I share Jeffrey Grey's and Albert Palazzo’s concern that the trajectory of the defence budget carries strategic risks which are perhaps not properly understood by those making the decisions. But I'm not sure that their use the 1999 East Timor crisis to support their case is historically accurate.
Both Jeffrey and Albert suggest that East Timor was a near-run thing because of the cuts to capability in the decades before it. If what they mean is that the military operation that we undertook in East Timor nearly failed to achieve its objectives because the combat capability of the ADF had been eroded since Vietnam, then I disagree.
East Timor did not test the combat capability of the ADF in East Timor at all because there was no combat. This was no accident. The ADF only went to East Timor because the Habibie Government, and TNI, allowed it in. Without Indonesia's agreement there would have been no UN resolution and no international coalition, and without all three of these things we had no military options in East Timor and wouldn't have been there.
Of course I can't be sure that the Howard Government might not have sent our forces in anyway. But I am sure it would have done so against the advice of its military and civilian advisers, and I am sure it would have failed.
Moreover, I think this had nothing to do with the post-Vietnam cuts to the ADF. Even at its Vietnam-era peak, the ADF alone would never have been able to win a campaign in East Timor against TNI, or even against TNI-backed militia. If I recall the numbers correctly, there were 30,000 TNI troops on Timor alone at the time. Not since 1945 has Australia had an Army that could have taken them on.
So while I agree that Australia's defence policy is in very bad shape, I don't think East Timor is the best place to look for solutions.
Photo by Flickr user fmgbain.