Is it time to change our mind about the force structure and objectives of the ADF? ASPI analyst Michael Shoebridge believes that the time has come in light of the growing challenges Australia is confronted with, from humanitarian interventions and disasters, through to mounting great power competition and direct challenges to the nation’s security.
With Australia edging ever closer to the elusive 2 per cent of GDP on defence expenditure amid the largest peacetime rearmament program in the nation’s history, much concern has been placed on the nation’s capacity to finance the next-generation capabilities and often costly, complex and delayed mega-projects over the long term.
The nation's comparative wealth, when measured against that of its Indo-Pacific neighbours, has long supported a technological and platform advantage over potential adversaries, maintaining a tactical and strategic advantage.
Meanwhile, the lack of true peer or near-peer threat to Australia since the end of the Second World War prompted the nation to respond accordingly, whittling away at the nation's capabilities and funding to leave the Australian Defence Force as little more than a regional constabulary force that struggled to quickly respond to the East Timor crisis or to adequately respond to the presence of a great power's strategic coercion during the 2014 G20 summit.
An important question needs to be answered when considering the future make up of the nation's defence expenditure and capability as we prepare for the next Defence White Paper and Force Posture Review, which will seek to identify, outline and structure the nation's defence posture at a period of increased great power competition.
That key question is: If Australia was in a different part of the world, wouldn't we already be spending more on defence, with a significantly more capable defence posture?
Additionally, the role of the ADF is going to evolve as additional national security challenges become apparent, ranging from humanitarian disaster relief and evacuation operations, through to more traditional high and lower-tier military and stabilisation operations throughout the Indo-Pacific.
It is therefore critical to ask this question as public debate continues to grow and calls for a 'reset' of the nation's defence posture and capability gain traction – particularly as the Australian public will need to act as an informed partner on the road ahead.
Recognising this, Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has entered the debate, with a piece titled 'The Australian Defence Force must find a new balance', which raises a series of questions about the long-held belief about Australia's defence posture and ensuing force structure, namely: What is a balanced force and how does it apply to Australia?
Shoebridge frames the question, stating, "It’s time to upend the idea of a ‘balanced force’ in Australian defence policy. Defence leaders have talked for decades about the 60,000-person ADF as a balanced force, with a little bit of something to do many things.
"Why break away from it now? Well, as economist Paul Samuelson said, ‘When events change, I change my mind.’ Since the government’s 2016 Defence White Paper, we’ve seen events that change the balanced force equation."
Competing roles – humanitarian intervention, disaster relief and traditional defence operations?
For Shoebridge, the role of the ADF is going to become an increasingly 'grey' area as a range of traditional and non-traditional security challenges confront Australia, which will have a dramatic impact on the future force structure and composition of the ADF, to this end, he explains: "The national disaster that was our last bushfire season is one. Then there’s the rise of an empowered and assertive Chinese state with growing military means and a willingness to use them.
"America is now in explicit strategic and economic competition with China and Russia, while also acting more transactionally and selfishly than at any time since World War II. And now the coronavirus pandemic is demonstrating vulnerabilities across national and global economies and supply chains, from toilet paper to supercars like McLarens.
"Defence needs to play a much bigger role in responding to national and regional disasters and the ADF needs greater offensive firepower, sooner than the future force in the white paper will eventually deliver.
"Wedded to the balanced force notion, Defence’s instinct will be to minimise the impact that the Prime Minister’s drive on disaster response capabilities has on ADF plans and structures. The motive will be good — the ADF does need to focus on warfighting, given our worsening strategic environment — but the result will be perversely bad," Shoebridge articulates.
Each of these factors are critically important to fully comprehend, understand and inform Australia's ongoing force structure and force posture review. Shoebridge expands on this importance, stating, "Breaking the balanced force means structuring a small part of Defence for disaster response, and then ruthlessly prioritising the larger part of the organisation for warfighting.
"It will make it easier to argue the budget case for investment in new offensive power — all the weapons that the ships, aircraft and land vehicles in the white paper don’t yet have. And it will make it less likely that the warfighting force will be organ-harvested to pay for and do disaster response.
"Looked at with the blinkers of the balanced force removed, there will be other capabilities whose reason for being are now not clear. If they aren’t useful for warfighting and can’t be repurposed for disaster response, they should simply be let go.
"How far Defence’s current review may go along this path isn’t clear, but we’ll probably see soon. It’s a necessary shift and it will help Defence be a positive contributor to the domestic and regional security challenges we face."
2 per cent in an era of great power competition
The increasing tensions as a result of great power competition, particularly on the back of China's rise, is but part of the new regional and global paradigm Australia finds itself increasingly dependent upon – the relative instability of the US, the cornerstone of the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order, leads to troubling results for Australia.
Former South Australian governor and retired Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce recently hit out at the status quo during a speech in Adelaide, describing the whirlpool of geopolitical, strategic and economic competition: "These issues are fast-moving and complex ... Yet, our leaders both political and military seem outwardly reluctant to engage in fulsome public debate."
Scarce is clear in articulating his concerns about the rising global and regional powerhouse, China, believing that while it does not pose a territorial threat to Australia, its growing influence, ambitions and increasing assertiveness, which can be expanded to coercion, are key factors that need to be included in the nation’s broader public debate and policy calculations.
"It will simply not be sufficient to assume that US diplomatic and military strength will always come to our aid," Scarce said – this echoes growing concern about both the capacity and the intention of the US to serve as the strategic linchpin for the Indo-Pacific.
Andrew Davies of ASPI highlighted the importance of recognising the limitation of US power in a recent piece, saying, "The assumption of continued US primacy that permeated DWP 2016 looked heroic at the time. It seems almost foolishly misplaced now."
This is reinforced by executive director of ASPI, Peter Jennings, who posed the critical question in late 2018: "What’s the plan for Australia’s defence if it turns out that Trump’s America First approach is here to stay and alliances fall into mistrustful neglect?"
It is becoming abundantly clear that Australia’s dogmatic insistence of sticking to the sacred 2 per cent of GDP expenditure on the nation’s defence is rapidly becoming woefully insufficient, particularly in a period of increased great power competition.
Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.