Defending Australia holistically not parochially

Claims that WA somehow does not have its "fair share" of our defence force are invalid.


Australia is a continent, as well as a country and, very fortunately in strategic terms, the only one wholly the territory of a single nation-state.

In peace and war, you must cross the sea to get here and enormous distances on sea and land are generally involved in any interaction.

Since 1788, however, we have always remained dependent for our prosperity and whole way-of-life on seaborne trade and secure foreign investment.

Some 99 per cent by volume, and 75 per cent by value, of Australian trade travels in ships.

Much of the bulk commodities exported come from WA’s sparsely populated hinterland.

This is the reason our major strategic alliances have also been with major maritime powers, and why Australia has always strongly supported a rules-based international system for resolving strategic, commercial and humanitarian problems.

A primary reason why we federated in 1901 was so our continent could be defended holistically, rather than by each state separately.

With globalisation, cyberspace, inter-continental missiles and more powerful warships and aircraft with longer ranges, the need for this continental focus is greater than ever.

Australian Defence Force dispositions — basing types of force in particular locations — reflect the needs to defend our continent as a whole, and minimise long-term financial and personnel sustainment costs.

But its not just where the ADF is based that counts. Its where and how it can operate continentally when needed.

Strategically, state borders are just informative boundaries on our continent’s map.

For example, physical geography and oceanography, and the vast distances involved, mean the ADF’s operations in, over and around the Kimberley and the North-west Shelf are generally run out of Darwin, not Perth.

With most West Australians living in Perth — the most isolated major city on Earth — and with major economic resources located in the state’s sparsely-populated areas, some sense of cultural isolationism and perceptions of strategic vulnerability naturally arise.

But geography, oceanography and ADF dispositions and their rationale need to drive debate, not perceptions that WA doesn’t have its “fair share” of our defence force.

First, its the Department of Defence, not the Department of National Development, for a reason. Defence costs a lot and regional or local featherbedding wastes money.

Second, Army Reserve dispositions are primarily driven by balancing dual civil and military workforce needs, with most units necessarily located where Australians actually live.

WA, Queensland, NSW and Victoria each have a combat brigade of predominantly Army Reservists. SA and Tasmania share one.

Third, of the Army’s three, predominantly reservist, Regional Force Surveillance Units, one is in the Pilbara, one across the Kimberley and the Top End, and one in far-north Queensland.

Fourth, around 6 per cent of full-time ADF personnel are permanently based in WA (18 per cent of the Navy, 3 per cent of the Army and 2 per cent of the Air Force), but its combat power applied to need, not individual numbers, that is the measure needed.

Garden Island is rightly the country’s second-biggest naval base in personnel, combat units and operational tempo.

It occupies the only viable location for a major naval base between Albany and Darwin.

The RAAF has three airbases in WA: Pearce, Learmonth and Derby but only bases deploys units at one of them (Pearce) because this is all that’s needed on a day-to-day basis.

WA has one regular-army combat unit and NSW has two (all Special Forces units). There are no regular-army combat units in Victoria or Tasmania.

Army’s conventional forces need to be grouped and co-located in brigades to maximise operational and training capability while minimising sustainment costs.

The Army’s three full-time combat brigades are based in Townsville, Brisbane and Darwin (with some of the latter in Adelaide).

Even if there was a strategic need to base one of the three brigades in WA, the cost of moving the 7th Brigade from Brisbane to outer Perth would be prohibitive.

Basing a brigade in northern WA, as some suggest, is illogical and impractical, especially as the ability to operate there is practised by activities such as 2017’s Exercise Northern Shield.

Even Darwin is not big enough to provide the civil infrastructure to sustain a whole brigade, including opportunities for family employment, schooling and the other amenities all Australians deserve.

Finally, and somewhat oddly given recent concern expressed by some West Australians, strategic-security advocacy groups, think-tanks and defence industry bodies in WA generally struggle to attract interest and support at either an individual or corporate level. Similarly, the ADF reserves in WA struggle to recruit in general.

Neil James is executive director of the Australia Defence Association (founded in Perth in 1975).

Published in The West Australian
Monday, 05 March 2018 

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