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Op-Ed: Future Defence national mobilisations and COVID-19

National mobilisation, the purposeful use of society’s resources to defend Australia and its interests, has been prominent in the managing of the 2020 pandemic. A deep analysis of this is a post-COVID-19 task but some matters relevant to thinking about future defence national mobilisations are already, evident explains Griffith Universitys Dr Peter Layton.

National mobilisation, the purposeful use of society’s resources to defend Australia and its interests, has been prominent in the managing of the 2020 pandemic. A deep analysis of this is a post-COVID-19 task but some matters relevant to thinking about future defence national mobilisations are already, evident explains Griffith Universitys Dr Peter Layton.

The main angst seems supply chain fragility. Businesses have honed down global supply chains to achieve highly efficient, just-in-time deliveries rather than building large just-in-time stockholdings. This approach worked well until this particular disruption that, in encompassing the world, means there are no last resort, fallback suppliers. 

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Such an event makes it difficult arguing the problem is simply China. There is a good rationale for diversifying supply chains to include other countries as well as China to enhance robustness.

This will help managing future regional supply disruptions but COVID-19 is well beyond that. For example, America has both stopped medical exports to Canada and acted internationally to divert medical supplies from reaching NATO allies. In this situation, diversified supply chains are not the solution and maybe not ‘trusted’ ones either. This dilemma makes the ADF’s international supply chains distinctly problematic.

In times of global disruption only autarky really provides any guarantees. This means creating sovereign capabilities, currently defined as those “critical to Defence and [which] must be developed or supported by Australian industry”.

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The ‘to Defence’ constraint though means that steel plate welding under the continuous shipbuilding program falls within the sovereign capabilities banner but not the ventilators or medical personnel protective equipment now proving essential. This incongruity indicates the current Sovereign Industrial Capability Priorities needs radically re-conceiving to take a whole-of-nation viewpoint, not just a Defence Department one.

National mobilisation is inherently a broad church. Defence needs society as much as society needs Defence; the two are interdependent. Critical societal needs must be included within sovereign capabilities. 

In developing the requisite sovereign capabilities future national mobilisations might need it seems advanced manufacturing and in particular 3D printing may play an important role. Such printers can manufacture specialist equipment relatively quickly bringing much needed speed, agility and potentially mass to national mobilisation efforts.

There are many 3D printers across Australia operated by companies, organisations and individuals whereas there are few conventional manufacturing lines able to be retooled quickly to produce defence critical items. However, this is a complicated area and 3D printers have definite weaknesses.

Being able to rapidly harness Australia’s 3D printing resources to best support a future mobilisation will require much prior planning. It can’t be done quickly in a rush.

In this, national mobilisation inherently involves government directing how society’s scarce resources – like 3D printers should be optimally used for the national good. Such control seems easy given Australians have generally willing accepted government COVID-19 advice but such success is not necessarily the norm.

Writing about Australians fearful of a Japanese attack in 1942, the Official Historian wrote: “There developed a deceptive faith in [government] controls whose efficiency depended upon the victims' co-operation.”

Today’s co-operative public reflects a striking governmental success in building legitimacy and selling a strategic narrative – both in the face of some unhelpful overseas interference on social media.

In terms of building legitimacy, the formation of a national cabinet that includes the Prime Minister, the state premiers and the chief ministers is notable. This is a major structural innovation that enabled by modern digital technology allows collective decision-making and rapid implementation nationwide in a coherent manner.

The approach has allowed the timely accessing by Australia’s governmental structures of the nation’s full capabilities and capacities with minimal friction. The national cabinet approach seems a model future national mobilisations might usefully plan to adopt.  

In terms of strategic narrative, the use by senior politicians of experts has been remarkable. Such narratives tell a story about the strategy being implemented, providing an interpretive structure people can use to make sense of the facts, current problems and emerging issues.

Good narratives appeal to people’s rational and emotional sides. Today, the medical experts provide the rationality and the politicians the emotional dimension; this combination is working well. In a future national mobilisation CDF or secretary may have a speaker’s podium alongside the Prime Minister’s, just as the chief medical officer does now. Similarly, senior ADF leaders might stand alongside appropriate senior minsters.    

Directing society’s scarce resources also means controlling the national workforce. National mobilisations in World War One and Two and in the 1950s attempted defence expansion ran up against workforce capacity limits. 

Today’s pandemic has highlighted that Australia has a large, potentially exploitable service sector but small rural and manufacturing sectors with few people easily spared.

National mobilisation planning might usefully focus on who, how and when specific service sector staff might be shifted from less-vital occupations into areas critical to the nation’s defence. Australia’s service sector seems to hold today’s spare workforce capacity.  

Finally, pandemic discussions are now moving towards building the Australia beyond it with numerous futures suggested: higher GDP growth, high employment, improved business profitability, greater productivity and so on. Each of those futures is different. Any would need to be consciously built; they won’t just happen.

De-mobilisation is the forgotten part of national mobilisation. Any future national mobilisation will take the country to a new tomorrow. National mobilisation planning must include not just thinking about actions to take during a crisis but also how these will change Australia’s tomorrows.  

The aim of any conflict is, after all, a better peace and national mobilisation is a part of making it so.

Peter Layton is a visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University and author of the book Grand Strategy.

Op-Ed: Future Defence national mobilisations and COVID-19
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