LT COL Ben Pronk is from the Directorate of Army Research and Analysis. These are his own views, not official policy or the position of the Australian Government, Defence Department, ADF or Army.

Australia's defence challenges cannot be resolved by tweaks; fundamental change is required. Perhaps a good place to start might be to revisit the implications of our policy of independent self-reliance.

There is, of course, good reason for trying to become self-reliant. Even close superpower allies can be fickle or otherwise engaged in our hour of need, so the ability to 'go it alone' is a worthy aspiration. There are, however, some drawbacks.

The first problem is that we can't achieve it. Even in the halcyon days of 2009, our White Paper caveated the notion of self-reliance heavily. Washington is expected to provide strategic intelligence, space capabilities, a nuclear umbrella and, implicitly, ballistic missile defence. Worse, we expect the US to come to our assistance if we are 'under threat from a major power whose military capabilities were simply beyond our capacity to resist.' 

Given the size of our defence force, this statement reads like something Joseph Heller might have written; Australia is independently self-reliant, but only against a force incapable of launching a credible attack on us anyway. 

The second and arguably greater concern is that the principle of self-reliance biases defence acquisitions towards expensive platforms like Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and the Future Submarine (FSM). While these are obviously well suited to high-end conflict, including defence of our sea-air gap, not only is an attack of this nature extremely unlikely, it is even more unlikely to occur without enough warning to conduct at least some form of military expansion (or alliance invoking). This lessens the requirement to hold large numbers of these platforms in the standing force. 

An aggressor may also attempt to offset our geostrategic advantage by selecting an attack method that renders the sea-air gap irrelevant. Ballistic missiles, cyber strikes or even a 9/11-esque 'Black Swan' all fit this profile, and form realistic threats which subs and jets can neither deter nor defeat. 

A better way to approach force structure might be to take a step back from self-reliance as the primary driver. Instead of trying to work out the maximum number of JSF and FSM it can afford within the new budget, Defence might try to identify the minimum number it actually requires. The remainder of the decreased budget could then be used to acquire and sustain more flexible multirole assets that have wider utility across a range of tasks.

We still need some high-end platforms, for a number of reasons.  First, they do serve a deterrent effect; as the Chief of Air Force recently suggested, no-one wants to become New Zealand. They also increase Australia's credibility as a partner, both in terms of our ability to contribute to an American coalition, but also, increasingly, within the region. And finally, they act as a mobilisation base; expanding high-end capability in the face of an impending threat is a lot easier when there is resident expertise within the force. 

Australia should be attempting to identify the minimum high-end 'core' required to achieve these effects. This analysis may come up with the figures 100 (JSFs) and 12 (submarines), but I (and Rodger Shanahan and Hugh White, among others) question whether such a logic trail currently exists.

The ADF is not self-reliant and, short of mobilisation, will remain that way. Trying to achieve self-reliance by acquiring as many high-end capabilities as possible at the expense of a more balanced force effectively gets us the worst of both worlds. Perhaps the reduced budget can act as the catalyst to a more critical and realistic examination of the limits of what we can actually achieve unilaterally, and development of some more appropriate drivers for ADF force structure.

Image courtesy of failblog.org.