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.
As the Indo-Pacific continues to become an increasingly contested region, Australia's recapitalisation and modernisation programs may not necessarily be enough to support the increased role and responsibility the nation and the Australian Defence Force will be required to fulfil. Many of Australia's contemporary allies and strategic partners, namely the US, maintain reserve materiel forces that provide 'surge' capabilities in response to a range of potential contingencies – providing models for Australia to draw inspiration from.
US National Defense Reserve Fleet and the aircraft boneyards
Both the aftermath of the Second World War and the ensuing Cold War left the US with a surplus of military equipment that was either surplus to operational requirement or limited through a series of arms control treaties – however, both the tactical and strategic importance of these capabilities could not be understated.
The US National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF), established in 1946, consists mostly of merchant vessels, however it also includes a range of naval assets that can be activated within 20 to 120 days, providing the US with a range of shipping options during national emergencies, either military or non-military contingencies. At its peak in 1950, the NDRF had approximately 2,277 ships in lay-up, by January 2018 the number of ships was down to 98 – nevertheless the strategic reserve provides the US with a tactical and strategic advantage to support rapid mobilisation and logistics support for national emergencies.
Complementing the NDRF is the US Air Force's network of aircraft boneyards, which provide storage and recycling operations to support both civilian and military aircraft in line with commercial and international treaty obligations. The US maintains a number of major facilities, including the largest such facility at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, which is home to approximately 4,400 aircraft – mainly strategic bombers and fighter aircraft declared surplus to operational use or retired as part of arms control treaties during the Cold War.
While largely used as part of salvage and recycling operations, such organisations provide long-term tactical and strategic benefits for contemporary military forces through ready access to spare components as well as ready access to defence materiel that is still capable of supporting tactical and strategic objectives, despite age.
For Australia, despite the largest period of peace time modernisation and recapitalisation, large numbers of Australian air, land and sea assets are being on-sold to foreign owners for continued service, demonstrating the continued capability of platforms or collectors – limiting the nation's ability to respond to a range of contingencies in the event of national emergency.
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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."
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.