Can Australian Military Do It All?
Image Credit: Geoffrey C. Gunn

Can Australian Military Do It All?


In all the discussion concerning the contingent of some 200 U.S. marines arriving in Darwin, a force that will plateau to around 2,500 by 2016 to 17, and the enhanced military use of the Cocos Islands, there’s been a fundamental issue missing from Australia’s national strategic debate: how does the Australian  military’s core business extend beyond the war fighting mission.

Chief of the Australian Army Gen. David Morrison recently observed that he agreed with writer George Santayana, “that only the dead have seen an end to war.”

Morrison noted that the fundamental force development principle is that military operations against a credible, technologically enabled opponent – possessing war fighting capabilities similar to our own – must remain the foundation of all planning.

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But the government expects the defense forces to also be postured to be able to carry a range of missions that involve an overlap of responsibility with other government agencies. These include supporting civil efforts to secure our offshore estate; maintaining high readiness forces to support counter-terrorism efforts; assisting civil authorities in protecting major public events; assisting civil agencies in dealing with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense; supporting emergency response efforts in the event of natural disasters within Australia and the region; and providing search and rescue support in remote parts of the Southern Pacific and Indian oceans.

What’s not clear is the extent to which these non-military missions should be reflected in the defense force structure: which capabilities are appropriate for our forces in a “whole of government” context, and what should be the responsibility of other agencies?

In humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, the military may lead where there’s a need to demonstrate a willingness and capacity to employ force, or where a substantial level of capacity is required in circumstances that are beyond that of other agencies. The military also undertakes the evacuation of Australian nationals from foreign trouble spots.

But the defense mantra is that it’s war-fighting military capabilities that are its core business: it should only contribute to other national missions from capabilities acquired for combat.

This approach is evident in a range of recent developments. The shifting of responsibility to Customs for developing Australia’s contribution to Pacific islands  maritime security;

the decision to acquire offshore combatant vessels for the Navy rather than more limited patrol vessels ; the decision to man the new support ship Skandi Bergen with a civilian crew; and proposals to “civilianize” the Australian Hydrographic Service.

The recent Australian Force Posture Review on the configuration of our armed forces demonstrates how problems might arise. The report says the Navy faces the greatest challenges. But it didn’t acknowledge that some of these relate to border protection, including in the Northwest, which is now primarily the responsibility of Customs . When the review talks of a defense role in Antarctica, including an ice-strengthened patrol vessel, the tasks it seems to have in mind really belong to Customs under current arrangements.

We now need a much greater understanding of Defense’s role in a whole-of-government approach to peacetime national security. This should cover vessels, aircraft, basing, doctrine, public perceptions and command and control.

There’s real scope for a national fleet approach covering all requirements for offshore capabilities, including maritime policing, patrol and surveillance, and scientific research, that may possibly include some elements of military combat capabilities.

We need the right processes in place to ensure appropriate coordination between agencies. The last thing in national security we need is a situation where important requirements fall victim to a gap between agencies, leading to a “hole” of government outcome.

Sam Bateman and Anthony Bergin are the co-authors of Our Western Front: Australia and the Indian Ocean, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

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