Lowy Institute

Debate: The military numbers game

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In his most recent Lowy lecture, Alan Dupont advocated a re-evaluation of the need for 12 submarines and 100 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) in light of the economic and strategic circumstances Defence is likely to face. His argument was not that there was no need for these hugely expensive platforms, but rather that the changing geostrategic circumstances since the last Defence White Paper called for a more fundamental review of the reasoning behind the quantity the Government plans to purchase.

This is entirely reasonable. But the difficulty has always been to understand the rationale by which Defence has determined the number of platforms it requires. Why do we need 12 submarines when we currently have six? Discussion as to how this figure was arrived at is not publicly available, either because the ADF's requirement for submarines is classified or because it wasn't based on a detailed study into such requirements and hence wouldn't stand up to public scrutiny. The problem is that we don't know.

We have a much better insight as to how the JSF figure was arrived at. Nearly two years ago I wrote that 100 seemed to be a suspiciously round number for a major equipment purchase. Hugh White graciously replied that he could explain it, noting that the 2000 White Paper team simply got out a pencil and the proverbial back of the fag packet, added up the number of F/A-18s and F-111s, subtracted one and...hey presto, it equalled 100. As Hugh explained:

That was not, of course, an adequate basis for deciding how many JSF we would really need, but it was I think an adequate basis to determine how much money to the nearest billion we needed to allocate to the job. The fact that the number we chose as an initial planning assumption has survived until now tells you something rather unsettling about Defence capability planning.

Which takes me back to my original point. If this number of JSFs was arrived at by a writing team on some pretty basic maths over a decade ago, why haven't the assumptions on which it was based been revisited? And what confidence can we have that the 2009 White Paper didn't simply apply multiplication (2x6=12) to arrive at submarine numbers where the 2000 team used addition and subtraction (71+30-1=100) as a basis for provisioning?

Alan Dupont argues for a re-evaluation of the platforms the ADF needs and can afford. Given the somewhat rudimentary methodology that appears to have gone into determining JSF and submarine numbers (numbers now appear writ in stone), it is perhaps appropriate that a more rigorous examination of capability requirements is called for. 

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I share Rodger Shanahan's suspicions about submarine arithmetic. I am sure that the number 12 was reached simply by doubling the number we ordered last time with the Collins class. And we bought six Collins because we had six Oberons before that. So yes, it was as arbitrary as the decision in 2000 to make provision for 100 Joint Strike Fighters. And yes, this is not good enough. 

But the problem goes deeper than Rodger perhaps believes, because it is not just about numbers. Here is Defence's deepest secret: there is no plan. 

There is no plan for how the ADF will be used to achieve Australia's strategic objectives. And that is because no one has decided what our strategic objectives are. In other words, we do not know what the ADF is supposed to do. That is why there is no systematic way to decide how many of anything we need. But even worse, it means there is no systematic way to decide what we need at all.

The solution is simple but not easy. Before we can decide capabilities and numbers for the ADF, we must first decide quite clearly what we want the ADF to be able to do. This is a particularly difficult question to answer right now because our strategic circumstances are unusually uncertain in one very important regard: should our defence planning assume that America will continue to play the same role in Asia's strategic order and Australia's security over the next forty years as it has over the past forty years, or not?

If we assume it will, then 12 subs and 100 Joint Strike Fighters are more than we need. If we are not willing to make that assumption, then they are way fewer than we need, unless we are willing to forsake our claims to be a middle power. There is no point talking about numbers, or capabilities, until we have answered this question.

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Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

The answer to Rodger's question ('Why so many JSFs, subs?') is not difficult except in its political dimension. Which is a bit like saying that the health care problem in Australia could be easily solved if we could just get rid of the sick people.

We will not make real progress in defence policy until we recognise that governments (not the ADF, not funding, not the quality of the argument or the strategic situation) are the biggest problem in the security of Australia. This is because there is absolutely no incentive for governments to be any clearer on strategic issues than they are at the moment. The result is as Rodger pointed out: voters don't know why governments do things in defence so we cannot assess government performance and therefore cannot hold them accountable.

Defence is so convoluted that very few understand it. Australian voters can readily see when things are wrong in health care because it affects them personally and they can vote accordingly. But because defence policy is so esoteric, the lag in cause and effect so long, and secrecy so often abused, Australians are forced to rely on the views of experts even more than in other areas. On the technical side, no government is expert to begin with. By the time ministers become expert, they also see the political benefit in not being open.

The institutional expert is the Chief of Defence Force. CDF gives his advice to the Minister in private, but at no stage do we, the voters, ever hear what CDF thinks is the right number of anything. Without doubt the Minister is the CDF's boss and the Minister should make the final decision and be held accountable. But we should know why the Minister acted, so we should publicly hear what the CDF thinks is the need.

Because, in the past, we the voters (and many good legislators) found that governments could not be trusted to keep their word on money matters, we found ourselves with a Charter of Budget Honesty. This aims to provide for sound fiscal management of the Australian economy, open dissemination about the status of public finances, and transparency in Australia's fiscal policy.

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Let's have a Charter of Defence Honesty. A key part might be to institutionalise the role of the CDF in publicly giving his expert opinion on what is needed in Defence. The Charter would have to ensure that what the CDF said is understandable because he is speaking to uninitiated voters and the military is normally unintelligible.

In the absence of a direct and recognisable threat, a Charter would also need to impose some mechanism such as a 'generic operational concept' to manage long-term defence planning. Such a concept is key because it states 'The How' of defence and not just 'The What'. At some stage you always come down in voters' minds to numbers of major pieces of equipment, but without the voters understanding what the expert considers to be the need we can at no stage understand the risk that the government is taking in underfunding defence.

Alan Dupont's view that we might be able to fund other capabilities by having fewer subs and fighters can only remain Alan's personal opinion. His and my judgment about the mix of capabilities is much less than that of the one national expert, the CDF, yet he is not allowed to tell us. So we will never know if 100 fighters or 12 subs is sufficient, because we don't know the answer to the basic question: 'Sufficient for what?'

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Andrew Carr, an Associate Lecturer in ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, writes:

Jim Molan makes a good argument that the Government is confused about its defence priorities, but unfortunately that's also true of the wider defence community in Australia. In just the last year we've seen major papers suggesting we should make offensive capabilities against China a core focus and papers suggesting we shouldn't make China much of a focus at all in our defence planning.

In between these poles, we have a wide range of views. Everyone thinks Iraq was a mistake, but few want to give up on the notion of forward deployment. Most want to see Australia improve its defence of continent capability, yet small increases in that direction all lead to the question 'why X and not Y', not to mention the role of sectional interests who are trying to shape the debate, whether on behalf of their branch of the Defence Force, or their local industry.

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One of the 2009 White Paper's most widely recognised failings was the paper-thin (literally) discussion of how to pay for its changes. Yet, aside from a few good reports that specifically examine defence funding, most defence-related papers still separate the strategy and the equipment from explicit discussion of how to fund them.

To reiterate, it is the Government's responsibility to decide between these perennial differences, and if anything I wish there was ten times as many people arguing and discussing these issues. But, after the intense criticism of the 2009 White Paper and, assuming the plan for a 2014 White Paper is still in place, the wider defence community should spend the next two years trying to find some common ground that can give the federal Government a solid direction.

Given the current Government is somewhat distracted from defence issues, while the Opposition is showing little interest in them, if the wider defence community isn't helping to set the country's path, who will?

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Derek Woolner is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the ANU. He is co-author, with Peter Yule, of The Collins Class Submarine Story: Steel, Spies and Spin.

Rodger Shanahan asks for a more rigorous examination of the reasons for adopting 12 as the number of boats to be acquired by the future submarine project. Richard Brabin-Smith's post gives us a clear understanding of how such decisions on national security should be made, with due regard for strategic priorities.

In reality this process is seldom apparent to public gaze and observers can fairly conclude that rigorous analysis is often honoured in the breach. The strategic underpinnings for the future submarine are outlined in the 2009 Defence White Paper (p.63) but with a studied brevity that the Government has since expanded on only slightly.

Project development has necessarily continued, driven by an awareness of when aging equipment must be replaced to preserve Australia's abilities in submarine warfare. A Cabinet submission to initiate elements of the acquisition program was forwarded before the end of 2011. Simultaneously, the major European conventional submarine designers were awarded contracts to study how to enhance their designs to reach the levels of performance demanded by the RAN.

Meanwhile, Government silence on where the project is heading has left public discussion of the future submarines centred on the European commercial options, which the Chief of Navy has dismissed as possessing inadequate performance, and on the nuclear-powered option rejected by Government at the outset.

I suspect the Minister's consideration of the project has been little concerned with strategic priorities but, rather, focused on the issue of equipment maintenance. The development of the future submarine has grown in parallel with publicity about the difficulties of sustaining the Collins fleet. A force that is tasked with being ready to deploy four of its six boats has for long periods had two, one, sometimes no boats on offer.

The Minister can be excused for focusing on RAN fleet maintenance.

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The Navy's inability to deploy any of its three amphibious transport ships in February 2011, following Cyclone Yasi, forced a review of maintenance procedures and an interim restructuring of the transport fleet. The Collins' problems prompted the Coles Review, which, in its interim report, identified many deficiencies. Late last month, the Chief of Navy indicated that operations by Armidale class patrol boats, the major component of maritime border security, would be reduced for the rest of 2012; the fleet has been overworked since 2005 and requires urgent maintenance. And last week it was revealed that the aging support ship, HMAS Success, was the next focus of fleet maintenance problems.

I suspect that the Minister has deferred consideration of the future submarine Cabinet submission hoping the final report of the Coles Review, due this month, can provide viable solutions.

Sustaining the operational capability of submarines is a challenging and central issue in submarine warfare. It has generally been frustrating and expensive. The first major maintenance docking of an RAN Oberon class submarine, HMAS Oxley, was performed at the Vickers Cockatoo Island, Sydney, facility of the boat's overseas builder. Finished in 1973, it took longer and cost more than the original purchase. By the 1980s these five-yearly refits were costing four times the acquisition price of the submarines.

The Collins fleet was intended to avoid these costs and improve availability through local production, eight-year refit cycles and other factors. Instead, for a number of reasons outlined in the interim Coles Report, sustainability of the Collins class has been poor.

A more direct strategy to minimise maintenance demands was considered early in the Collins evolution. Important items of equipment, usually mounted outside the pressure hull, could be located inside to reduce exposure to seawater. However, none of the submitted designs met this requirement and the performance sacrificed by limiting space within the pressure hull saw the end of the concept.

Such prioritisation is not unusual. The Astute class (pictured), latest of British submarines, was to have been developed to reduce costs of ownership and improve availability. Instead, the pressures of design and production approval deadlines relegated requirements for sustainment; in service, maintenance and support of the class has become an expensive challenge.

Some 30 years ago, major air forces decided that they could not continue with aircraft that required over 100 personnel maintenance hours for every hour flown. Most combat aircraft from the F-16 onwards have been designed with reduced costs of ownership as a key acquisition objective. This design philosophy has not yet reached the world of submarines but, for a Navy bedeviled with fleet maintenance problems, a future submarine designed from the outset to minimise cost of ownership and increase availability should be very attractive.

Decisions on such acquisition objectives are some way downstream from the other requirements to meet strategic policy. Yet, unavoidably, the engineering complexity of designing a submarine to meet all naval requirements does not allow for a neat streaming of decision-making, especially when the processes of strategic policy seem to be incomplete and the future submarine project is already years behind schedule.

So, how to derive numbers in such an imperfect world? Under the old 'rule of three', six Oberon submarines provided a long-term average of two available for operations. Data on Collins availability has been withheld for some years, so the best that can be offered from observation is a guess that average Collins availability over the last decade has been between two and three boats.

Then, if your strategic policy indicates advantages from increasing submarine warfare capability, a doubling in your fleet size provides increased capacity with insurance against submarine sustainability remaining frustrating and expensive.

Annoyingly impure as this real-world approach may be, it may carry something of its own internal corrective. In practice, it will be impossible for the RAN to absorb 12 new submarines in a continuous flow. The acquisition process will have to be staged over several batches. In the process, real metrics on the operational effectiveness and availability of the future submarines will be assembled. That data will give a clearer idea of how many submarines Australia really needs.

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Alan Wrigley is a former Deputy Secretary of the Defence Department (1982-85).

When I began work in Defence's newly established Force Development and Analysis division in mid-1975, the finishing touches were being added to the latest classified document intended to set out a basis for Australia's future force structure priorities and its 5-year expenditure plan. It contained words along the lines of 'Australia is among the world's developed countries least likely to be subject to a military attack in the foreseeable future'. Blunt, yes, but these words have stood the test of time.

The broad basis for setting future force priorities then was that our armed forces should include, at a core level, all the key military capabilities likely to be required to counter any military threat that might emerge in the future and that would require a long lead time to develop. This core force would provide an expansion base of military and technical skills that would greatly reduce the time to build a more capable force as any credible threat began to emerge.

Dispassionate consideration would, I believe, show that such a starting point remains at least as sound today as it was then.

There has been too much nonsense about the 'need to forecast what might happen in the next forty years.' It is quite impossible and that should be obvious. Every Australian military commitment in  the past 30 or so years, with the possible exception of East Timor, has been essentially discretionary in response to what governments have rather loosely interpreted as ANZUS 'obligations', using forces which we ourselves chose to contribute. And today there is even less credibility to any threat-based analysis than there was in 1975 in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Recent writings on The Interpreter have called for a revaluation of the proposed numbers of the next fighter aircraft and submarines. In reality, to be blunt, there can be no sounder basis for setting time and quantity priorities than the 'core capabilities' process adopted in the 1970s.

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In relation to the strike fighter, it is quite imprudent for Australia to scramble for early deliveries of the JSF, which is obviously still deficient in critical respects. The early models of every new US combat aircraft have historically been put into production hastily with still incomplete systems development. They later require costly upgrades or are relegated to National Guard squadrons as soon as 'debugged' aircraft come off the line. Until well-tested aircraft become available, our core needs can be maintained by the Super Hornet and/or upgraded regular F/A-18 Hornets such as seem to satisfy Canada's needs.

As a passing comment on the recent Shanahan/White exchange on strike fighter numbers, the figure of about 100 dates back far further than Hugh White's story. There were 100 Mirage fighters (pictured) ordered in the early 1960s. Shanahan's plea for a 'more rigorous examination of capability requirements' in Australia's strategic environment, with no credible threat, needs more than rigour — we could not do better than to return to a freshened-up 'core force' approach which accepts that any decision made now might need to be revisited at some later stage.

As for the submarines, if there was ever any basis for doubling the current submarine force numbers, it is likely to have been more related to at least moderating the grotesque unit cost of rebirthing the South Australian facility since the expensively developed skills of building the last six submarines will have drained to nothing before a new order appears. 

The size of the Collins class submarine was driven by a quite puffed-up value of operations as far from Australia as the Soviet Union's north Asian naval bases, to the detriment of their ability to operate in the mostly shallow waters of the Indonesian archipelago and the South China Sea. Existing and prospective submarines more suited to the regional  environment can be delivered by existing manufacturers at much less than half the cost and risk of the kind of submarine currently envisaged, and the numbers could be topped up if needed.

Finally, Jim Molan's proposition that Australia should rely on the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) as the 'institutional expert' takes us again into fantasy land, as does the notion that a 'generic operational concept' will solve everything. Decisions of the enormity of those so frequently confronted in the defence field and in our essentially benign strategic environment involve considerations far beyond today's military head, and to plan on the basis of a generic operational concept would be madness.

In more than a decade in Defence, I never found a top military officer who could rise above the experience and loyalties of a single-service lifetime or a perception that Australia's expenditure on defence was never enough. In our stable defence environment, national governments should always look for broadly-based advise on the huge expenditures involved in maintaining an appropriate defence force.

I am not suggesting that an analysis group such as was established in the 1970s could be created rapidly, even by a strong minister and a supporting CDF and departmental secretary. Its staff, both civilian and military, cannot be found from any specific pool. The past machinery was dismantled by the rightly nick-named 'Bomber' Beazley in the name of removing tension in Defence.

It takes courage for any Defence minister to question or, worse, set aside the advice of his military chiefs. The present minister can attest to that in far more modest issues relating to the hallowed 'chain of command'. But the cost to the nation of a contented military hierarchy in a peacetime democracy is high.

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It's over twenty-five years since Alan Wrigley left Defence, but his name is still one to conjure with on Russell Hill, and his splendid post shows why. It displays all the qualities that made it such a pleasure to see him in action. At a time when there seems room to doubt that those advising the Government on such matters know what they think and are willing to push their ideas, Alan's clarity and mordancy is a welcome reminder of how it can be done.

But I'm not sure that the 'core force' concept remains as sound a basis for defence planning today as Alan suggests. His argument is essentially that this concept has worked for the past four decades, so why shouldn't it work in future? The answer is that circumstances have changed.

The core force concept was developed in the mid-1970s in response to big shifts in Australia's strategic environment in the late 60s and early 70s. The most important of these was the US opening to China in 1972, which left America's primacy in Asia uncontested by any major Asian power. The consequences for Australia were plainly stated in the 1976 White Paper. Referring to the major powers of Asia – China, India and Japan – it said (para 2.19):

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No more than the former Great Powers of Europe can we expect these powers individually to play a large military role in strategic developments directly affecting Australia’s security in the foreseeable future.

And so it has proved. In the post-Vietnam era, Australia has been able to assume that we would not find ourselves fighting an Asian major power either alone or in support of the US. As long as that remained true we did not need large numbers of air and naval platforms. We needed only a core force to maintain the capacity to expand the capability if circumstances changed.

The question today is whether the judgment made in 1976 is still true. I do not think it is, for reasons I have rehearsed elsewhere. The post-Vietnam era of uncontested US primacy is over. Australia can no longer assume that major strategic shifts, taking decades to unfold, would have to occur before we might face the need to fight a major Asian power either with the US or, much more problematically, without.

That is because the major strategic shifts have already taken place. We are already in a more contested Asia, with clear and growing risk of major power conflict in which our interests would be closely engaged. In other words, we are now in the situation the core force concept was designed to prepare us for. This is why I argue that, if we are serious about exercising independent strategic weight, we need many more than six or even 12 submarines, and many more than 100 frontline aircraft.   

(PS: can I just say that Danielle Romanes' riposte to my aid post makes a very fair point. Thank you!)

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A few notes to keep our conversation about the 'military numbers game' ticking along. First, I want to thank John Birmingham for bringing the attention of Fairfax readers to our debate.

Second, ASPI has entered the submarine debate with a new Strategic Insights paper, 'Mind the Gap: Getting serious About Submarines'. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but it seems to come down pretty hard on the idea that the Government can have both a bespoke, domestically-produced new submarine design and a doubling of the overall fleet. In fact, if it wants the first, we may even end up with no operational submarines at all in the early 2030s.

Third, I want to note Hugh White's claim, near the end of his most recent contribution to this debate, that 'if we are serious about exercising independent strategic weight, we need many more than six or even 12 submarines, and many more than 100 frontline aircraft.'

Hugh and I discussed the fighter requirement in September last year, and he seemed sympathetic to my argument that Australia was in too much of a hurry to acquire the Joint Strike Fighter. I also argued that the need for greater numbers of fighters was not urgent. Our capability in comparison to regional neighbours is likely to remain strong for some time, and although I agree with Hugh that about the power shift taking place in the region, China's expeditionary military power is far from serious enough to warrant a bigger Australian combat air force.

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Canberra's submarine dithering illustrates the point that sometimes a decision not to make a decision actually amounts to a decision.

The longer Government defers or dithers on the actual steps involved in building a new submarine in Australia, the less scope it has for making such a decision. As time passes, the window for building in Oz sinks while the option of buying off-the-shelf from overseas rises. Thus, making no decision means that, eventually, the passage of time will mean only one decision is possible. And it will not be the outcome currently promised or proclaimed.

Style this the 'subterranean subs debate'. It is subterranean in the sense that a lot of argument is going on, but the central issue – whether to build new subs in Oz – is not formally or officially in play. 

The Government has a White Paper that says 12 boats will be built and they will be built here. This is what is known as a P-O-L-I-C-Y. The point about policy is that usually governments are supposed to act to bring the plan to reality. The words in the 2009 White Paper are clear enough:

...the Government has decided to acquire 12 new Future Submarines, to be assembled in South Australia. This will be a major design and construction program spanning three decades, and will be Australia's largest ever single defence project. The Future Submarine will have greater range, longer endurance on patrol, and expanded capabilities compared to the current Collins class submarine.

Sounds exciting. And hard. Little wonder Cabinet is in no rush to focus the periscope on this extremely difficult topic: your head hurts getting across the detail, the costs involved tend towards the incomprehensible and the political return for all this effort is virtually nil.

The failure to do much of anything to realise our 'largest ever single defence project' is driving the subterranean subs debate to the surface. And, ever ready to help, step forward the always-reliable Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson with a concise rendering of how the submarine dither is now a deep dilemma — Australia is running out of time to design and build an entirely new sub. Read More


 
Their ASPI report, 'Mind the Gap', centres on an 'inevitable' capability gap in the 2020s when Australia could find itself with no subs at all. A capability gap of that dimension gives any government a yawning credibility gap. So whatever the official policy might state about building 12 boats in South Australia, Canberra is looking at all sorts of ways to fill that gap. Davies and Thomson run through the options: 

  • Extend the life of the Collins class.
  • Buy off-the-shelf, thus sending to the bottom the grand aspirations of the White Paper but delivering smaller, 'relatively modern and reliable', boats.
  • Buy nuclear attack submarines from the US.

Just to demonstrate how complicated this argument is, compare the ASPI report with the Kokoda Paper that Brice Pacey produced in January. Looking at the same set of facts, Pacey decides that the only option is to go the full White Paper route and build a son-of-Collins in order to get the 'unique combination of range, endurance and stealth' Australia requires, because: 

  • No commercial off-the-shelf conventional submarine comes close to meeting Australia's needs.
  • Nuclear subs would add an extra 30-40% to the costs, even if Australia had a nuclear industry and the supporting infrastructure.

A cabinet that sees long-term planning as something that might happen beyond next year's election does not want to grapple with any of this. But the capability gap so clearly identified by Davies and Thomson will start to deliver political pain. Muddling through with the Collins class is bad enough; having no subs at all hits at credibility.

The pain is forcing a rethink of one of the basic divides of Australian defence procurement – we buy planes off-the-shelf but want to build our own ships, even if submarines 'pose an extraordinarily complex task'  that stretches 'at the margins of Australia's present scientific and technological capacity.' This judgment about how submarines are a pressure test for Australian capabilities was offered in 2009 by a rare breed of politician – one with an engineering background. Read Greg Combet's submarine speech from his short period as Defence Material Minister to see a fine discussion of the strategic argument, the industrial and design challenges, the construction headaches and the sustainment issues that Australia knows so well from both the Oberon and the Collins experiences. 

Perhaps Combet could give Cabinet a quick tutorial, and point out to his colleagues that the terms of the argument are still what they were back in '09, but time is passing. And a decision not to make a decision does, indeed, amount to a choice.

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Derek Woolner is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the ANU. He is co-author, with Peter Yule, of The Collins Class Submarine Story: Steel, Spies and Spin.

Posts by Alan Wrigley and Hugh White discussing the 'Core Force' concept as a methodology for planning military force structure raise old memories.

I worked for Defence Ministers Lance Barnard and Bill Morrison at the time of the concept's birth. The Whitlam Government had physically terminated the policy of forward defence by withdrawing the last of Australia's army and air contingents from Malaysia and Singapore. The size of the army had been considerably reduced by the abolition of conscription. The strategic environment had changed but what was to follow wasn't at all clear.

The Government needed a basis for capability development focused on the needs of national defence that didn't reproduce by default the structures of previous strategic policy. It also needed a political focus for defence after the Vietnam withdrawal that accommodated the official advice that Australia faced no foreseeable military threat for decades to come.

The Core Force concept provided both. As Alan Wrigley says, the ordered process driven by the concept was possible because the military operations that arose during its time were discretionary. That is, government could choose those missions for which the existing capacities of the Defence Force were adequate and decline international invitations where they were not. The old habit of expanding military capabilities by claiming operational shortcomings was stymied.

Over time, the Core Force approach was criticised for, in effect, spreading capability development too thinly, with some areas unable to retain sufficient expertise to facilitate future expansion.

It was replaced in the 1987 White Paper by force structure priorities more rigorously based on the requirements for defending Australia, driven by considerations of strategic geography and regional military capabilities developed in Paul Dibb's 1986 Review of Australia's defence capabilities.

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Nonetheless, the 1987 approach did not remove a weakness of the Core Force concept. There was little stimulus to concentrate on the boring bits of military capability. Australia's intervention in East Timor in 2009 illuminated an almost complete blindness in force structure processes of the logistics requirements for supporting a force in the field. This became a dominant issue as Australia entered a decade of sustained military intervention overseas. As that decade proceeded, capability planning fragmented, with 'operational deficiencies' and ad hoc political decision-making eroding the Dibb-like process laid out in the 2000 White Paper.

Today, the utility of the Dibb approach is diminishing. His methodology of analysing regional military capabilities was useful because Australia could respond with a military force structure of significant advantage. Now this advantage is diminished and the trend is worsening with increased Asian prosperity.

The 2009 White Paper responded by wishing a level of performance that would outstrip anything available to Asian nations. Alas, this is increasingly revealed as a fiction. The F-35 fighter suffers delays and cost increases, the submarine project is something like a decade behind schedule and funding is insufficient to maintain the momentum of the 2009 White Paper's recommendations.

I agree with Hugh that we're into a fundamentally different strategic era. The situation is analogous to that of the early 1970s and Australia needs a new strategic concept to plan for its armed forces to meet the emerging strategic challenges. This doesn't mean I agree with Hugh that some sort of trigger point has been reached that demands we focus on acquiring more platforms (planes and submarines). This is because the numbers of such physical equipment is no longer the determinant of military success.

On the night of 19-20 March, a gross of cruise missiles and a leisurely early morning fly-over by three B-2 stealth bombers largely destroyed Libya's ability to detect threats, command its own forces and direct its weapons. NATO forces then conducted an unimpeded bombing campaign that, within a week or so, destroyed Libya's conventional military forces and reduced them to insurgents within their own country. The warning for all is that you must be fully competent in the digital facets of warfare or risk being reduced to third-world status at the beginning of any military conflict.

China is certainly aware of this development. It is, for instance, building its own global positioning satellite network to prevent the US hampering the People's Liberation Army by recoding the existing system's signals. And it has for some time conducted a sustained cyber intrusion campaign against Western government and commercial computer networks.

So, the numbers of fighters that Australia might buy are less critical issues than the capacity of its aerial early warning fleet or the conversion of Super Hornet fighters to electronic warfare aircraft. A little project to be decided in 18 months or so, to provide the Collins fleet with a networked warfare capability, will be as important as the number of future submarines Australia might buy, for this will largely determine how the Navy uses its new fleet and what it can expect to achieve with it.

I doubt Australia will end up buying 100 F 35 fighters and I suspect it will be close to the middle of the century before the RAN operates a 12-submarine fleet. With their glacial pace, both projects are likely to be overtaken by the momentum of the digital and social worlds. A chunk of the fighter role probably will be diverted to combat drones, as is already the planned for the RAAF's new maritime surveillance capability. The Navy, of late able to provide crews for only about three submarines, will find it difficult to quadruple the effort.

The new concept we need to guide the development of Australia's military capabilities must change from those we've used in the past. It must grapple with the pace of digital and societal change and provide security in an era where Australia may not be able to expect significant technological advantage over its neighbours. Having more of one sort of platform or another may be nice but it won't be the issue that determines Australia's future military competence.

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Richard Brabin-Smith is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University. He was formerly Deputy Secretary of Defence and Chief Defence Scientist.

Let me make a contribution to the discussion of the 'core force' and expansion base initiated recently by Alan Wrigley. In my experience, these ideas, together with the other elements of the conceptual framework of which they were part, did indeed prove very valuable in helping to set priorities for force structure development, states of readiness for the force-in-being, and much else besides. 

They fostered a strategic, top-down approach to decision-making and helped keep at bay a bottom-up approach built primarily around the preservation of tribal totems. They allowed Defence to develop arguments that were both cohesive and cogent. It is a matter of regret that, with the passage of time, the influence of the core force and related ideas has faded.

But there was more to it than that: coupled with the idea of the expansion base was the concept of 'warning time'. The prospect of major assault on Australia was assessed as remote, and even if such a threat (an overused word) were to develop, it would take many years to do so. Australia would therefore be able to use this significant warning time to expand the Defence Force. Thus, during the 70s and the 80s and some way into the 90s, the time dimension was explicit in Australia's defence planning framework. This aspect too has become lost or at least mislaid, especially if the 2009 Defence White Paper is used as a guide.

Yet time is of the essence, and it is here that I must depart from Hugh White's response to Alan's post. I agree that, with the new Age of Asia, Australia's strategic environment is changing. But to address the question of how quickly these changes are taking place is as important as asking what the changes are and what their consequences might be. 

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To my mind, and in spite of China's efforts to modernise its military forces, it is premature to announce the end of the preponderance of US maritime strength in Asia Pacific (and elsewhere). Will this predominance last forever? That's impossible to say, and it is possible to come up with versions of the future in which other countries will one day have such a command of defence technology and joint-force doctrine as to be able to eclipse the formidable capabilities that the US already possesses (and which it will continue to enhance well into the future).

But such a time is a long way off (decades, probably) and might never arrive. 

There is, in addition, the issue of policy choices for Australia, and how these might affect decisions on the size and shape of the ADF. But even here, experience tells us that it is necessary to have a sense of priorities: some national interests are more important than others, even within the region of which we are part. The North Pacific, with its potential flash-points, remains a considerable distance from Australia, and even the South China Sea, with its competing claims for sovereignty, can hardly be said to be proximate to Australia (though I would agree that there are some potential policy dilemmas for Australia here).

And a major assault on Australia? The challenges of major attack on Australia would be formidable, and much as was argued in earlier decades: the equipment, doctrine and skills required for contested amphibious assaults are specialist, expensive and difficult and time-consuming to attain, and Australia would defend itself with tenacity (a kind of Gallipoli in reverse). So time is of the essence here too.

I am conscious of having skated over many of the arguments (I've not mentioned economic influence and trade), but in summary, Australia's strategic circumstances are changing, and in thinking about their consequences we need to steer a course between complacency and alarm. But Armageddon is not just round the next corner. 

I would contend that, rather than having been overtaken by the future they were designed to prepare us for, the ideas of the core force, expansion base and warning time have come back into their own. They are now as important as ever. 

We do not need to panic about strategic deterioration but we do need to get a better grasp on the timescales that would apply to such deterioration. What would the indicators be? How and when might the Defence Force best be expanded? What could it mean for the size and shape of the core force, including any potential enlargement over the shorter term and consequences for Australia's industrial base? 

We might then be able to move beyond the seemingly half-baked arguments for doubling the number of submarines but not changing much else. The time for the core force is now!

Photo by Flickr user Aristocrats-hat.

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Andrew Farran, formerly with the Departments of External Affairs and Defence, writes:

Alan Wrigley reminds us of the 'watershed' in defence policy development that existed in the mid-1970s, but the pity was that the opportunity was not grasped to recast force-structure thinking derived from the past. The strategic basis paper at that time correctly assessed that 'Australia is among the world's developed countries least likely to be subject to a military attack in the foreseeable future'. (This is still the case.)

So instead, the 'core' concept was adopted, as described by Alan, which was to develop '(a)ll the key military capabilities likely to be required to counter any military threat that might emerge in the future and that would require a long lead time to develop. This core force would provide an expansion base of military and technical skills that would greatly reduce the time to build a more capable force as any credible threat began to emerge'.

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In other words, having a bit of almost everything resulted over time in a number of costly, sometimes undeployable capital items and other misdirections. We certainly didn't get much bang for our bucks. Essentially, our defence force structure has been geared to mesh in with elements of the US's. Where the recent US deployments in Darwin might lead perhaps nobody yet knows.

Are we to repeat this approach now that the unrewarding Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns — essentially political deployments — are pretty much behind us? The most relevant deployment in the past period was that to East Timor, yet when it came to action we lacked much of the logistical capacity needed, while a lot of other military matériel lay around.

Given that invasion is an unlikely contingency, and given that the technology of warfare has undergone several revolutions since the 1970s, we need to refocus and adopt a force structure that gives advantage to area-denial strategies because of the relative vulnerability of attack-mode platforms. It is doubtful that heavy surface vessels would achieve this.

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Three quick points in response to Sam on fighter numbers and timing. He suggests that we could wait until China has, or is much closer to having, the ability to project serious power to our shores before buying the large numbers of aircraft I have argued we'd need to defend ourselves from China independently.

First, we need to be clear about what we are discussing. On the one hand, there is a question about what forces we would need to exercise middle-power strategic weight on our own account if (for any one of several reasons) we find ourselves in a more contested Asia and can no longer rely on the US to play the same role in our security as it has played for the past few decades. 

There is a quite separate question about when we need to start to build those forces. Sam may be right that we do not yet need middle-power strategic weight, but if and when we do need it, we will require a lot more than 100 of whatever frontline aircraft we buy.

Second, the question of whether we yet need to start acquiring these and other 'middle power' forces depends how long those forces would take to develop, and how much warning we could expect before we needed them. All complex questions, of course, which take us back to the great debates about 'warning time', which were inextricably liked with the core force concepts Alan Wrigley has raised

I've always been conservative about warning time – unpleasant surprises are just too common in our business. For example, Sam's confidence that China cannot project serious power as far as Australia is not justified by China's lack of capability per se, but by his confidence that another big power, presumably the US, would stop it. If China was not opposed by another major power, it could already project very substantial forces our way. 

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Don't get me wrong. I'm not predicting this scenario is at all likely. But I do not think defence policy can simply dismiss it. The possibility that the US will no longer play its accustomed strategic role in Asia is precisely what mobilises questions about our future capability needs, so we should be very careful about assuming the status quo. The old shibboleth that intentions can change faster than capabilities is true, and it is relevant here: America's intentions can change faster than our capabilities.

Third, I think Sam's argument assumes that the only reason we need what I'm calling 'middle power capabilities' is to defend the continent. My conception of Australia's strategic objectives is much broader than that, and includes supporting the US against China, if Chinese strategic ambitions prove too aggressive to be tolerable. So even if China cannot project power as far as Australia, we would still have reasons — less compelling, perhaps, but still compelling enough — to want middle power capabilities. Indeed we might need them very soon.     

In case anyone wonders how this sits with the arguments I have made elsewhere for accommodating China's power, let me explain. I set the threshold for what is tolerable from China rather higher than many others, but I'm as convinced as anyone of the need to resist if that threshold is crossed, and while I think the risk of China doing that is relatively low, keeping it low will depend in part on the probability of an effective and united regional response to Chinese transgressions being relatively high. 

I think there is a strong argument that Australia should have forces that can contribute significantly to that. On current trends, we won't.

Photo by Flickr user Leandro A Perez.

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This passage in Hugh White's latest post deserves a response (emphasis added):

Sam's confidence that China cannot project serious power as far as Australia is not justified by China's lack of capability per se, but by his confidence that another big power, presumably the US, would stop it. If China was not opposed by another major power, it could already project very substantial forces our way.

Actually, my confidence is justified by China's capability. I follow Chinese military developments pretty closely, but I don't know which 'very substantial forces' Hugh is referring to. Yes, China does have global power projection capabilities of some kinds: nuclear weapons, for example, and probably cyber-attack capabilities.

But Hugh's remarks are made in the context of Australia's combat aircraft fleet. What type of forces does China have that would justify more than 100 frontline RAAF aircraft?

I ask this question not on the premise that the US is sticking around. Even if Washington pulled up stumps from the Asia Pacific tomorrow, I don't think China could send military forces in our direction that would justify more than three frontline squadrons of fighters.

China couldn't send bombers (the fleet is old and slow with insufficient range; see image, courtesy of Sinodefence) or fighters (China doesn't have the aerial tanker support to send them beyond the first island chain) or amphibious forces (they're growing and modernising, but mainly with the aim of crossing the Taiwan Strait) and certainly not aircraft carriers (even if China's sole carrier was operational, its air complement would be tiny and not terribly effective; should China decide to build more carriers, we will get plenty of warning time).

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You could point to China's submarine fleet as an exception here; it has not only modernised quite rapidly (though it's still well behind the US and Russia) but patrols are becoming more frequent. Still, you don't need a fighter fleet to find submarines; you need anti-submarine aircraft and your own submarines. For those reasons and others, I support a larger sub fleet. But fighters? I just can't see it.

As for Australia needing 'middle-power strategic weight' for reasons other than China, don't we already have that now? When you make rough comparisons with other countries in our population and GDP range (the Netherlands, Canada) you find that our military forces are of similar weight. Of course, we face a more uncertain strategic environment than those countries do. But even when you make the more important comparison, that with our regional neighbours, you find that Australia is comfortably ahead of all Southeast Asia, with the partial exception of Singapore. Why isn't that enough?

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