COVER STORY: Defence: Time for a reality check
by Ken Aldred
News Weekly, January 25, 2003
Of late there has been much overblown rhetoric about Australia's possible response to a range of defence contingencies.
These have ranged from putting a non-existent armoured brigade into Iraq, to intervening with ground troops in various regional trouble spots. Fierce arguments have been mounted in support of particular responses and equally fierce arguments stated against them. It's all academic.
The reality is that Australia's capacity to respond with real force to anything more than one major contingency is acutely limited to say the least.
At the peak of the East Timor operation we had 5,200 troops on the island, which stretched the Army to its absolute limit. This Brigade-size force could not be sustained for more than four to five months, even with the later infusion of Reservists.
It faced critical equipment shortages. Steel helmets and flack jackets, for instance, had to be flown from the United States to Australia and then on to the troops in East Timor.
Australia was lucky the East Timor conflict did not escalate. It is now realised the militia, fully backed by the Indonesian armed forces, the TNI, had a strength several times that of the Australian troops.
Talk of committing our armoured forces to Iraq was always nonsense.
Our Main Battle Tank, the German Leopard AS1, scarcely upgraded since it was purchased in 1976, and our similarly outdated M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers, would be no match for the Russian T72 tank and other modern armoured vehicles likely to be encountered in the deserts of Iraq.
This leaves the Special Air Service Regiment, the SAS. Unfortunately, the SAS is increasingly being perceived as some all purpose fire brigade to be sent anywhere anytime for any contingency. Even the highly skilled and courageous troopers of the SAS have their physical and mental limits of endurance and the duration which they can be expected to be away from their families.
Tight resources have also pushed the Royal Australian Navy, the RAN, to the limit of its capacity. A year ago the RAN was dangerously overstretched with seven frigates committed to three operations involving the asylum seekers, Bougainville and the Solomon Islands. The RAN then had only nine frigates in service and the ten now in service have only partially relieved the problem.
On the manpower front the RAN is only able to operate through the continued use of Reservists. There are simply not enough permanent Navy personnel.
How did the Australian Defence Force, the ADF, fall to such a perilous state in a climate that is globally and regionally so dangerous for the Western democracies, including Australia? Well, it's taken a long time.
In 1981 the total strength of the ADF was 105,255 personnel with the Regular Army numbering 32,898 and the Army Reserve 31,125. By 2001 the ADF had fallen to 70,097, a one-third decrease, with the Regular Army down to 24,360 and the Army Reserve at 17,227. I understand the Army Reserve has fallen further since.
Over the same twenty year period defence spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product has reduced from 2.6% to 1.7%. As a proportion of Federal Government outlays, defence expenditure has been cut from 9.6% to 7.4%.
To put these figures in comparative perspective over these two decades, the areas in which political and bureaucratic decision makers are especially sensitive, namely health, education and welfare, have increased dramatically from half to two-thirds of Federal expenditure.
Therein lies part of the explanation for compressed defence expenditure. To that must be added ongoing community complacency, indifference to defence within the Federal Parliament and a failure by the defence civilian bureaucracy to fight for extra funds. Senior defence bureaucrats have invariably cut the cloth to accommodate what was available rather than strive for what was needed.
Some provision is being made for the future. The 2000 Defence White Paper lays out a proposed increase in regular ADF manpower of 2,500 over 10 years or 250 a year.
This will do little to boost a hopelessly inadequate six infantry battalion structure in the Regular Army, which probably should have nine battalions, or boost a badly run down Army Reserve.
As National Service is definitely off the agenda of both major political parties, rebuilding the Regulars and the Reserve is the only political and military option.
This will not come cheap. It costs between $60,000 to $100,000 to train an Army recruit to basic level; that is to put the recruit through common induction training, Corps training and have some initial experience - plus of course recruitment costs.
At the other end of the scale the costs are even more prohibitive. It costs several million dollars to train an F18 pilot for the Royal Australian Air Force.
It has been argued that the "War on Terrorism" does not require an increase in the ADF. In fact, it has been put by two State Premiers, no less, that much of the resources of the existing ADF should be directed to internal security and protecting key assets.
This is nonsense on two grounds. Firstly, use of the ADF for protecting domestic assets is a gross misuse of a valuable and limited force. A policeman or a private security guard with a radio would better protect a reservoir or a power station than an infantryman with a rifle.
Secondly, the mere existence of State-sponsored terrorism means that in the ultimate it must be tackled at its source - on the territory of the foreign power from which it emanates. That is clearly the responsibility of the ADF.
Finally, the present strength and cockiness of the various terrorist groups themselves reflects the dangerous and unstable world we now inhabit. The end of the Cold War did not usher in a new age of tranquillity; it instead led to a more fragmented and volatile international climate.
In this constantly changing environment, threat scenarios will be increasingly difficult to assess. Military action against Iraq and contending with another eruption of adverse events in East Timor are obvious immediate possibilities.
However, other possible deployments of the ADF could cover anything from direct action against terrorist bases in our region, through peace keeping in West New Guinea as the move to autonomy gathers momentum, to restoring order in a collapsed Papua New Guinea or Solomon Islands situation.
The dreamtime is over. It's time for a reality check. That means a much stronger ADF and the resources to back it. The rebuilding must start now.