COVER STORY - War on terrorism: where it leaves Australia
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, October 6, 2001
The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, has responded to the terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Centre and the Pentagon by invoking the Anzus Treaty, and resolving to support US military action against Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network, and those countries which have given it aid and comfort.
In doing this, Australia is now as directly involved in this war as the United States.
Mr Howard has not specified what Australia can actually do in this struggle, beyond giving token support to the US, at a time when President Bush is trying to build a global alliance to destroy al-Qaida.
Australia does already assist the United States through its information-gathering operations, conducted by the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), and Australia's overseas intelligence gathering organisations. DSD's purpose is to support Australian Government decision-makers and the Australian Defence Force with high-quality foreign signals intelligence data and analysis.
Australia would be unlikely to be able to add in any significant way to the American army units in the Middle East, largely because the Australian army is completely committed to East Timor's defence, in its transition to independence. The SAS might well be deployed - if they are not already on the ground in Afghanistan.
As far as the Navy is concerned, the cupboard is definitely bare. Australia now has only nine commissioned surface combat vessels to protect Australia's huge coastline and maritime zone, quite apart from its international obligations, and a number of these were recently deployed in the Indian Ocean to deter boat people from Indonesia.
The Air Force could supply squadrons of F-111 strike aircraft and FA-18 Hornets. However, these would be unable to operate without extensive American protection and support, and may require modification to deliver precision laser-guided bombs, a necessity in avoiding civilian casualties.
Although they have not been used by Australia in combat, both aircraft types have been used extensively by the United States, and would be useful in a range of front-line operations.
However, the deployment of these units would leave Australia completely defenceless, and incapable of meeting any other contingency which could arise in the South-East Asia area - or at home.
The inquiry of the Senate Reference Committee into recruitment and retention of defence force personnel, has heard alarming evidence of the inability of the defence services to recruit and retain personnel.
In fact, the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Hogg, recently described recruitment and retention in the forces as "abysmal", and commented bleakly that "retention within Defence is on a downward spiral and nothing will arrest it."
One former member of the Army Reserves told the Committee, "I believe that the defence forces are in a worse state of preparedness than they were before World War II. It will take a major event or crisis to fix the problems, as most of the problems are institutionalised and are self-perpetuating."
A Reserve officer was asked by the Committee how long, in the event of a rapid deployment overseas, it would take to get his unit up to full reserve strength. He replied, "At the rate that we are actually achieving recruits, it would probably take us about 10 years."
The causes of these problems are complex, but clearly the expectations of the recent Defence White Paper, in relation to the recruitment of personnel to meet the challenges which Australia faces, have failed completely.
This means that Australia's defence forces - already stretched to the limit by events in East Timor and the influx of boat people - are poorly placed to meet the challenges which are likely to arise as a result of the terrorist crisis. We don't even have a national airline to call on in an emergency, since the deregulation of the airline industry.
The war on terrorism is unlike any previous war in which Australia has been engaged: the attack was not launched to control territory, but to achieve political and economic objectives. The World Trade Centre was targeted to produce paralysis in the Western economic system, and the terrorists are organised in extremely secretive "cells" located throughout the world, even if they were supported by at least one Middle Eastern state.
Australia's lack of defence preparedness is the result of years of running down the defence forces.
As the crises in manufacturing, agriculture and now the airline industry demonstrate, economic rationalism has failed.
The latest collapse of the Australian currency, under the weight of the foreign debt and erosion of the Budget surplus, has left the Government with few options - unless it is prepared to "bite the bullet" and reverse the misguided Treasury-driven policies which have left Australia with a first world standard of living and a second world economy.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council