LT COL Ben Pronk is from the Directorate of Army Research and Analysis. These are Ben's own views, not official policy or the position of the Australian Government, Defence Department, ADF or the Army.
I note with interest the recent debate on this blog and in the wider media about future roles for the Army. As a serving Army officer, while I obviously don't speak for the entire organisation, I'd like to offer my viewpoint in the interest of furthering this important dialogue.
First, I believe this discussion is long overdue and welcome. As we head into an accelerated Defence White Paper rewrite and a period of reduced resources, the more public dialogue on defence matters, the better. A lack of debate could be seen as indicative of broader national indifference towards security issues, which is arguably a more dangerous prospect than budget cuts.
I do, however, take exception to a number of the points raised. It seems that a theme central to the arguments presented is that Army is using progression of the amphibious capability as a means of restoring itself as 'Australia's primary strategic instrument', posturing itself to undertake the leading role in a major war, or simply (forlornly) attempting to 'retain relevance'.
These perspectives are unfounded and unhelpful. Army's modernisation decisions are not driven by a quest for primacy within the ADF. By virtue of a decade of experience of combat operations, the current generation of Army's soldiers and officers understands the fundamental requirement for 'jointery'. This is more than a bumper sticker; it is an immutable consideration fundamental to the conduct of modern military operations, particularly with a defence force as small as ours.
The Australian Army has matured significantly during the last ten years of combat in the Middle East. While Professor Hugh White has no doubt seen his share of inter-service rivalry, I am confident that this Army of veterans comprehensively supports the Chief of Army's belief (stated on a number of occasions, including at the Sydney Institute) that 'Australia needs its ADF more than it needs its navy, its army or its air force...It's about being a joint force and Army knows that.'
What Army knows it must bring to this joint force is flexibility. The amphibious capability is just one example of this, providing options to Government for projection of land force across a wide range of operational contingencies.
While I would agree that uncontested stabilisation missions and disaster relief operations might be conducted with a cheaper amphibious capability, it is then impossible to meet a force projection requirement in a higher threat environment, potentially as part of a coalition. This does not have to be major war. Evacuation of Australian citizens from a non-permissive environment, even one short of full-scale conflict, is going to require a robust land force projection capability. In this respect, I don't believe the ADF's intended amphibious capability is 'bigger than we need for stabilisation operations.'
Further, while recognising the requirement to project power through the use of submarines and aircraft, this is not the kind of power that can seize and hold ground, evacuate Australian citizens, or conduct disaster relief, all tasks that the ADF must be capable of. Again, this does not need to be major war. If the ADF wants to retain the ability to project power of any variety, across the spectrum of operational employment, it must develop methods of operating in this environment. This requires all three services to work together, as the Americans put it, 'in a complementary vice merely additive' fashion.
Photo by Flickr user AN HONORABLE GERMAN.