Don’t swallow the prunes – ADF’s inter-service rivalry on display

Apr 12, 2022
Turret of Australian M1A1 Abrams tank
Defence pie alway ends up in roughly thirds each for Army, Navy, and Air Force, irrespective of strategic circumstances. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Admiral Prune’s unabashed bid for Navy funding has provided a window in to inter-service rivalry in the ADF. Also, it gives an unfortunate glimpse of the confused thinking infecting Defence.

Prune’s writings really have nothing to do with the strategic interests of Australia. Non-existent threats, that the author(s) admits are unlikely to appear in the short term, or are too big and too far away for Australia to contemplate dealing with unless in the company of the US, are used to justify large numbers of new toys for Navy to play with because it wants them.

It is uncontroversial to say no nation possesses “the wherewithal today to mount, support and sustain a military invasion of any great consequence” against Australia. More significantly for strategists, Prune says, “Nor is any nation building that capability”. Within any reasonable defence planning period the ADF is not going to be called on to defend the homeland.

On the other hand, confusingly, apparently Australia is also simultaneously “facing a strategic threat of substance and consequence from a militarily very strong, great power adversary with whom we do not share fundamental values”. Prune thinks Australia “should consider all those scenarios and the options open to an adversary and take our own actions accordingly”. Very sensible, but Prune doesn’t.

What are those scenarios? Here it gets a bit confused. The strategy seems to amount to “deterring an adversary from attacking Australia and its interests”, something already accorded low probability, and to be relatively undemanding. It is essential the ADF can ensure “the cost of an attack on us would be unacceptably high, relative to the benefits it might deliver”. Not a significant task if the prospects of having to do so are small.

This vague premise is followed by equally vague phrases such as “credible mix” and “serious and obvious clout”. Without any analysis of possible adversary forces or the geographic locations of operations, Admiral Prune, states, not argues, that the ADF “must be capable of attacking an enemy and degrading their military capabilities to such an extent that they have an apprehension that …the likely cost would make it not worth attempting”. As no military attack of “any great consequence” is in prospect this also seems a poor reason for an expanded Navy.

Again without specificity about who and where, Prune claims “[A] strong defensive capability on its own will not be sufficient to deter an adversary from attacking Australia”. The ADF also needs “to be able to strike, to be offensive with sufficient lethality to cause substantial damage within the adversary’s defensive perimeter”. Where is this defensive perimeter? What does that actually mean?

Prune has already conceded there is “no threat from the nations of South-East Asia and the sub-continent”. Moreover, the prospect of fighting China alone has already been excluded. Prune’s ambit claim then is really about expanding the ADF, and Navy in particular, to fight with the US in the South China Sea as an interchangeable force element.

This is clear from Prune’s statement that the ADF must “provide the capacity to mount an effective defence beyond the archipelago”. Where that is on the map is a geographical conundrum. And fighting in East Asia is not “defence” of Australia, but offence against China.

Admiral Prune believes we should bankrupt the Treasury at 3, 4, or 5 percent of GDP in order to fund a maritime strategy framed by three propositions; “to deny hostile forces access to the approaches to the homeland”, to deter adversaries with the threat of “severe damage“, and to “to undertake defensive operations very effectively to shield against attack”. All of these things have already been described as unlikely to happen, certainly not at the scale the Admiral subsequently says justifies massive expansion of the ADF.

From this incoherent grab bag, Admiral Prune generates a long shopping list of expensive assets. While there can be little argument with the assertion that “A case can also be made that the Department of Defence is sclerotic and has wasted money on ill-conceived acquisitions”, embarking on an expanded and accelerated program of costly and complex acquisitions doesn’t seem a smart move in that circumstance.

It just seems nonsensical to further burden Defence’s faltering tendering and project management capacity, and Australia’s defence industry, with the concurrent practical challenges of a life-extension for the existing six Collins class submarines and the construction of six new modern versions, adding an Australian build of an unspecified number of USN Arleigh Burke destroyers in parallel with the current Hobart class build, as well as acquiring additional replenishment ships, more helicopters, patrol aircraft, armed unmanned arial vehicles, anti-missile defences, and loads of long range missiles. This is just a recipe for a costly disaster.

Another motivation for these papers, one that makes more sense, as the Admiral acknowledges in passing, is to attack the balanced force concept. As the first part notes, the big problem “is Defence’s Balanced Force concept – a little bit of everything the grown-ups have”.

This legitimate criticism was probably prompted by the strange decision to acquire new tanks, an acquisition that would no doubt have rankled among Navy officers as a waste of resources. In the absence of any direct threat of invasion to the Australian homeland, tanks are an anachronism for which no military policy case stands up.

Many observers, commentators, and practitioners have noted over the journey that the division of the Defence pie alway ends up in roughly thirds each for Army, Navy, and Air Force, irrespective of strategic circumstances. Each service has it chorus of advocates seeking more for their side. It seems it is still so. The four part paper of Admiral Prune is a public airing of this perennial contest within Russell Offices.

Prune’s paper is not of much more interest than as an example of inter-service competition for resources. It has no relevance to strageic or defence policy.

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