The core force and credible contigencies

My previous posts have observed that the core force should have two principal attributes: it should be the base from which expansion should occur in the event of major strategic deterioration, and it should be able to meet the demands of contingencies that might arise in the shorter term. This new post addresses the latter: in this new Age of Asia, what should the government require of the ADF for contingencies that might arise at little notice.

When these ideas were first articulated, there were limits on the military contingencies that could credibly arise in the shorter term, set by two considerations: the levels of capability that could be brought directly to bear against Australia were in general quite low, and Australian governments took the view that Australia’s broader interests should have only a modest influence on the structure and capabilities of the ADF. This latter point was reinforced by observing that the nature of the ADF we required for our own defence would give the government of the day a broad set of options for contributing to operations further afield, and that Australia’s potential contributions to such operations would be valued more as statements of political support than for their decisiveness on the battlefield.

There is an argument that such potential short-warning contingencies have now become more demanding. For example, there is the prospect of military confrontation in the South China Sea, with its unresolved disputes over maritime boundaries and reefs. There is the wider question of Australia’s more general contribution to regional security, especially in the event of serious tension between at least some of the ASEAN states and China. And there is the perennial issue of ensuring that Australia has sufficient military options to keep our relationship with the United States in good shape. Further, the fertile imagination can always bring forward additional kinds of contingency that might affect Australia’s interests: attempts to close international straits, interdiction of sea lines of communication, tension between the United States and China, for example.

But three considerations need to be kept in mind before such contingencies are factored into Defence’s planning base. First, there is always the need to set priorities and to differentiate between those contingencies where we would have little choice and those that would be more discretionary. Into the first category fall many contingencies in the South Pacific and other areas closer to home (Paul Dibb’s ‘arc of instability’); into the latter fall most if not all contingencies further afield. That Australia might have an interest in a turn of events is not in itself a sufficient reason to get militarily involved.

Second, deeper analysis of each potential contingency is required before it should be allowed to influence the defence planning process. For example, there is a need to understand against whom or what the sea lines of communication might need to be protected (and how). And any commitment that Australia might make to general regional security needs to avoid our becoming hostage to the policy settings or adventurism of other countries in issues in which we are not a principal party.

Third, the impact that such offshore contingencies should have on ADF planning is not one for Defence to decide in isolation. To at least a first approximation, the more that a contingency is offshore, the more it becomes a foreign policy issue, and Australia’s centre of excellence in foreign policy and the behaviour of the international system (and its evolution) is DFAT, not Defence. DFAT should therefore have a substantial say on the influence that such contingencies should have on defence planning.

Beyond this, the new White Paper should also recognise the key role of Australia’s foreign policy and diplomacy in helping better to manage regional security. If extra DFAT funding for this were at Defence’s expense, the effect on the latter would be only marginal and the net benefits very positive.

There are no easy answers to setting targets for what the ADF should be able to handle either in the shorter term or for the longer. It is all too easy to be over-ambitious. But a key task for the White Paper is to ensure that Australia’s strategic ambitions and their costs are consistent with the funds likely to be available, and if necessary to wind the ambitions back. Few things are more corrosive to the strong sense of direction that Defence needs than planning to spend money that does not exist.

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