Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flash points of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century – blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and industrial potential, the nation has been able to embrace vastly different approaches to the nation's strategic role and responsibilities.
Modern warfare has rapidly evolved over the last three decades, from high-tempo, manoeuvre-based operations that leveraged the combined capabilities of air, sea, land and space forces to direct troops, equipment and firepower around the battlefield during the first Gulf War, to low intensity humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in southern Europe and the south Pacific, and the eventual rise of asymmetrical, guerilla conflicts in the mountains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq.
However, the growing conventional and hybrid capabilities of peer and near-peer competitors – namely Russia and China – combined with the growing modernisation, capability enhancements and reorganisation of force structures in the Armies of nations including India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand all contribute to the changing nature of contemporary warfare.
Over the past few months Defence Connect has received a range of feedback in response to articles regarding the recapitalisation, modernisation and expansion of the Australian Army, Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force to better support and defend national interests in an increasingly challenging and complex Indo-Pacific environment.
The unique operating environments and both tactical and strategic responsibilities of the individual branches, combined with recent revelations in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's (ASPI) 'Cost of Defence Report' by Dr Marcus Hellyer, identified that while defence expenditure is rapidly heading towards the 2 per cent of GDP as committed to by the government, personnel recruitment remains a significant challenge.
As it stands, the personnel budget for the Australian Defence Force for 2018-19 is $11,776 million, supporting 14,689 for the Royal Australian Navy, 14,295 for the Royal Australian Air Force and 30,810 Australian Army – for a total ADF strength of 59,794 personnel. Additionally, the budget supports 16,393 within the Australian Public Service (APS) and 19,850 reservists.
In light of the relatively small numbers fielded by the ADF, the question about personnel numbers becomes an increasingly important one – with the key question becoming: as the Indo-Pacific becomes increasingly contested and Australia's interests are challenged, is the ADF large enough to reliably execute the mission in a radically evolving geo-political and strategic order?
Tthe 2016-17 annual report outlined in Dr Hellyer's report identified that the ADF hit 97 per cent of its recruitment targets, which "is the best result for the past two decades". Dr Hellyer also identifies that retention rates within the ADF remain good, with a 2016-17 separation rate of 9 per cent, below the 10.2 per cent average over the past two decades. Of particular concern is revelations that the recently upgraded HMAS Perth has remained out of operation since October 2017 due to the Navy's inability to find a crew for the vessel.
"HMAS Perth, one of Navy's frigates, had gone through a very extensive refit and upgrade, got new radar capabilities, so a lot of investment went into that, but at the end of that process Navy couldn't find a crew for it," Dr Hellyer told the ABC.
Further compounding these issues is Dr Hellyer's observation: "Defence is finding it really hard to recruit: it takes a long time to train a submarine captain or to train a fighter pilot – you can't just do that overnight."
Increasing personnel expenditure
Australia's pursuit of expensive, high-end military capabilities like the $17 billion fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, $35 billion Hunter Class frigates, $50 billion Attack Class submarines, $5.2 billion fleet of Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles and $10-15 billion acquisition of a yet to be determined armoured fighting vehicle fleet as part of LAND 400 Phase 3 are all important capability developments, however, such capabilities are useless without adequate manpower.
The ADF serves an important role within Australia's policy making apparatus and is critical to long-term national security, and while the continued defence budget growth is expected to be widely welcomed by industry, the growing challenges to the Indo-Pacific region are raising questions about whether Australia's commitment to 2 per cent of GDP is suitable to support the growing role and responsibilities that Australia will be required to undertake as regional security load sharing between the US and allies becomes a reality.
Dr Malcolm Davis of ASPI reinforced this, telling Defence Connect at the Avalon Airshow in late February, "The government aspiration of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence is simply not enough any more. We need to look at planning our force structure, our capability requirements and spending on a number of factors, including allied strengths and potential adversarial capabilities, not arbitrary figures.
"It is time for us to throw open the debate about our force structure. It is time to ask what more do we need to do and what do we need to be capable of doing."
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
Enhancing Australia's capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia's sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia – shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let's not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.