Graph of the week: how ready do we need to be?
11 Sep 2013|

Holbrook_submarineA few months back, Mark Thomson and I wrote about eight defence challenges for the incoming government. Some of them were obvious, such as getting the budget under control, managing the future submarine project and increasing the efficiency of the Department of Defence. There’s no shortage of advice to government on those issues.

Perhaps less sexy, but no less important, is ‘being ready for the next contingency’. There’s always something of a balancing act between the readiness of the ADF today and investment in its ability to do things later. Simply put, if you have a fixed budget, any money you spend today on keeping personnel and equipment ready to move at short notice will necessarily cut into the funds you have for buying new equipment, facilities and support infrastructure in the future.

It’s worth looking at a simple example drawn from a book that’s something of a classic in the field, Richard K. Betts’ Military readiness: concepts, choices and consequences. The graph below shows a schematic of two opposing forces with similar budgets. The vertical axis measures ‘combat mass’, an admittedly difficult to measure quantity, but it can be thought of as the amount of military clout available at any given time. The horizontal axis is the time measured from now.

In this model, we have two competing forces with Force A consisting of all full time units which are fully manned and equipped, and which is provided with as much equipment, training and supplies as it can absorb. Force A is thus kept at a high state of readiness throughout. Force B, on the other hand, consists of a mix of full time and reserve units, not all fully manned, and with some shortfalls in training and provisioning. The ‘savings’ from the Force B budget due to lower readiness is then reinvested to stand up more units.

The net result of that arrangement is that Force A has a net advantage at first, but Force B has a greater ‘surge capability’ later, and can ramp up to a greater overall combat mass at a time of its choosing, at some point overtaking Force A.

graph_readinessThe trick for military planners is to be able to judge accurately when the strategic circumstances allow a relaxation of readiness, so the government of the day can afford to let the force run down and move resources to future capability. Of course, if something surprising happens, that strategy runs the risk of being overtaken by events.

For example, after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Western world generally, and Australia particularly, eased off on both defence spending and preparedness. Major ADF force elements were ‘hollowed-out’, with Army battalions well below their nominal strength, warships fitted ‘for but not with’ weapons systems, the amphibious and sealift capability run down and the Air Force’s combat aircraft with obsolete electronic warfare systems.

Not surprisingly, the thus-depleted ADF struggled to meet operational requirements when they emerged unexpectedly. For example, the RAAF was unable to provide requested resources for ‘no fly zone’ enforcement in Iraq in the late 1990s. More seriously, the INTERFET operation in 1999 required Indonesian cooperation (or at least non-opposition), and the RAN had to shuttle a fast ferry for resupply missions, while the Army reached deep into its Reserve to keep troops in the field. In short, the government of the day had fewer military options at its disposal than it expected.

In the future there’ll be a substantial temptation to let readiness run down again. The combination of a budget that doesn’t seem adequate for the acquisitions in train and the winding down of operations in Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands will make it tempting to raid the preparedness piggy bank to fund future capability. And that might work out fine—Australia’s immediate environment looks better than it has for some time, and the US has been busy extricating itself from foreign wars.

But there’s no guarantee that’ll continue to be the case. While things are quiet now, demographic pressures similar to those that underpinned the Arab Spring—a ‘youth bulge’ of underemployed people—exist across the region. And we’ll always have much less discretion about being involved if there are serious security problems in our near region; Australia could well find itself in the lead of peacekeeping or stabilisation missions at short notice. While we can expect international support, we might well have to shoulder a fair fraction of the manpower and logistics burden.

It might be worthwhile to define in defence policy or the next defence white paper the core outcomes that we want the ADF to be able to achieve. That will help define the minimum force structure and the preparedness funding required. An example might be the capabilities that were required to lead INTERFET—at a minimum the ADF should be able to replicate that. And if at some future time we’re suddenly called upon to do it, but have spent the past few years channelling money into projects rather than battalions or sealift, we might have a real problem. Those who think that we are now entering a ‘decade of peace’ during which we can run down the ADF might well be mistaken.

Andrew Davies is a senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user smjbk.

A fuller discussion of the preparedness challenges for the ADF can be found in Chapter 2 of ASPI’s pre-election publication Agenda for Change.