Nic Stuart writes:
What makes the current debate between James Goldrick and Hugh White so interesting is that it's grounded in capabilities – both platforms and systems. This is the hard edge of the defence debate; where our desire to have strategic options meets budgetary and political imperatives. What makes the clash significant is that both have propounded extremely coherent — yet fundamentally different – ways of envisaging the future military balance in our region.
The detailed operational knowledge and recent experience that Goldrick possesses would appear to give his arguments tungsten-tips; allowing his carefully worded missiles to sink White's fleet of assertions. Most of us can only guess at the extent of military capability possessed by the operations of, to use Goldrick's well chosen example, the new Hobart class destroyers, Wedgetail aircraft and JORN. Nonetheless, this dispossesses any critique of the current military structure of validity. It asks us to repose complete trust in the brass at Russell Hill and accept that they will choose wisely and correctly when decisions need to be made about force structure.
I'm not so sanguine.
Firstly, consider the long history of strategic mistakes that have been made by highly educated militaries in the past. There have been extraordinary technical developments over the past decade – how can we be certain our commanders will always draw the correct conclusions about the way the new equipment should be used. The obvious example is the way the professional French army disastrously failed to comprehend how their (better) tanks should have been used in 1940.
The second reason not to dismiss White's critique lightly is his intimate acquaintance with the Australian political process. Force structure is not developed in isolation by the military. Money is needed to fund all the capability options and to maintain their edge. The current evidence from Canberra is that no politician, of either political party, is ready to fund even the inadequate capability the forces have at the moment. Dreaming of an ideal conflict, where we'll have just the platforms we require for a swift, decisive victory is no substitute for accepting that the strident demands for expenditure restraint aren't likely to end at any time soon.
It's difficult to believe that, in a decade's time, we'll still possess the margin of military superiority that Goldrick believes we have at the moment.