Force expansion and warning time (part II)

As I pointed out in my previous post, there’s a much-neglected policy principle embedded in the conceptual framework that guides Australian defence planning: in the event of major deterioration in Australia’s strategic circumstances, the Government would undertake a major expansion of the defence force. Are such times upon us now? With the new age of Asia, Australia is now less remote from the global locus of economic and military growth than in previous decades. But it is also true that the tensions of the North Pacific remain a considerable distance from Australia, and the South China Sea can hardly be said to be proximate. So military operations in those areas would hardly represent a major and direct threat to Australia—although they wouldn’t do much for relationships between nations in the region and beyond.

On the other hand, we can expect that as China’s economy continues to develop, so too will its military capacity. This will start to undermine one of the central pillars of Australia’s security: while motive and intent might well remain absent, China’s ability to conduct military operations against us will, over time, increase. And conventional wisdom tells us that motive and intent can change much more quickly than defence capability can be developed. Nevertheless, the difficulty of major attack on Australia would be formidable, as has been convincingly argued in previous decades.

For the most part, the force structure plans of the 2009 White Paper amount more to modernisation than to expansion—least of all major expansion. The outstanding exception is the decision to double the size of the submarine fleet to twelve. But it’s quite possible that the fleet won’t reach this size until the early 2040s (if then), and there’s no discussion of comparable expansion of other ADF elements. So, in the absence of arguments about strategic deterioration, the official position with respect to warning and expansion is at best ambiguous.

It’s important not to be alarmist about the economic and military growth of Asia—and specifically of China. The prospect of major assault on Australia is not just around the next corner. At this stage at least, motive, intent and capability are all absent. On the other hand, the concept of warning and expansion does remain integral to the conceptual foundations of Australian defence planning. And just as the concept was important at a time of reduced defence funding following withdrawal from Vietnam, so too will it be important for decisions on funding levels and resource allocation following our exit from Afghanistan—especially given the prospect of severe budget pressures. These are critical matters that the 2013 White Paper needs to address and to present to the public.

Related issues include the role and structure of the Reserve, and defence policy for industry. The Reserves have long been an important part of the expansion base, but recent years have seen an increased focus on the shorter term at the expense of the longer term. Over the years, the study of Australian industry as an expansion base to support sovereign operations has been conspicuously absent, if for understandable reasons, and there have been radical changes in technology and the structure of defence industry, both here and overseas. So this subject is also ripe for review.

This post hasn’t addressed the question of what the Government should require of the ADF for the shorter term—ie contingencies that might arise at little notice. I’ll come back to that in a later post.

Richard Brabin-Smith is a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

Further reading: this post has drawn on my recent paper ‘Force Expansion and Warning Time’, Security Challenges, vol. 8, no. 2 (Winter 2012) pp. 33–47. For a comprehensive and highly readable discussion of the challenges of readiness in the US, see Richard K. Betts, Military Readiness – Concepts, Choices, Consequences (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 1995).