current shortfall of roughly the same number.

Our first strategic problem is that we need these extra troops now but do not have them. The second and longer-term problem is that we are not currently able to recruit sufficient people to fill the gaps and are having increasing difficulty in retaining the ones we have.

This is unlikely to change much while the labour market is tight, there are (in demographic terms) far fewer 18-25 year olds to recruit in the first place, and ADF salaries (for other than junior ranks) continue to lag so far behind community norms.

Furthermore, defence forces are not just people. They must also be equipped and the people must be part of a system that maximises their intellectual and professional skills.

In terms of operational professionalism the ADF has few problems. Its training standards are high and the respect in which it is held internationally has both deterrent and practical effects on potential and actual adversaries.

The force is properly pitched professionally for conventional warfighting, and its record in this regard is good, which means it also adept at peacekeeping and similar low intensity operations. The reverse is rarely true.

Defence forces can easily scale down for peacekeeping but it is much more difficult to scale up for warfighting if configured only or mainly for peacekeeping. Armies deter potential troublemakers. Paramilitary gendarmeries do not.

Some of the equipment held by our defence force is modern but much of this is only held in relatively small numbers. Where equipment is held in greater numbers it is usually out of date – even to the extent of being dangerous to use in modern battle.

The main overall cause of this situation was the declining or at best static defence spending over the 1972-2000 period.

As some of many examples. The RAN’s heavy landing craft were built in 1971-72 and the Navy is half-way through a decade-long capability gap of having no destroyers.

The Army’s M113 armoured personnel carrier fleet was procured in the mid 1960s and could not be deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan because they are too vulnerable (although they can be used in East Timor where the threat from modern anti-armour weapons and roadside bombs is negligible). The Army is also still flying Iroquois helicopters flown by the RAAF in the Vietnam War forty years ago.

The RAAF’s Caribou light tactical transport aircraft came into service in 1964 and are older than the parents of their pilots.

Even though there have been three per cent per annum real increases in the defence budget over recent years they have not been sufficient to fully cancel out the decades of sustained under-investment and neglect.

These personnel and equipment shortfalls are why the defence force is being stretched quite tight at present by the high number of crises requiring defence force assistance for their resolution.

To fully explore this situation of operational stretch we also need to take account of the rule-of-three.

Based on painful experience from numerous wars this principle of military planning (and capability development) specifies that you need to maintain defence capabilities in groups of three in order to enable strategic flexibility and be able to sustain long or complex deployments for more than a short period.

If, for example, we wish to maintain a unit in East Timor (or elsewhere) for longer than a few months we need three such units supporting the deployment.

This is because one unit is deployed, one is getting ready to replace it and the third is rebuilding and retraining after returning from the deployment. Not to mention giving people sufficient time off with their families eventually, and opportunities for promotion training and career development, so the force’s personnel retention problems do not become even worse.

Australia’s problem is that we maintain too many defence capabilities in ones and twos.

We generally get away with this when it is a defence capability that covers catastrophic but rare threats, such as our sole tank regiment or our two bomber squadrons.

But when it involves capabilities we use much more often (infantry, light armoured units, transport aircraft, amphibious ships) we face great difficulty in having sufficient forces.

This is the main reason why our recent commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan, especially with ground forces, have been so relatively small.

We have also largely coped because recent crises have occurred consecutively and generally required different parts of our defence force.

For example, the ADF's main support to the police-led operation in Solomon Islands was by logistic and transport units, while the support in Aceh after the Tsunami mainly involved medical and engineer units.

Our problem now is that several crises are happening together and require use of the same type of force (chiefly infantry and light armour).

The key strategic lessons of the 1999 East Timor deployment remain relevant but are too readily forgotten.

We forget that we muddled through in East Timor last time and were quite lucky to avoid strategic humiliation (or even defeat) for four principal reasons.

  • First, the professionalism and “can do” attitude of the ADF carried us through despite many deficiencies in weapons, equipment and logistics.
  • Second, East Timor was only a few hundred kilometres from a major ADF mounting base in Darwin. If it had been twice or three times the distance away we would have been in much more serious trouble.
  • Third, the Indonesian military were convinced not to fight, thus saving us many operational complications and logistical and medical evacuation woes.
  • Finally, the rest of the world came and saved us because we did not have sufficient forces to rotate the units deployed when their six or twelve-month tour of duty needed to end.

Another overall lesson is that we need to maintain two general types of defence capability (and alliance arrangement).

First are those that cover rare but potentially catastrophic contingencies such as invasion, nuclear attack or significant breakdown in the international system.

Second, are those that help us to handle more common but less terminal crises (in terms of national survival).

As a rough rule-of-thumb both types of crisis can require us to deploy the defence force overseas — both regionally and more broadly — in order to protect our national interests.

This is unlikely to change because in a globalised world we have strong economic, strategic, legal and moral interests that continually mean overseas commitments.

In our immediate region at present we are facing a number of crises in the important but non-terminal category.

The type of regional interventions needed to help resolve such crises (by both actual or deterrent use of force) mean we need a bigger and more strategically mobile ADF.

It also means we need a bigger Army because boots-on-the-ground assistance can never be entirely replaced by technology or wishful thinking in such situations.