Civil-military relations and the AUKUS debate: no public role for the military

Apr 29, 2023
Australian soldier silhouette standing against national flag, proud sergeant

Subordination of the military to the civil power in a democracy is non-negotiable, but is often taken for granted. More democracies falter because of a breakdown of civil-military relations than through external subversion or foreign aggression.

The near monopoly over the use of lethal force that military organisations hold imposes an obligation on governments to ensure the subordination of the military to the civil power. But this obligation is more subtle than just control of their budgets, the authorisation and direction of military activities, and monitoring the military culture. It means recognition of the potential for military leadership to indirectly exert political influence and to seek an unelected national leadership position, particularly on matters related to peace and war.

Military coups represent the worst failure in civil-military relations and democratic regimes haven’t been immune. Democratically-elected governments were ousted by military coups in Portugal and Poland in 1926. In 1967, the Greek government was overthrown by the Regime of the Colonels. General Augusto Pinochet imposed an infamous military junta on Chile in 1973. The South Korean National Assembly was dissolved in 1979 ,when General Chun Doo-hwan declared martial law. The elected government of Thailand was replaced in a coup led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha in 2014. The dominant characteristics of these and the numerous other military regimes has been their longevity, brutality, and the suppression of civil and political rights.

Most Australians would argue reasonably that it couldn’t happen here. Perhaps so, as anyone familiar with the culture of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the professionalism of its leadership would find a military coup highly improbable. On the other hand, the ADF has not avoided the mentality and conceit that comes from an intense focus on identifying and planning to defend the nation’s interests; as defined by the ADF’s leaders. The ADF’s leadership regards its own judgement about the risks and realities of the world as superior to that of the naive or credulous citizens and uninformed politicians. The military leadership see, as an absolute government priority, the resourcing of military capability.

The concept of professional military judgement will be familiar to anyone who has engaged with debates inside the Defence organisation. As a result of education, training, and experience, the ADF’s leadership considers its advice should be taken at face value and requires minimal empirical justification or critical examination. This advice is not alway incorrect, however when challenged it is often not met with logic and evidence but with derision and diversion.

This can be seen in the opinions put forward by the Chief of Navy in relation to the AUKUS nuclear powered submarines. Vice Admiral Hammond’s favourite put down for those who criticise the AUKUS arrangement seems to be “handwringing”. He applies it to “doubters of the AUKUS pact” and retrospectively applies it to critics of the earlier inordinately expensive and mismanaged Collins program. The latter is a misleading attempt to diffuse any criticism of AUKUS based on the ADF’s past dismal project management performance.

The opportunity costs and risks inherent in the AUKUS program are of no interest to professional military judgement. It is self-evident to the Vice Admiral that “to spend a significant amount of national treasure on a capability that will remain absolutely relevant for many decades to come” is sensible policy. The military will always judge its perceived needs to be the highest national priority and will constantly seek more and more of the national pie.

Hammond oversimplifies a complex issue and gives assurances that are untenable. His tone infantilises the public. It is unacceptable for the Chief of Navy to assert “it was a ‘‘red herring’’ to say nuclear-powered submarines could make Australia less safe because the US would want to deploy them in a potential conflict with China over Taiwan”. The war decision is one for the elected government of the day to make in the situation at the time. Hammond’s statement is calculated purely to affect voter perceptions of the widely recognised major risks inherent in AUKUS submarine purchase.

In the same vein, Hammond’s rejection of the claim “that technological advances would render [the nuclear-powered submarines] obsolete before they arrived” is both unsubstantiated and inappropriate. This inaccurate piece of professional military advice is also aimed at bolstering support for the AUKUS policy. Even, the US Director of National Intelligence expects “a combination of more numerous, improved, and relatively inexpensive sensors with advances in commercially available processing power could make submarines—considered the world’s first stealth technology—more vulnerable to detection” by 2040.

A competent political leadership and a capable, resourced, and influential foreign policy bureaucracy are crucial for the management of civil-military relations. The military must be nonpartisan career military civil servants who advise government on operational and tactical matters and have an important input into policy-making. But, ADF leaders should neither openly question or overtly support government policy. This is an important element of managing civil-military relations. Yet, in Australia, certainly since the Howard government and the boat people saga, governments have increasingly called on military leaders to front the public in order to lend credibility and authority to contentious policies.

The AUKUS agreement has brought a substantial US military presence on to Australian soil and looks to tie Australia to the American military industrial base. It is a mindbogglingly expensive project that will provide no effective capability to Australia for decades, if it ever does. It invites critical public analysis. It is the job of ministers to make the case for public policy and demonstrate they comprehend the detail. But the Prime Minister, and the Ministers for Defence and Foreign Affairs have yet to satisfactorily answer the very pertinent questions raised by academics, former diplomats and defence officials, and concerned citizens. To roll out, or allow, senior military officers instead to try to lull the public through professional military judgement not only appears weak, it gives the military a role in public policy inconsistent with good civil-military relations.

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