ANDREW FARRAN. Defence ‘culture’ holding back balanced defence force

Jul 19, 2019

An analysis of Australia’s strategic culture, as distinct from posture, might have offered alternative or expanded answers to how we have got to where we are and how Australia should be defended in future – comment by Alan Behm on Hugh White’s “How to Defend Australia”.

Hugh White’s current volume on How to Defend Australia has attracted much comment before its contents have been fully digested.

Meantime however an observation by a former colleague, Alan Behm, stands out: He suggests that an analysis of Australia’s strategic culture, as distinct from posture, might have offered alternative or expanded answers to how we have got to where we are now and how Australia should be defended in future. That concerns the ‘culture’ of the defence/security complex. White, he says, has implicitly challenged 50 years of strategic policy, defence capability planning and systems acquisition.

This item takes up the ‘culture’ question as I believe that without insights in that regard we are destined to remain stuck in its unforgiving paradigm.

Defence ‘culture’, indeterminate but pervasive, was the product of traditions and experience derived by the military over the first half of the twentieth century, particularly the two World Wars. At its heart is a ‘can do’ mindset and a tendency to work in isolation from non-military associates. While beholden to our great power dependency the military have rarely operated as a self-sufficient unit within a set of integrated national defence and foreign policies. The commitment to the US under ANZUS is rarely qualified, overlooking the fact that when US forces under General Douglas MacArthur came here in the early 1940s they were here to serve US interests, not specifically to save Australia. For its part the Australian military is a fully paid up subscriber to US military systems, from which it benefits considerably, and believes it can walk its own part separately from others, including our own foreign affairs establishment.

They base their operations on an assumed perpetual threat to Australia’s security to justify claims for the best and most expensive capital equipment (aircraft, ships, etc.) regardless of whether at a given time these will add up to a coherent, balanced defence force, consistent with foreign policy objectives and wider national purposes. Such assertions by Defence and its supporters keep the nation captive, thwarting whatever possibilities there may be to develop a fully independent, balanced defence posture conceived essentially to protect Australian interests.

Two issues that predetermined Australian foreign policy and force structure issues throughout the 1950s and 1960s were the recognition of China, long held in abeyance (in spite of being given a green light momentarily in 1949); and the Vietnam war – which despite repeated government pronouncements as to its essentiality – has since been exposed as a tragic miscalculation that brought the US to the brink of its own civil war. The conflict held Australia in thrall to the US and immobilised policy through those decades and since. The huge human toll wreaked by that conflict was tolerated as justified by the alleged threat (“the downwards thrust of communism”); and the fear that if it lost the US would desert the region – a fear that still obtains today.

By the mid-1970s the military culture was losing its pulling power as the security situation was looking relatively benign. This allowed a resumption of thought (largely outside the military) about an independent Australian defence capability. The Services remained adept at putting in their budgetary bids for what they could get even without a cohesive strategic plan. The process was exhibited through regular Strategic Basis papers on which a 5-year Rolling Program was rolled out year by year. Its contents were reviewed on each cycle having regard for the ‘bids’ put in and traded among the three Services. The only serious contest over bids was within the Services themselves until the Defence Department stepped up its own deliberative processes.

The Department of Defence’s role was to ensure a measure of fair play in the contest and to the extent possible, due governance. Where the separate Services had issues they would appeal to their respective Ministers and the marginal nuts and bolts would be reapportioned as determined by the politicians – no less captives than the Services of the self-serving dogma sustained by the likes of the Democratic Labor Party and its eminence grise B A Santamaria. The governments were content to live with that as electoral prospects were involved. The official who sought to tighten the system and restore order in the processes was the recently appointed head of Defence (and a previous head of External Affairs), Sir Arthur Tange. He succeeded despite the odds in unifying the Services under the Defence Department with one overall Service Chief and one Minister for Defence. That was a beginning of a check on the culture issue but it remained, as now, a firmly rooted combative cold-war approach to military and strategic issues.

An important further step that Tange took to lessen the influence of entrenched military cultures – believing as he did in the power of a broadening education – was to initiate arrangements between the Defence Department and the University of New South Wales to provide tertiary courses at Duntroon for mid-level officers or equivalent. This led to the establishment and development of the Australian Defence Force Academy in the 1980s, largely successful in its purposes despite a few slips along the way. Tange thought the military could be educated out of its mindset.

Typical policy issues in this period revolved around making the force structure as complementary as possible to that of US. The Army had been based on a traditional Battalion and Brigade pattern, heavy in manpower; but this had to be modified to meet the political requirements and jungle conditions of the Vietnam War. The Navy unrealistically still looked to aircraft carriers and destroyers; and the Air Force to the F-111. As disenchantment with the Vietnam experience set in, there was growing interest in reshaping the Army away from preparations for expeditionary campaigns overseas to reforming it into smaller, quick reaction units, together with a fleet of smaller patrol boats and frigates for coastal and sea passage defence.

These practical suggestions were viewed with deep suspicion within the military but gained some temporary acceptance at policy levels elsewhere. One suggestion was that the Army could be reduced from a strength of some 50,000 down to some 20,000 This was seen as the thin edge of a wedge towards a force only for continental defence and the protection of borders and surrounding islands. Because of that resistance and retention of familiar structures billions of dollars continued to be spent on already superceded platforms that had no real purpose other than to perpetuate traditional military structures. Thus when there was a call following the East Timor uprising in 2002 Australia did not have in place the necessary infrastructure and technical capacity to sustain that engagement on its own. Forays into Afghanistan and Iraq have caused further distortions in the overall force and impeded the development of a regionally capable, balanced force. These deployments have also caused serious psychological damage to some of those forces both within theatre and on return. Politically the deployments have confused Australia’s image among important regional neighbours, a group that is of far greater political significance than ethnic and religious wars in the Middle East.

It will be noted that over this entire period there have been no direct threats to Australia other than those extracted from alleged small scale terrorist activities as a consequence of our military involvement in those far off ethnic and religious conflicts. Yet the money spent on defence in those years, and the amounts now proposed for the future, had and will have a dubious efficacy. That raises the further question whether we should be spending less. At this stage, to be preparing for possible conflict with China, given the huge disparity in resources and capability between that nation and ourselves, is more than problematic. There are alternative ways of defending national interests, which the defence establishment is reluctant to consider, which do not have such an incalculable downside. As for ‘the threat’ these are largely suppositions and premature judgments which on previous experience rarely materialise. We should expect our regional neighbours to be equally as keen to ensure the peace and keep regional conflict within bounds. The military and intelligence community is ceaseless in talking up the threat to ensure its ‘share’ of resources. But at the same time such talking up can be seen as fuelling the threat and counter-productive for rational foreign policy objectives and the broader interests of the Australian people.

As outside external analysts are pointing out a number the major capital components being procured for the future force will not be operational for several decades from now, and that technological advances being developed elsewhere could render these platforms platforms – whether surface, underwater or air, manned or unmanned – obsolescent before delivery, and so vulnerable in character that military personnel may be unwilling to enlist for them. This could be particularly acute in the case of submarines. Moreover developments with hypersonic missiles of potentially devastating effect would be likely to preclude rather than facilitate pre-conflict negotiation in crisis situations. As these developments advance it might be better to curb perpetual war talk and concentrate on the positives – conflict resolution techniques in particular.

All that can be said for nuclear weapons in these emerging times is that their use would assure mutual destruction, a price that no matter what the source of conflict may be, a civilian population would have little or no interest in being responsible for their own slaughter. This is not a viable option for Australia whichever way it is approached. There is already enough in the literature demonstrate this. Per se nuclear weapons have not been shown to be a useable deterrent. Avoiding a nuclear outcome or any wars for that matter for the people themselves or at least their Parliament to decide, not the Executive and the military/security complex acting alone. If there is to be a potential threat from powerful external forces it is more likely to come from a failure of power systems and communications structures brought about by devastating cyber attacks – something we would be unwise to undertake on that scale ourselves.

One further concern about the military ‘culture’ is the suspected emergence of a sub-culture within and of the SAS forces. While its operations are highly skilled and fearfully brave in many important respects – when deployment is justified – recent revelations of misconduct, not to mention possible war crimes, suggest there is an air of immunity growing around its activities. The government appears ready to protect and safeguard that inferred immunity from media scrutiny and public knowledge – through the enforcement of its over-reaching security laws, and suppressing legitimate media investigations. Following recent police raids on media organisations the government has referred a review of these laws to the secretive Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. However this committee is currently chaired by a former SAS officer, Andrew Hastie MP. In his case there would appear to be a strong suspicion of a conflict of interest, leaving the committee’s deliberations and outcomes open to question and the government’s motives in that regard somewhat suspect.

Back the broader concern on the ‘culture’ question and fixed quasi-cold war attitudes and presentations about our present strategic circumstances. Psychologists would probably advise that only a national trauma would break the culture’s hold over military/security thinking, which suggests that reasonable prospects for a realistic approach to defence policy and force structure issues in the short term are off the table. To listen or talk to hard line Coalition parliamentarians or their friends and supporters in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute one finds in their language palpable ‘cold war’ connotations. Not really open to much sensible lateral thinking there. This group within the Coalition would be holding non-culturally invested others over a proverbial barrel when the next leadership contest arises. The chances of a revolution in cost-effective force structure thinking, relevant to the times, whether on the lines proposed by Hugh White, or some modification thereof, are minimal at best. This is indeed depressing. We may see further after the Prime Minister goes to Washington in September.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat who also worked as Executive Assistant to Sir Arthur Tange in Defence in 1971-72. He is a retired law academic and trade policy adviser.


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