Letters archive 2008

This archive contains letters-to-the-editor submitted by the Australia Defence Association between 01 January and 31 December 2008.



29 December 2008
Letter to Sydney's Sunday Telegraph (in answer to yet another sensationalist beat-up by Sharri Markson – see also the letter of 01 March 2008 below)
(not published) 

Once again the “Sunday Telegraph” (December 28) has published a sensationalist, context-free, error-riddled and insensitive story on our defence force by Sharri Markson. 

Why, and what lies behind Ms Markson’s regularly demonstrated contempt for our military? Was she once stood up for a date by a sailor? Or do her quests for a splashy headline and a beat-up at all costs about the ADF just occur in a moral and professional vacuum generally? 

Previously we had her highly inaccurate and unprofessional beat-up on supposed abuses of female breast surgery in the ADF – when the five cases over three years were actually justified in every case by qualified medical opinion and available to any Australian woman through Medicare anyway. 

Then there was her silly and sloppy article on ADF women somehow not serving in combat when many have long done so in all three Services, do so as you read this and are justifiably offended by amateurish and ignorant slurs that they do not. 

Now we have Sharri’s latest wild claim that unacceptable, but still very minor, instances where Department of Defence credit cards have been misused allegedly indicate widespread drug and alcohol abuse and gambling problems in the ADF. 

Could we please be advised, for comparison and context, how much credit card abuse and expenses fraud at the “Sunday Telegraph” is greater or lesser than the 0.12 per cent cited in her article? 

Finally, could Ms Markson also please try some research before rushing to her keyboard and at least try to grasp that the ADF and the Department of Defence are not the same. 

22 December 2008
Letter to the Australian
(not published) 

Your Monday (December 22) editorial on David Hicks made several worthwhile points, especially about him still having a life whereas many members of our defence force have been killed or seriously wounded in action in Afghanistan. 

Three further points are also worth making as public debate concerning Hicks is too often ahistoric, uninformed, ideological or emotional. 

First, although many mistakenly believe it, Hicks was never “imprisoned without trial”. In legal, moral and practical terms he was detained as a captured belligerent under the laws of armed conflict (LOAC) after serving under arms with the Taliban (at least) in the Afghanistan War. 

Second, Hicks’ subsequent plea-bargained sentence, and the conditions of his release from that sentence, were only in relation to his separate US criminal trial for terrorist offences. 

His continued release on parole from the original detention as a captured belligerent under LOAC surely depends on him not violating such parole until the applicable war in Afghanistan ends – by, say, rejoining the hostilities in any way, including any withdrawal of his ostensible renunciation of his terrorist and Taliban affiliations. 

Third, for over five decades following allegations of treachery made against the communist "journalist" Wilfred Burchett in the Korean War, we failed our defence force by not closing the legal loopholes that allowed Burchett to escape prosecution on charges of aiding an enemy we had sent the ADF to fight on our behalf. Hicks consequently fell into the an even worse legal limbo as his release from detention under LOAC was delayed because no separate criminal trial was then possible in Australia. 

Fortunately, under the Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act, 2002, an Australian citizen anywhere in the world again commits treason if he or she (among other things):

  •  intentionally assists, by any means whatsoever, an enemy, at war with the Commonwealth;

  •  intentionally assists, by ‘any means whatsoever’, another country or organisation that is engaged in armed hostilities against the Australian Defence Force (ADF); or

  •  forms an intention to do any of the above acts and manifests that intention by an overt act.

 This is as it should be. 

22 December 2008
Letter to the Canberra Times
(published 27 December 2008) 

Your Monday 22 December editorial on the moral and legal hazards of detaining asylum seekers and illegal immigrants followed a familiar but somewhat narrow path by concentrating on the issue of detention but not convention. 

As the international law scholar, Bernard Roling, once noted, the road to international hell is paved with good conventions. The 1951 Refugee Convention has now institutionalised three root-cause problems and at least two long-term unhelpful effects. 

First, a founding principle of the Convention is that refugees should be sheltered, and if necessary resettled as a last resort, in their own regions and as close to their homes as possible so they can eventually return. The incentive instituted here is for neighbouring countries to quickly settle the disputes that cause the refugees in the first place – and on a regional basis. (Chapter 8 of the UN Charter was similarly motivated). This principle is now tragically forgotten by many. The price is perpetuating international disputes and refugee situations interminably. 

Second, Australia and New Zealand are two of the very few signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention in the whole Asia-Pacific region. More to the point they are the only ones that have longstanding, mass immigration and refugee resettlement programs - and a culture of permanently and totally assimilating settlers in large numbers. They are also highly attractive countries for resettlement on economic, social, political and environmental grounds. Moreover, Australia is between NZ and the source of the major population flows and is more attractive than NZ (even for many Kiwis). 

Third, only six countries between the Agean and the Arafura seas are signatories to the Refugee Convention. Three of them, Iran, Afghanistan and East Timor are more often sources of refugees rather than respecters of the Convention and a fourth, Cambodia, was so in the past. (The other two are Israel and Yemen). 

Is it any surprise then that the remaining 25 or so countries of the Middle East, West Asia, South Asia and South-East Asia have no moral, political or legal incentive to solve refugee flows or people smuggling – or address their humanitarian and legal responsibilities under customary international law. To them, Australia is the apparent permanent solution to all their problems. 

Then there is the international moral hazard of refugee flows disproportionately bleeding troubled countries of the very professional and educated people most needed to solve disputes and rebuild such countries in the short and long terms respectively. That we might partially solve our shortage of doctors by this effect, for example, hardly obviates the overall moral dilemmas and practical problems involved. 

Our difficulties with how to process genuine asylum seekers humanely, but still deter and combat people smuggling resolutely, have had some tragic consequences. But these are symptoms rather than causes of, or cures for, the overall problem. 

More countries, especially in the area between the Agean and Arafura Seas,  need to sign and respect the 1951 Refugee Convention (and its 1967 Protocol). At the moment the refugee problem is not widely shared at all regionally. There is no genuine “Pacific solution” or “Asian solution” because it is just too easy to keep passing the moral buck to Australia. 

Currently, the numbers of refugees involved are not large, at least in absolute terms. But if they were ever to become so, and the underlying problems are not solved, one unpalatable consequence might be Australia having to withdraw from the Convention too. This would clearly be undesirable but the status quo of [For] our neighbours [to] just expecting Australia to provide the whole region’s solution for ever is environmentally and strategically unsustainable in the long run. 

15 December 2008
Letter to the Australian Financial Review (following an opinion column by Sam Roggeveen)
(published 17 December 2008) 

Your opinion column by blogger Sam Roggeveen (Best defence will be non-provocative, AFR, 15 December) typifies Australia’s growing problem of those who try to discuss strategic principles, or how they can be applied operationally, without any apparent detailed knowledge or practical experience in either regard. 

Mr Roggeveen particularly misunderstands the necessary purpose and nature of our defence force possessing capability edges. 

Wars are deterred or if needed won by maintaining (legal and even “unfair” if necessary) advantages over potential and actual adversaries. We should never shrink from giving our forces a capability edge if it stops or wins wars - and lessens our casualties and national damage. 

But the enduring reason our defence force needs to be equipped with leading-edge weapons and manouvre systems, for example, is not to achieve “superiority” for its own sake as he claims, but to cancel out our usual inferiority in numbers and our strategic disadvantages in having to cover Australia’s vast distances, huge territories/seas/airspaces and globalised national interests. 

Moreover his belief that the 'real purpose' behind procurement of the two new medium-sized helicopter carriers (LHDs) is 'to storm enemy beaches' is simply bizarre. 

The claim demonstrates a complete failure to grasp the differences between amphibious manoeuvre, amphibious attack and amphibious assault – with the LHDs clearly intended and equipped for manoeuvre and, depending on the tactical circumstances, limited attack only. 

The ADF has no serious capability for amphibious assaults (requiring a range of ships, aircraft and troops we simply do not have) nor is one intended. 

Finally, the LHDs are purpose-designed to include the very types of capabilities he claims they should somehow be 'adapted to' (disaster relief, reconstruction, peacekeeping, etc) as well as other key components of strategic manoeuvre. 

His particularly misinformed comment on the LHDs is like claiming the real purpose for buying a Tarago people-carrier is ram-raids on banks surrounded by police roadblocks, rather than to give any large family useful transport for a variety of routine, occasional and emergency tasks around their neighbourhood. 

12 November 2008
Letter to the Canberra Times (following a Remembrance Day column by Nick Stuart)
(published 14 November 2008)

While we thank Nick Stuart for the quotation (CT, "Focus thoughts and reflections on the appalling cost of war", 11 November) the actual point the ADA makes is both more nuanced and more enduring in its effect.

Trafalgar (October 1805) was the most important strategic battle in Australia’s history until Midway (June 1942). For over a century afterwards British seapower was effectively unchallenged - and on a global basis.

The settlement of Australia on a continental scale, and its intensive and peaceful development throughout the whole 19th Century, was able to occur without hindrance by foreign powers. Unlike British-French confrontations over North America throughout the 18th Century and Japanese aggression across Asia in the early to mid 20th.

With or without modern globalisation, as an island continent the oceans around Australia are not a moat that we can somehow retreat behind – as some armchair strategic theorists and ideologues posit – but a highway for both trade and strategic mobility.

In the 21st Century our ability to control these oceans (in conjunction with allies), not just “deny” them to potential aggressors, will continue to be just as important as it was before and after the allied victories at Trafalgar and Midway. And for the peace and prosperity (of us and our region) that degree of sea control enabled, nurtured and protected.

Kevin Rudd appears to grasp this (Keating, Beazley, Dibb et al did not), so hopefully those writing the new defence white paper are listening and duly focused.

05 November 2008
Letter to Crikey.Com (in answer to an ahistoric rant in Crikey about our letter of 03 November 2008 below)
(not published)

Perhaps Harold Thornton (comments, 05 November) could read the official history series from World War II, or any number of other reputable historical accounts of that war, instead of succumbing to ideological and ahistoric sloganeering.

Australian history has surely long taught us that poor strategic decision-making, insufficient investment in our defence and isolationist wishful thinking all end up endangering Australia’s strategic security and liberty (and killing diggers).

Historical ignorance or misrepresentation magnifies these risks. If Mr Thornton oddly thinks that the RAAF had fighters and other resources “aplenty” to defend Australia against the Japanese (or anyone else) in 1941-42 he needs to explain why this fanciful belief is not supported by any survivor, historian or objective student of the period.

Moreover his beliefs about these alleged plentiful RAAF resources being squandered bombing Germany instead, and this being unnecessary in any event, are even more absurd.

The numerous battles our Army and Navy fought and lost with insufficient air cover in Greece and Crete (March-May 1941), Malaya-Singapore-Sunda Strait-Darwin (December 1941 – February 1942) and elsewhere across Australia’s near approaches, all occurred before the combined strategic bombing campaign against Germany (including significant Australian participation) had even started.

Furthermore, Germany winning either World War (or Japan winning the second one) was strategically untenable for Australia and it was this, not “slavish” imperial sentiment, that primarily drove our objective decision-making during both wars - but not, unfortunately, sufficient of our inter-war strategic preparations and defence investment.

Finally, the ADA is the national public-interest guardian body for defence and wider national security issues not the representative body for the ADF as Mr Thornton wrongly thinks. However, one of our roles is to counter ahistoric and illogical tripe, such as his claims, not least because such ill-informed opinions often end up killing those ADF personnel who protect his democratic right to be so ignorant of Australian history.

03 November 2008
Letter to Crikey.Com
(Published on 04 November 2008) 

Eric Palmer, “Defence is hush-hush about future fighter jet noise” (Crikey 03 November, item 17), raises many of the valid concerns that informed critics of the proposed F-35 joint strike fighter purchase have been making for some years. The overall problem is more complex and nuanced than he suggests but he is roughly correct in much of his outline. 

But Eric’s initial throw-away comment that the Taliban do not have an air force, with the inference that any fighter is therefore not required, is plain silly on three counts. Moreover, this type of naïve or callous thinking has caused much of the inadequate defence investment of the last 40 years – and has resulted in many unnecessary casualties in our previous wars. 

First, our defence force’s weapon systems and equipment generally have an operational life of around 20-25 years, with 30-40 also being common (F-111 bombers, some ships, etc) and even longer than that is not uncommon (the Navy’s heavy landing craft, the Army’s M113 armoured vehicles and the Air Force’s Caribou transport aircraft are all 1960s vintage). 

Second, you try not to fight the last war.

Prudent planning requires that most of the equipment we order or buy now and over the next decade is therefore intended to deter, fight or otherwise cope with future strategic challenges, not for current operations.

This is also why we always need to go for flexibility and versatility – not try and foolishly "pick winners" in detail now for likely types of crisis and war in the 2030s, 2040s and beyond which cannot be predicted in such detail.

It is also why we need measured and sustained investment in our defence over time not the stop-start and overall insufficient funding since the early 1970s which has actually cost us more financially in the long run and also meant increased strategic and tactical risks. 

Third, Eric’s (mainly justified) belief that the JSF is primarily a tactical bomber contradicts his assertion about the Taliban anyway.

A capability to strike from the air against enemy forces on the ground is required in most types of war, even counter-insurgency ones where the insurgents do not have a conventional air force.

This is particularly so because we rarely have enough troops and ships for them to fight without air support, and it is plain immoral for us to ever put them in such situations as we did, for example, in Greece, Crete, Tobruk, Malaya, Singapore, Java Sea, Ambon, Timor, Rabaul, Arafura Sea, Darwin, etc. 

26 October 2008
Letter to The Australian
(not published) 

Colin Mitchell (letters, Weekend Australian, 25-26 October), mistakes acquittal by an Australian court (however justified under the law) with fact, and then uses a syllogistic argument to claim our counter-terrorism laws are somehow too tough. 

But the major problem with the prosecution of Jack Thomas was the inadmissibility of evidence in a court not the existence and veracity of the facts involved. Somewhat ironically, Mamdouh Habib’s book “My Story” now also shows that the seriously conflicting stories by David Hicks, Thomas and Habib as to why they were all in Afghanistan cannot all be true. At least one of their accounts does not hold up. 

Furthermore, Habib, Hicks and Thomas may also all be dills rather than serious threats, at least now their activities in Afghanistan are known. But it does seem an incredible coincidence that all three travelled to Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, and had so much contact with Al Qa’eda, if they did not then share at least some of that latter organisation’s views. 

Moreover, the Victorian Court of Criminal Appeal decision overturning the first Thomas conviction now risks giving a “get out of gaol free” card to any Australian terrorist who is not initially apprehended and questioned in a first-world liberal democracy – and such countries are not likely sanctuaries for extensive Al Qa’eda training facilities and operational networks. 

The real issue with both the Hicks and Thomas cases is not that our counter-terrorist and associated laws are now too tough but that they were so inadequate at the time both men trained with Al Qa’eda in Afghanistan. 

Our laws now finally and rightly outlaw any Australian who undertakes military or other training with Al Qa’eda or similar terrorist groups, or indeed who joins any organisation fighting our defence force. This is as it should be. Through ineptitude, and a lack of reciprocal responsibility to the ADF that it sent to fight the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Menzies Government let Wilfred Burchett escape prosecution for assisting the enemies our diggers were then fighting on our behalf and at our government’s order. 

Whatever the rights and wrongs of individual cases, our new counter-terrorism laws finally close most of the disgraceful loopholes that so betrayed our national responsibility to support the men and women of our defence force in the past. 

21 October 2008
Letter to Adelaide's  The Advertiser in answer to an article by Ian McPhedran)
(not published)

Your “defence writer”, Ian McPhedran, “Why can’t these planes go to war”, The Advertiser, October 21, should stop listening to or inventing “well-placed sources” and do some real research instead.

In wrongly blaming the ADF for the obsolescence of its equipment he is further punishing the victim not exposing the perpetrator.

Much defence force equipment is not capable of modern battle because governments of both political persuasions so under-invested in defence throughout the 1980s and 1990s (until severely embarrassed by how close we came to failing in East Timor in 1999).

If ADF kit had been replaced or upgraded on schedule when the defence force first noted the necessity for this, we would not now have the situation where, for example, the Army’s M113 armoured vehicles (purchased 1963) are now older than the parents of their crews and even the (finally) upgraded ones incapable of modern combat – although they might still scare rioters.

All through the 1980s and 1990s plans to upgrade and then replace these Vietnam-era vehicles were continually vetoed by both Labor and Coalition governments ever keen to spend defence investment funds elsewhere to buy votes.

The same parent-crew and neglect comparisons apply to the RAAF’s Caribou transport aircraft (1964) and the Navy’s heavy landing craft (1967). Our F-111 bombers (1973) and FA-18 Hornet fighters (1985) are not far behind.

Ships, tanks and planes have lives of 25-40 years ideally. Keeping them longer generally risks lives (and defeat) if they then have to be used in combat.

Defence force capability development is necessarily a 15-25 year cycle and needs consistent and adequate funding over these periods – not on the basis of the 3-year federal electoral cycle and political fads at any one time.

If any Australian government is apparently wondering why the ADF is not properly equipped they should look in the mirror and across at the Opposition benches.

12 October 2008
Letter to The Gold Coast Bulletin (in answer to an opinion column from Peter Cameron)
(Published 13 October 2008)

The ostensible military or strategic policy expertise of Peter Cameron, “Its time to cut and run, Kev” (Weekend Gold Coast Bulletin, 11 Oct 08), is unknown, but his factual mistakes, misunderstandings, false assumptions and ahistoric assertions certainly give no cause for confidence in his opinions.

First, we are currently rotating, not increasing, our commitment to the UN-endorsed international force in Afghanistan. We may (as in most wars) have to increase it one day but we are not doing so now.

Second, artillery units are organised in troops and batteries not platoons. Getting such minor detail wrong is inexcusable in a column professing to advocate significant changes to Australian strategic policy.

Third, counter-insurgency wars are never won by military means alone but by inter-linked military, political and nation-building efforts. The military bits are only to provide, protect and enable wider economic, social and political change among the communities concerned.

Fourth, the nature of war is dynamic and the tactical and strategic situations change constantly. It is rare for one “side” to “win” continually in every battle at every level everywhere all the time. Moreover, most serious counter-insurgencies take a decade or more to achieve success, with many ups and downs, as failures in political, economic and social reform often hinder related military efforts (and vice versa).

Fifth, his term “autumn offensive” is incorrect and meaningless anyway in terrain where the intensity of fighting closely follows the climate cycle. Even the normal increase in fighting each Spring and Summer is only an upsurge not an offensive (where one side has such complete strategic initiative they are able to mount and sustain large-scale co-ordinated action over a wide area).

Sixth, although the Afghan government and its UN-endorsed international allies may not be currently “winning” (for varied and often arguable reasons), this does not automatically mean the other side is either.

Nor that we should just give up on Afghanistan and its people as a developing democracy, and condemn them again to totalitarian rule by a feudal theocracy that harbours terrorists and continues to threaten regional and wider international stability.

After all, when the Axis powers swept all before them from 1939 to 1942 we did not quit just because the Nazis and Japanese were then winning.

Finally, the moral bankruptcy of public defeatism is never pretty because it unnecessarily bolsters the morale of the enemy our troops are fighting on all our behalf.

[Mr Cameron failed] But Mr Cameron’s behaviour is even more despicable because his failure to establish any intellectual case to quit Afghanistan can only mean either questionable motives or a sloppy combination of ignorance and thoughtlessness.

At the very least, Peter Cameron needs to do some serious reading and study before again venturing an opinion on strategic policy or military matters.

14 September 2008
Letter to Crikey.Com (lamenting several straw-man attacks over the last week)
(Published on 16 September 2008)

Surely among fair-minded people it is time to call a halt to a disturbing trend among people submitting comments to Crikey. Too many resort to ad hominem attacks, and even then often against straw men they invent, rather than intellectually engage the subject or interlocutor concerned in the manner expected in informed public debate.

Criticism should employ facts and reasoned argument politely expressed. Instead there is often resort to emotional diatribes and false accusations based entirely on straw men, red herrings and the prejudices or biases of the attempted “critic”. Such “critics” need to remember that just because you might disagree with someone it does not make them somehow evil or their arguments automatically wrong in either sense.

Criticism in a forum such as Crikey should also surely concentrate on what others actually said in Crikey, not on what the “critic” pretends or misrepresents what they said. Or on what the “critic” might believe their motivation to be - or in the case of spokespersons for apolitical public-interest guardian organisations such as the ADA what the “critic” might misunderstand about who they represent and why.

Robin Wingrove (Comments 12 September) and Humphrey Hollins (Comments 11 September) are good recent examples. Wingrove accused me of somehow “justifying the slaughter of millions”. Hollins accused me of somehow being someone who “defends any war”, who “spruiks for war” and who “conveniently ignores collateral damage to the innocents”. None of this is true (and this is easily checked), none of this was fair comment, none of this was justifiable or reasonable behaviour in informed public debate.

Both simply chose to spray abuse and red herrings rather than make an effort to disprove my arguments with facts (relevant or even otherwise) and logic as perhaps wrong, irrelevant, incomplete, exaggerated or mistaken.

It is particularly hypocritical, and can be only the arrogance of extremists or moral cowardice (or both), to ignore facts, logic and decent standards of debate and instead deliberately choose to put words in the mouths of others and direct vituperation at them for something they have not said, do not believe and clearly would never say.

11 September 2008
Letter to The Australian
(not published) 

In the absence of Patrick Walters, much of the Australian’s reporting this week of Kevin Rudd’s speech on defence has disappointingly missed the main points, subtleties and nuances involved. This is exemplified by attempts to describe defence capability and strategy matters in outmoded and isolated navy, army and air force terms rather than demonstrate modern, integrated, joint-force understandings. 

Moreover, if the PM’s speech accurately reflected mature Government thinking during the development of the Defence White Paper, by far the most interesting observation was his statement about needing a balanced defence force - including an army capable of some high-end fighting and a navy and an air force capable of deploying and supporting land force deployments in the near and wider region. 

Such realism would represent a sea change and a final rejection of Kim Beazley’s controversial influence on Labor defence policy. It would consign to the dustbin of history the failed defence-of-Australia ideology that so backed the wrong horse in the 1980s and 1990s in trying to predict the future and rigidly gut the ADF accordingly. 

Gutting, in fact, most of the capabilities that we have needed in and since East Timor in 1999 - and which have had to be rebuilt under the later Howard and new Rudd governments. 

But even straight reporting has missed the mark. Mark Dodd’s concentration on whether we need more submarines or not, for example, ignored that Rudd’s speech actually discussed the need for sea control not just sea denial capabilities. Perhaps the substantial difference was simply not understood. 

Furthermore, if Mark had spoken to real experts such as the Submarine Institute of Australia, or even to critics of too much reliance being placed on submarines – rather than just quote a couple of armchair academic zealots pushing particular barrows – he would not have missed the boat so much. 

11 September 2008
Letter to Crikey.Com (in answer to some red herrings chasing straw men)
(Published on 12 September 2008)

Ignoring the childish insults and misrepresentations, Humphrey Hollins and Mark Schneider (comments, 11 September) attack the straw man they erect rather than what was actually said concerning H.K. Colebatch’s errors of historical fact about the progress and eventual failure of communism in SE Asia.

But the essential point I made, and which remains unrefuted, was that the Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia) of 1975 constituted a very different Indochina to that of the 1950s and 1960s.

Humphrey also conveniently ignores that the communist threat to Thailand during the 1960s and 1970s came from its own communist party (the CPT), not from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Furthermore, the CPT would undoubtedly have greatly benefited from NVA logistic support, and might even have triumphed, if neighbouring Laos and Cambodia had been dominated by communist regimes in the early 1960s rather than the mid 1970s.

The potential domino effect in the early 1960s came from neighbouring example and the regional support this offered not just the threat (exaggerated or not) of invasion by foreign communist armies.

Humphrey also wrongly assumes I have no longstanding personal knowledge of Thailand and Cambodia (and of Malaysia) when the opposite is the case.

Finally, Messrs Colebatch, Hollins and Schneider appear to suffer from the “Vietnam prism” - the tendency for those who were at university during the Vietnam War (or younger people now aping them) to look at Australia’s current strategic circumstances, and regional history, through the passions and idealised memories of their youth rather than the facts that have subsequently emerged and the strategic realities Australia now faces.

10 September 2008
Letter to Crikey.Com (in answer to an attempted defence by Mr Colebatch)
(Published on 11 September 2008)

H.K. Colebatch, (comments, 10 September) again misses the central flaw in his theory and ignores the thrust of my criticism.

He bases his attempted defence only on what eventuated in 1975 not on all the possibilities that might have occurred if South Vietnam had been overrun a decade or more earlier when most other SE Asian states were suffering considerable political instability internally and in their (pre-ASEAN) mutual relations.

He also ignores that the vulnerability of many SE Asian states to communist rule in that era was largely internal. It did not necessarily require the imposition of communism by external invasion (by Vietnam or anyone else), merely the considerable advantages offered to insurgents by the sympathy of contiguous states (or communist-controlled zones) with porous borders.

The communist sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia, for example, greatly assisted the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War but one of the main causes of the failure of the communist insurgency in peninsula Malaya was the inability of sympathetic regimes to provide much support because they were not controlling contiguous states.

Finally, naively calling public-interest guardian organisations such as the ADA an “industry lobby” simply shows inadequate research unworthy of the title “social scientist”.

Perhaps he also wrongly thinks that the Conservation Foundation somehow represents Gunns or that the Consumers Association lobbies for Woolworths?

08 September 2008
Letter to Crikey.Com
(Published in part on 09 September 2008)

H.K. Colebatch (Comments, 08 September) makes the simplistic error of comparing apples and pears – and then in isolation from their strategic context.

The wider strategic consequences of the Vietnam War, both eventual and potential at any given time, are not as clear cut as he wrongly posits and depend in large part on when the consequences occurred or when they were effectively understood. As former Singapore Prime-Minister Lee Kuan Yew noted many years ago, the allied effort in Vietnam, although unsuccessful there, did buy ten years for the rest of South-East Asia.

In this period the non-communist states were able to develop their economies and broaden their political participation enough to offer a viable alternative to authoritarian Maoist societies. In turn, the burgeoning middle classes demanded greater accountability from their governments and democracy started to grow firmer roots, especially in Thailand (the really vulnerable state if South Vietnam had fallen in 1965 not 1975) and Malaysia.

Australia’s world might look quite different if communism had triumphed throughout SE Asia in the late 1950s or early 1960s, especially before the 1965 civil conflict in Indonesia.

He is also wrong about the Viet Cong becoming the government of a unified Vietnam. In fact the so-called “National Liberation Front” and “Provisional Revolutionary Government” (of the VC and token non-communist nationalists), both much lauded by the “Moratorium movement” in Australia, were both quickly disbanded by the North Vietnamese. Many ended up in re-education camps and worse when they asked why.

A longstanding serious problem in Australia is the “Vietnam prism”, the tendency for those who were at university during the Vietnam War to look at Australia’s current strategic circumstances through the passions of their youth rather than contemporary realities.

This is often reinforced by idealised memories of the Vietnam War period rather than what really happened – and a lack of critical judgement or unwillingness to face unpleasant facts that have since emerged. For example, the “Congress (later “Campaign”) for International Co-operation and Disarmament” so prominent in the organisation of the Vietnam moratoriums has subsequently been thoroughly exposed as a Soviet front group.

Forget questioning the patriotism of anti-Vietnam war protesters as H.K. Colebatch protests, just concentrate on their flawed critical judgement and intellectual inconsistency. This was perhaps explicable in the 1960s and early 1970s when many facts were unclear and passions ran high on all sides, but not now when so many "Moratorium movement" beliefs and claims have since been proved incorrect or mistaken.

The Vietnam prism has also helped feed the tendency for many to now reflexively and rashly claim “quagmire” for any Western military effort overseas. In recent years, for example, we have seen many who should know better pose false, mistaken or highly arguable analogies between Iraq and Vietnam. Plain wrong or grossly exaggerated analogies between Vietnam and Afghanistan seem to be following the same trend.

02 September 2008
Letter to Crikey.Com (in answer to exceptionally subjective criticism of ADF efforts in Afghanistan)
(not published) 

In answering Keysar Trad (Crikey, 02 Sep 08) and others two points need to be made. 

First, the world’s problems with Islamist terrorism would not be as serious now if moderate Muslims, and those who profess to be such, had condemned such bigoted extremism and perversion of Islam when it first festered rather than ignoring or denying it until it developed into a real threat to civilised life of any religious or secular outlook.

Similarly, constantly offering apologia for Islamist terrorism or hinting at some bizarre form of moral equivalence between it and liberal democracy is as morally bankrupt as it is illogical. Not to mention mindlessly spreading Islamist propaganda such as the silly claims that proportionate and carefully targeted counter-terrorist measures are somehow aimed at all Muslims rather than at a tiny unrepresentative minority of violent extremists seeking to hide within the broader Islamic community. 

Second, a sense of perspective needs to be maintained about Australia’s role in the counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan, the moral causes involved and the cross-cultural complexities of such operations.

Recent strident calls for Australian diggers to apologise or be disciplined, because four Afghans captured during recent fighting were detained overnight for security purposes in a compound that might previously have been used by the Afghan Army to house dogs – with this being unknown to the Australians involved at that time and since found not to be the case – reflect naïveté, ignorance or malice. 

The enemy we are fighting continually contravenes the Geneva Conventions on a large scale and regards our adherence to them as a vulnerability to be ruthlessly exploited rather than respected or emulated.

Moreover, criticism of our diggers for what, at worst, may be a very minor, technical and accidental breach of the Geneva Conventions, which actually harmed no-one (and probably was not a breach anyway due to the exigencies of the tactical situation), might carry some weight if those making it had ever condemned Al Qa’eda and the Taliban for their frequent, deliberate and calculated atrocities such as torturing and beheading prisoners and targeting marketplaces and schools with bombs. 

We detain prisoners captured on the battlefield until the mechanisms required by the Geneva Conventions can evaluate whether they are combatants or not. If not, they are released. If they are combatants they become Prisoners-of-War with all the international oversight procedures and protections this entails.

In stark contrast, the Taliban and Al Qa’eda generally murder their prisoners. 

 If our diggers inadvertently and occasionally offend local sensibilities they make amends. If it is thought they have contravened the Laws of Armed Conflict this is investigated and, if true, it is punished.

When the Taliban and Al Qa’eda commit their regular and deliberate atrocities they boast about it. There are no investigations and rewards instead of punishments for the perpetrators. 

 Let’s not forget the moral big picture here - even if some are so prone to ignoring that international humanitarian law is universal and our enemies are required to abide by it too. 

19 June 2008
Letter to Crikey.Com
(Published on 20 June 2008) 

It surely undermines the objectivity and professionalism of your coverage of the NT intervention when your June 19 editorial perpetuates sloppy and biased terms such as “military intervention”. 

It was this type of alarmist terminology in a complex situation that initially caused unnecessary fear in some indigenous communities that the Army was somehow coming to take their kids away. 

The intervention has always been a civil government activity. Any law enforcement aspects have rightly always been the responsibility of the NT or federal police. The background military assistance has always been only logistic and administrative and has never involved any soldier carrying a weapon or enforcing any law or policy. 

It also needs to be remembered that the ADF, and the Army in particular, have been operating in remote indigenous communities for decades.

As one of many examples, since ten years before the intervention Army engineers have been building houses and environmental health infrastructure in outback indigenous communities – and training community members in construction and maintenance skills – under the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program (AACAP). 

Finally, the operational head of the intervention, Major General David Chalmers, has done a sterling job in difficult and delicate circumstances. However, as per longstanding constitutional conventions, the ADA continues to believe that such a potentially controversial position should not be occupied by a serving Army officer, especially once the initial emergency phase had passed. 

7 June 2008
Letter to The Canberra Times
(not published) 

Adam Bonner (letters, June 5) was rightly admonished by Commodore Norman Lee (letters, June 6) for his inference that defence force members should mutiny if disagreeing with lawful directions from our elected Government. 

But it is even more complicated than that. 

Under Australian law, future citizens conscripted into the ADF (but not volunteers) now have the right to claim conscientious objection to specific wars not just war in general.  

Moreover, both Australian and international law specify that unlawful orders, even from a legitimate authority, must not be obeyed. 

This is why, for example, the British Service Chiefs requested a specific legal opinion from the UK Attorney-General that the 2003 collective intervention in Iraq was legal (under the UN Security Council resolutions specifying the disarmament of Iraq following the reversal of its 1990-91 conquest of Kuwait). 

But the principal contradiction in Mr Bonner’s “illegal war” claims is that the legality or otherwise of the original intervention in Iraq is not clear cut and international lawyers remain divided on the issue.  

And such claims tend to ignore or gloss over that the subsequent military occupation and rebuilding of Iraq has been entirely legal and fully endorsed by the UN Security Council. 

Most importantly, however, Iraq continually defied international law for decades and particularly over the 1990-2003 period. 

Controversy over the legality of the 2003 intervention in Iraq is as much political as it is legal. This in turn results from the UN becoming so politically incapable in practice of enforcing the general legal principles, and particular punitive measures, specified in 12 years of Security Council resolutions requiring Iraqi WMD and ballistic missile disarmament. 

07 June 2008
Letter to The Canberra Times (in answer to two letters misquoting the letter below)
(Published on 11 June 2008) 

Kenneth Griffiths and Dennis Hale (letters, June 7) both again raise the case of David Hicks while confusing two quite different legal and moral issues: his legitimate detention as a belligerent captured in a war and the understandable controversy surrounding his separate criminal trial and conviction by a US military Commission. 

Mr Griffiths also strangely disputes that a war was and is occurring in Afghanistan – and ignores that the protections of the Geneva Conventions consequently apply to those detained after capture when fighting in that war (as the US Supreme Court reaffirmed in its June 2006 Hamdan ruling).  

He also ignores the relevant UN resolutions authorising the US-led intervention (well before Hicks’ capture) and appears to believe, again incorrectly, that national declarations of war are still valid – when no country has been able to declare war legally since the UN Charter was signed over 60 years ago.

 In international law war essentially exists as a material fact alone. This is so the humanitarian limitations and protections of the Hague and Geneva Conventions respectively apply to the conflict automatically. It therefore does not matter if any country, or even George Bush or Kenneth Griffiths, claims a war does or does not exist. 

Moreover, international law is universal and the laws of armed conflict apply to Australians on both sides of a war – not just the members of our defence force fighting on our side. 

The bottom line, both morally and legally, is that detention of captured belligerents to prevent them rejoining the fight is firmly based in international law – not least because the historical alternative, killing them, is now rightly a war crime. 

Argue about the propriety or not of Hicks’ trial, conviction and sentence all you like. But his detention as a captured belligerent was fully legal, not connected with his subsequent criminal trial and sentence of imprisonment, and not a human rights or habeas corpus matter under civil law. 

31 May 2008
Letter to The Canberra Times
(Published on 02 June 2008) 

Dennis Hale (Letters, May 31) calls for an inquiry into the case of David Hicks. An inquiry is certainly warranted even if only to end the confusion of people such as Mr Hale as to the Australian and international law applying. 

While Hicks' separate criminal trial and sentence by a US military commission were and remain controversial, his detention as a belligerent captured by the other side in an armed conflict was firmly based in the relevant international law – and effectively no different in principle to the situation in numerous wars for over a century. 

This was again emphasised in the US Supreme Court's June 2006 ruling in the Hamdan case covering the right of the US to detain captured belligerents in an armed conflict and, just as importantly, the consequent protections those detained belligerents have under common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. 

Put simply, the detention of David Hicks was never a case of habeas corpus under national or international civil law despite the valid debate about the legality of his separate criminal trial. 

It is also worth noting that the legal loopholes that allowed Wilfred Burchett and David Hicks to escape prosecution under Australian law for their activities overseas have finally been firmly closed. 

22 May 2008
Letter to Crikey.com (concerning Crikey's criticism of Sydney's Daily Telegraph for its beat-up about a recent tour by entertainers to the ADF contingent in Afghanistan)
(Published on 23 May 2008) 

Jane Nethercote (Crikey, Thursday, 22 May 2008, Item 18) rightly decries the prurient media pillorying of Tania Zaetta but, even ignoring the contrived squaring off between Channels Seven and Nine, there are even wider issues involved. 

First, Tania has strongly denied the allegation and her denials have been backed by other artists on the tour.  

Second, the hectic scheduling of the tour program, the operational and living conditions at Tarin Kowt and the OH&S (and insurance) aspects of closely protecting the entertainers, would tend to preclude unprogrammed and necessarily private social activities however brief. 

Third, in any event, Tania’s privacy and dignity have been violated to no public benefit. 

Fourth, irrespective of contractual obligations supposedly forbidding close personal “fraternisation” (a loaded term) by touring entertainers, anyone possibly involved in such socialising would be an adult Australian citizen and it is none of our business anyway.  

Fifth, those peddling the allegation are likely to have been the victim of (inappropriate) digger humour but deserved mickey-taking. 

Sixth, I suspect the diggers appreciated Tania singing for them more than they did Angry Anderson, even if their parents had advised them who he was. 

Finally, it is hard enough to get modern “rock artists” to tour our Middle East contingents anyway, although C&W musicians, comedians and dancers seem to be much braver and more committed to their citizenship. It would be unfortunate if Tania’s disgraceful treatment discouraged other real entertainers from touring – although the routines of future comedians who do are sure to suggest even more unlikely scenarios.

18 May 2008
Letter to the Brisbane Sunday Mail (in answer to an opinion article by Terry Sweetman)
(Not published) 

Terry Sweetman (”Let sleeping sea dogs lie in peace”, Sunday Mail, May 18) may or may not be right about how we should honour our war dead. 

But he sadly glosses over the dishonourable manner in which those aboard the Centaur were killed and, even more importantly, he ignores the modern strategic risks still caused by such wartime Japanese atrocities. 

The deliberate sinking of this unarmed, well-lit, uncamouflaged, red-cross-marked hospital ship by a Japanese submarine was a serious but typical Japanese breach of international law – and of long-accepted practice among civilised nations. 

Furthermore, hospital ships like the Centaur were not full of naval “seadogs” as Sweetman sloppily implies, but with non-combatants clearly exempted from attack by several treaties which Japan had signed. 

But we especially need to remember the Centaur because the new generation of Japanese politicians, including the previous foreign minister and potential future prime-minister, Taro Aso, strongly deny that widespread Japanese war crimes occurred in World War II and that these crimes were sanctioned at the highest levels of the Japanese government. 

By not remembering, in context, the 268 Australians murdered (not killed under the laws of war) when the Centaur was sunk, we tacitly condone such high-level historical revisionism in contemporary Japan – and the whitewashed and mythical versions of Japanese history still peddled in modern Japanese schools. 

This is not an issue of letting time heal old wounds as Sweetman mistakenly claims because it is current Japanese actions that continually reopen and inflame them. 

Such behaviour threatens regional strategic stability because it feeds the continuing mistrust of Japan by her many Asian victims between 1910 and 1945. It remains a particularly serious impediment to long-term China-Japan stability. 

After all, if modern Germany can admit and genuinely repent Nazi war crimes, and now be accepted by its neighbours, why can’t Japan do so? Would we allow a modern German leader to deny the Holocaust and threaten the peace of modern Europe? 

03 May 2008
Letter to The Sydney Morning Herald (in answer to an opinion article by Asia-Pacific editor, Hamish McDonald)
(not published) 

Perhaps if Hamish McDonald ("Rudd seems to be shying away from necessary battles over defence", SMH, 03 May) had kept up with intellectual and professional debates on defence over the last two decades he would not have regurgitated such a narrow range of well-outmoded opinion from one fringe of the debate only. 

He also makes the mistake of posing defence strategy debates within a solely party-political narrative rather than in the context of the enduring national interests actually involved. 

Moreover, the thrust of his piece was based on several factual errors. Ross Babbage, for example, is not from ANU and is not on the White Paper Team, and our new medium-sized amphibious ships are primarily so we can better respond to regional contingencies. 

McDonald is also profoundly misinformed. The major criticism of the failed Defence-of-Australia (DOA) policy of the 1980s and 1990s has come from a wide range of military professional, strategic, diplomatic and academic sources, and from both sides of politics, not “a claque of Howard devotees”.  

The Howard government, in fact, foolishly continued with DOA for four years until mugged by strategic reality in the 1999 East Timor crisis – when our defence force (seriously gutted by 15 years of DOA-inspired decisions) only just managed to handle a near-region operation only 600 kilometres from Darwin. 

Subsequent crises within the region and further afield have reinforced these lessons. 

The main reason why there is broad bipartisan support for not returning to DOA (and not listening to yesterday’s men like Hugh White and Paul Dibb) is because its failures and consequent strategic risks are now well understood on both sides of politics. 

Finally, McDonald oddly lauds Sir Arthur Tange who retired as Secretary of the Department of Defence in 1981 – 27 years ago. But even ignoring Tange’s many controversial legacies, the world and Australia’s strategic challenges have long ago moved on. 

After all, in 2008 we do not still slavishly follow the economic strictures of Tange’s opposite number at the Treasury, Sir Frederick Wheeler, do we? 

01 May 2008
Letter to The Australian (in answer to an opinion article on counter-terrorism laws by its national affairs editor, Mike Steketee)
(not published) 

Few doubt that the Haneef case was bungled and our counter-terrorism laws may need some further modification but Mike Steketee (Opinion, 01 May) makes several wrong assumptions and conclusions regarding these laws and their application. 

Steketee fails to make the necessary distinction that counter-terrorist laws are actively designed to deter and prevent terrorism not just govern how a crime is investigated, prosecuted and punished afterwards like much other criminal law. 

Steketee then unfairly bases his criticism of the AFP on what is known now, not what was known then, straight after the terrorist attack at Glasgow airport. Especially when Haneef’s sudden intention to leave Australia appeared so suspicious in the initial circumstances. 

Moreover, the problems with investigating Haneef at that time were greatly complicated by three competing imperatives: the need to gather evidence of his guilt or innocence, the unusual volume of evidence and intelligence needing to be examined, and the urgency caused by the very short periods of detention allowed. 

Somewhat ironically, Haneef would probably have been better off if the AFP (and ASIO) did not have to rush the job because of continual court hearings to keep him detained. If the detention period allowed was 7 or 14 days, for example, it is likely he would have been cleared and released much sooner – as occurs in other democratic jurisdictions overseas. 

Finally, Steketee peddles the hoary old myth that most or all Australian Muslims feel unduly frightened by such laws. Some may feel so but most do not because the vast majority are innocent of terrorist actions or indeed sympathies. 

Such unduly alarmist reporting and opinionating in the press and elsewhere merely plays into the hands of Islamist propaganda, which falsely seeks to paint counter-terrorism laws as somehow aimed at all Muslims not just at violent actions motivated by minority Islamist extremism. 

This alarmism also panders to, instead of confronts, the guilt of some self-styled Muslim community leaders and other apologists for not criticising Islamist extremism (and its propaganda) earlier, harder or thoroughly. 

01 March 2008
Letter to Sydney's Sunday Telegraph (in answer to a further inaccurate and sensationalist article on breast reconstruction surgery for female ADF personnel)
(not published) 

Sharri Markson ("Sunday Telegraph", 17/2) repeats her marked ignorance and marked insensitivity regarding breast reconstruction surgery for defence force women. 

Most breast reconstructions in the ADF (about 15 in the last three years) occur as part of treatment for cancer, as a result of injury or are breast reductions for occupational health and safety reasons, such as to allow well-endowed female personnel wearing breathing apparatus and life vests to fit through escape hatches on ships and submarines. 

Very few (five in the last three years) breast enhancements or reductions  are undertaken as part of the medical treatment for psychological conditions - and only on the professional recommendation of a doctor and psychiatrist or psychologist. 

Furthermore, Markson's confected outrage at tax-payers footing the bill for such medical treatment ignores that 16 types of cosmetic surgery for the treatment of psychological conditions in civilians (including breast surgery) are covered by Medicare. Why should members of the ADF be treated any differently? 

There is also a clear danger when some ambitious journalist after a splashy headline rants that psychological conditions are somehow not an illness and do not "deserve" treatment. 

This attitude, for example, stopped Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD ) among war veterans being treated properly for years. 

Finally, Ms Markson should consider two important points. First, how  her inaccurate  and insensitive media beat-ups are affecting the psychological and physical recovery of those female ADF personnel involved. 

Second, all the real defence capability issues she could be discussing instead. 

25 February 2008
Letter to Crikey.com (in answer to an article about supposed major differences in Iraq policy between the Labor and Coalition parties)
(not published) 

Jeff Sparrow (“More Liberal shenanigans over Iraq withdrawal”, Item 11, 25/2) falls into a familiar trap in wrongly assuming that our overseas military deployments are driven solely by domestic political imperatives. Much media coverage of defence matters makes this mistake (albeit unconsciously) because it comes from generalist political journalists rather than specialist defence correspondents (in comparison, say, to serious analysis of economics, science and medical issues). 

Over the last 15 months the ADA has frequently pointed out publicly that no matter which party won the 2007 federal election the Overwatch Battle Group (OBG) in southern Iraq would be probably be withdrawn in the second half of 2008. While no doubt politically convenient the withdrawal is primarily driven by other factors.

  • First is the tactical situation on the ground, including the assumption and consolidation of responsibility by the Iraqis over the last 18 months and the associated continued draw-down of accompanying British and Danish forces across Iraq’s four southern provinces.

  • Second is the simple organisational mechanics of the OBG rotation plan and the early lead-times and general effort needed for pre-deployment training and preparations in Australia.

  • Third, there is the ADF's overall operational tempo and the actual or potential need to reinforce efforts elsewhere and more flexibly reconstitute our reserve capacity at home.

  • Finally, exposing our troops to continued danger for no commensurate Australian strategic, or local operational, benefit risks the principled resignation of senior ADF commanders.

Finally, the terms "OBG" and “combat troops in Iraq” are not synonymous. Other ADF forces remain engaged in combat in Iraq on a daily basis and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It frankly pisses them off, and demeans the risks and sacrifices of their contribution, when the OBG is continually mis-described as our only combat force in Iraq. 

20 February 2008
Letter to Crikey.com (in answer to comments on the Army's new Abrams tanks)
(Edited version published on 21 February 2008) 

Peter Lloyd (Crikey, Comments, 20 Feb 08) is correct about the through-life support of Australia's limited number of new Abrams tanks. The tanks were completely stripped down to bare hulls before being rebuilt to as-new condition and will be fully maintained in Australia. We also run ours on diesel. 

Peter is, however, a bit off track with his other comments on the mobility of the Abrams. The combat weight of the M1A1 Abrams (with fuel, ammo, etc) is 63 tonnes compared to 40 for the Leopard I (1977-2006) and around 50 for the Centurion (1954-1977). In terms of their strategic mobility the Abrams can be readily deployed throughout most of Australia by standard-gauge railway, road transport (semi-trailers), ship or a combination. The only limitations they have are the same ones that applied to the Leopards and are easily surmounted with good route planning. 

Tanks are normally deployed overseas by ship (merchant ship, HMAS Tobruk or our new LHDs). Although contingencies requiring deployment of tanks by air are quite rare, they can even be deployed (one at a time) on our C-17 heavy airlifters as the Americans and Canadians did recently when deploying tanks to landlocked Afghanistan. 

In terms of tactical mobility, you can take a tank most places you can take a heavy bulldozer, big mining machinery or, on roads and bridges, a road train - disproving the urban myths that tanks are somehow too big or too heavy to use in our region. Within Australia and overseas you can often also operate a tank in places where lighter armoured vehicles (wheeled or, if tracked, with higher ground pressure ratios) will get bogged. 

In our region, the Australian Army has successfully operated with our own or allied tanks in New Guinea, Bougainville, Borneo, Korea and Vietnam. A squadron of Leopards was also on standby in Darwin for East Timor in 1999 to reinforce our heavily outnumbered and only lightly-equipped infantry if serious fighting had broken out. 

Not having tanks means many more dead infantry (and the people they are protecting) - as all the operational and scientific studies of the Vietnam campaign (and current Canadian experiences in Afghanistan) clearly prove. If you lazily think our Army somehow does not need tanks (and we actually have only a few of them), feel free to volunteer to assault strongpoints on your own or to stand between our diggers and the incoming fire. 

15 February 2008
Letter to the editor of Crikey.com (referring to an attempted opinion article by Alex Mitchell)
(Edited version published on 18 February 2008) 

Alex Mitchell's piece in today's Crikey (Friday 15 Feb 08) was so unbalanced and so far off the target it was frightening and does no credit to Crikey's credibility. The piece was littered with factual mistakes and permeated by an old-fashioned and simply wrong perspective to use when discussing defence matters objectively. It also reflected (albeit badly even within its own biases) one extreme of a broad and complex national debate. 

Can we interest Crikey in an article on this issue that objectively discusses what is at stake? I thought of writing a comment in reply to Mitchell but the numerous factual mistakes and shallow interpretations of the Mitchell piece could not be explained within your word limit. 

The major mistake of his piece (apart from not understanding the difference between defence policy and defence strategy or, indeed, between Defence White Papers which are declaratory policy and strategic basis papers which are much more thorough because they classified), was in his predicating the debate on defence policy solely in party-political terms. A related superficial approach was his old-fashioned inferences about supposedly out-of-control ADF officers and current Defence officials. 

It is much more complex than this. This is exemplified by the fact that that the "Defence-of-Australia" policy instituted by the Hawke Government was adopted almost untouched by the Howard Government (from 1995 to 2000) until strategic developments in our region and further afield kept exposing serious flaws in its nostrums - beginning with the 1999 East Timor crisis. Put simply, when governments needed options to respond they have been severely constricted by a force structure that did not give them the options they needed. Hawke encountered this force structure - strategic policy mismatch too in 1991 (Kuwait) and 1991-93 (Cambodia). 

Just to illustrate a few examples of the howlers in the Mitchell piece:

  • The defence budget is $22bn not $20bn. More importantly, however, Mitchell used emotive terminology (and contexts) and ignored that while it has increased considerably over the last 8 years, this is mainly to cancel out the effects of considerable and sustained under-investment in the preceding 25 years under governments of both political persuasions. Moreover it is still only around 8 per cent of the federal budget, well within the historical peacetime range, and spending in the areas of social welfare, heath and education all increased much more under the Howard government in both absolute and percentage terms. Indeed over the last generation spending in these areas has increased exponentially in comparison to defence funding.

  • He confuses through-life costs over many years, even a decade or more, with purchase costs.

  • The "$6 billion order" was for Super Hornets not JSFs and the latter are (somewhat controversially) meant to replace the F-111 bombers and F-18 Hornets.

  • The C-17 heavy airlifter procurement is in place of renewal of the whole C-130 fleet (there will now be a mix of both), not an entirely new capability. Moreover, the need for this strategic mobility capability is not disputed by any serious defence analyst across the spectrum of defence views.

  • The procurement of new tanks is similarly undisputed by most defence analysts. Those opposing the tanks tend to do so on ideological grounds and virtually all the supposed facts cited by opponents of the Army having tanks (indeed a very small number of tanks) are factually incorrect or historically inaccurate. No defence analyst with combat experience criticises the tank purchase.

  • Neither the C-17s or the new tanks were purchased to supposedly buttress US policy in far-flung deployments. Both capability projects long pre-dated the election of the Howard Government, were spurred on by strategic lessons learnt in the East Timor crisis and since, and are primarily aimed at handling contingencies in our immediate region (same applies to the new amphibious ships and to a slightly lesser extent, the new destroyers). 

  • Virtually all of these procurements have had bipartisan support because of their strategic or operational logic. They are not somehow Howard-driven decisions taken in supposedly evil isolation. 

Finally, it would be interesting to know who Mitchell considers to be the "serious professionals who can give an objective and dollar-sensitive critique". Surely not the former Defence bureaucrats who made so many wrong calls throughout the 1980s and 1990s under both Labor and Coalition governments and who were eased into retirement after East Timor? 

12 February 2008
Letter to The Australian (in answer to an opinion article by Professor Hugh White)
(Edited version published on 13 February 2008) 

For those who have followed defence issues over recent decades, Hugh White’s opinion article (“PM’s Defence dilemma”, 12/2) provided an irony-rich feast of confusion, artful dissembling and contradictions. 

Yes, there are some remaining mismatches between our strategic policy and our defence force structure, but it is nowhere near as bad as it was, say, in the 1980s and 1990s under governments of both political persuasions. 

Moreover, the severe mismatches of the 1974-1998 period largely resulted from the unduly powerful influence of a self-perpetuating clique of Defence civilian bureaucrats and academic theorists (none of whom has seen a shot fired in anger). 

These armchair strategists, with no essential grounding in the mechanics of tactics, operations or technology, wrongly believed (and as Hugh White shows some still do) that they could predict the future with such complete accuracy that our defence force could be gutted and narrowly reconfigured accordingly. 

But this has resulted in Australia being mugged by reality in every strategic crisis since the first East Timor intervention in 1999. All three Services have had to be reshaped and rebuilt significantly in order to cope with the tasks actually levied on them and those they logically now face. 

Dr [sic] White Hughalso suggests that each dollar invested in our defence “can be spent once only” and that to "invest in one capability is a decision not to invest in many others". But this is only partly true when considering defence force capabilities. 

Many capabilities needed for high-intensity warfare (strategic transport and maritime patrol aircraft, helicopters generally, amphibious task groups, mobile and well-protected ground forces, Special Forces, etc) can scale down to handle the more frequent low-intensity, or indeed peacekeeping, reconstruction or humanitarian assistance tasks, comparatively swiftly, easily and at little cost. 

But the opposite is not true at all. Forces configured for only low-intensity and low-scale operations cannot be suddenly, easily or cheaply scaled up to handle bigger problems. 

Another irony here is that the type of capabilities (submarines, fighters, etc) long favoured by Dr [sic] White Hugh, even at the expense of major deficiencies in the balanced and more flexible ones discussed above, are only useful in deterring or fighting major wars threatening Australia’s survival or independent sovereignty – not that this is not strategically vital no matter how infrequently such catastrophic threats occur. 

In any event, "White Papers" (written or influenced by Hugh or not) are only declaratory policy. They cannot and should not guide our defence planning entirely because some of the contingencies we need to cater for cannot be admitted publicly or diplomatically. 

Classified strategic basis documents, based on robust intelligence estimates and proper strategic appreciations, should form the core of our long-term defence planning. 

11 February 2008
Letter to The Australian (in answer to an opinion article by Professor Paul Dibb)
(not published) 

Paul Dibb ("Razor gang must establish harsh discipline", Opinion, 11/2) sings an old song in misrepresenting the reforms instituted to cure the mess in our defence force he and his bureaucratic coterie created throughout the 1980s and 1990s. 

He also ignores that the main reason the defence budget is currently quarantined from drastic spending cuts is because it was so savagely cut, continually, for nearly 30 years while spending in most other major areas of government - especially social welfare, health and education - exploded exponentially. 

The amount being invested in our defence now is indisputably needed to cancel out nearly three decades of neglect, complacency and wishful thinking. 

Even then, defence spending is still only around 8-9% of the federal budget (well within long-term historical norms) and around only 12%, 20% and 25% of Commonwealth and state spending on social security, health and education respectively. 

Professor Dibb also bewails the modernisation of the Army and increases in it’s size and capacity. 

But again these are driven by the high operational tempo experienced since 1999. He also ignores that they merely reverse the ill-thought through personnel reductions of the early 1990s that have so hindered the ADF’s ability to meet  diverse strategic challenges over the last nine years. 

Furthermore, his odd claim that the current high operational tempo involves only the 3500 personnel currently deployed overseas, and that this is only 6.5% of the ADF, is simply bizarre. 

Anyone with a modicum of real defence experience understands the rule-of-three principle in defence capability development and sustainment. 

To maintain operations continually, keeping 3500 overseas actually involves over 10,000 personnel directly (in three 6-month rotations) – plus the thousands involved indirectly with training and testing them and with providing their support.  Not to mention recruiting and developing them. 

Finally, Paul Dibb again advances his old strategic dead-end argument that our strategic policy and defence capabilities should be driven entirely by the funds thought to be politically available. 

Our defence must instead always be based on robustly assessing the strategic realities facing us now, and in the future, and only then deciding the level of resourcing needed to handle them. 

28 January 2008
Letter to the Sydney Morning Herald (in answer to an opinion article by Mark Davis)
(Shortlisted but not published) 

Mark Davis (Opinion, 28/1) demonstrates again the SMH's marked lack of corporate knowledge and understanding in its coverage of defence issues since Cynthia Banham was tragically injured last year. 

Davis simply ignores the long history involved and bases his comments on two factual howlers. 

The main reason that defence spending is largely quarantined from the current round of spending cuts is because it was so savagely slashed throughout the 1980s and 1990s under governments of both political persuasions. 

Defence capability development is a 15-25 year cycle and current levels of defence spending are necessary to cancel out the decades of sustained under-investment that have so weakened our long-term defence. The Rudd government realises this (as did Howard, finally, after 1999). 

Moreover, defence spending still remains comparatively static as a percentage of the federal budget (it has mostly declined or been static since the late 1960s) whereas spending on health, education and social security has more than quintupled over the same period and continues to rise. 

For every dollar we spend on defence (wholly a federal responsibility) the Commonwealth and the States now spend around $8.50 on social security, over $4.50 on health and just on $4.00 on education.  

To put this further in perspective, the amount invested annually in new defence equipment remains well under ten per cent of the social security budget.

Finally, current and former defence force superannuation schemes have always included large member contributions. 

They are also not overly generous given what we expect defence force personnel to do and risk on our behalf, nor given that the day-to-day salaries we pay them lag behind community norms. If you disagree then why not swap jobs.