John Blaxland and Albert Palazzo are quite right: there was a clear risk in 1999 that escalation in East Timor could have led to serious combat. I'd disagree that this was something understood only by those in the field, and not by those of us in Canberra. On the contrary, some of us in Canberra were deeply, and I believe correctly, concerned about the risk of escalation, which was a central issue for us throughout the crisis.
But more to the point, I do not think the risk of escalation quite addresses my doubts about the argument that East Timor was a near-run thing because of post-Vietnam cuts to the ADF's capabilities. So let me clarify.
The 'near run thing' claim can be interpreted in two ways. One is that the ADF's capabilities were nearly inadequate for the operation as it actually unfolded. That seems to me clearly wrong. That is not to say that the forces deployed did not do a good job. I think they did, but the job they actually did was well within their capabilities. As it should have been, considering there was no fighting.
Here I think the analogy that Bob Breen draws in the passage quoted by Peter Dean, between East Timor on the one hand and Long Tan and Kokoda on the other, is hard to sustain. Those who served in those earlier campaigns – or indeed in Afghanistan – might use stronger words. It is important to keep the operation in East Timor in perspective.
There is a separate argument that the operation revealed deficiencies in logistics and equipment. Of course it did, just as every military operation does.
As always, these deficiencies tested the ingenuity and adaptability of the ADF. But they did not threaten the success of the mission. And they cannot simply be blamed on budget cuts, because of course they also reflect choices about how the remaining funds were spent over the years before the operation. And we could have a long debate about that, of course.
The second interpretation of the 'near run thing' claim is the counterfactual argument that, had the operation met serious resistance from the militias or from TNI (and had there been no coalition partners), then the capabilities of the ADF would have been inadequate to achieve the mission. But that had nothing to do with the post-Vietnam cuts to Army. Even with the Army at its Vietnam-era peak, Australia could not have defeated TNI or a determined militia in East Timor. So the lessons of East Timor have little to teach us about the wisdom or folly of those cuts.
Which brings us back to the bigger issue. As I said last week, I agree that today's defence budget cuts carry real strategic risks. But I do not think that the best way to caution against the cuts is to argue, as those citing the 'near run thing' in East Timor do, that defence cuts in the past had bad consequences, therefore we shouldn't cut Defence today.
No one believes more strongly than I do in the value of history in informing strategic policy, but even good history will only get us so far in deciding our future defence needs. The only effective way to argue for future levels of defence spending is to analyse and describe as clearly as possible the strategic risks we face in future, the military options we would need to meet those risks, and the forces those military options would require. Australia's defence community, both inside and outside Government, has not yet seriously tried to do this.
Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.