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.
This perfect storm of factors, swirling like a maelstrom across Australia's northern borders, has largely gone unnoticed by the Australian public, beyond the odd port visit by American or, as recently happened, Chinese naval vessels that seem to cause momentary flurries of concern – meanwhile, Australia's strategic and political leaders appear to be caught in an increasingly dangerous paradigm of thinking, one of continuing US-led dominance and Australia maintaining its position as a supplementary power.
The lay of the land
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. By comparison, Indonesia, our nearest regional power neighbour, has an active military of 395,500 – broken up into approximately 300,000 in the Indonesian Army, 74,000 for the Indonesian Air Force and 37,850 for the Indonesian Navy.
Looking towards an economic and political comparison – the Republic of Korea has a similarly sized economy and political position to that of Australia, however as a result of its ongoing struggle against North Korea, it has a significantly larger, more muscular military of approximately 599,000 personnel in active service. This is broken up into 464,000 for the Republic of Korea Army, approximately 70,000 for the Republic of Korea Navy (including Marines) and 65,000 for the Republic of Korea Air Force.
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?
Political will v public will?
Despite the economic and political similarities between Australia and Korea – one thing becomes glaringly apparent is the latters direct exposure to an ever-present and existential threat has prompted the development of a highly capable and sizeable military with increasing expeditionary capabilities and significant flow-on benefits for the Korean economy, which is now the world's 11th largest with a GDP per capita of approximately US$25,000.
This raises yet another question: is it a lack of political will or public will preventing the development of the armed forces and supporting industry that Australia is going to require in the coming decades? This is particularly relevant as the qualitative and quantitative edge of the US narrows in light of developments by peer and near-peer adversaries in China and Russia – two nations with their own economic, political and strategic ambitions for both the Indo-Pacific and the broader global order.
As an example, if Australia was to increase the combined strength of the Australian Defence Force to 100,000, this would still represent approximately 0.4 per cent of the Australian population serving in the military – it would, however, enable a broader range of tactical and strategic capabilities and would serve to develop a truly independent Australian defence capability in an increasingly troubled period in modern history.
It won't be an easy sell for both Australia's political leadership and the public at large, however the costs of not investing in and adequately developing the nation's capacity to act as an independent actor – with its own economic, political and strategic designs in the Indo-Pacific, the region intrinsically linked to our own enduring prosperity, security and stability – will spell disaster for modern Australia and the standards of living many have become accustomed to.
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.