Australia’s Army and a Balanced Defense

The current Army chief will leave the service better prepared for future challenges.

Australia’s Army and a Balanced Defense
Credit: Lowy Institute via Flickr

As Lieutenant General David Morrison, Australia’s Chief of Army, approaches the end of his command, his three years have seen the Army conclude multi-year deployments in Afghanistan and East Timor. Initiatives taken under his leadership have an Army better prepared for tomorrow.

Army Structure

Plan Beersheba, which Morrison announced in December 2011, would bring about a major restructuring of the Australian Army over the next ten years. At the heart of it is the requirement to transform the 1st, 3rd and 7th Brigades into three multi-role maneuver brigades. Transitioning to this common structure has facilitated better training, more effectively leveraging the experience of deployed units by those conducting exercises at home. The commonality will facilitate a 36-month force generation cycle, addressing the challenge of the need to sustain a deployed force for prolonged periods.

Speaking in February at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Morrison stated the Army “will have, within the next three years, a force structure that will allow a Brigade Group to deploy and be replaced by a like organization should the protracted nature of operations require it.” The nature of the East Timor crisis had a profound effect, with Morrison explaining that “we had great difficulty deploying, commanding and sustaining a fairly modest Australian Force much less the multi-national coalition we led.” The 2nd Division, commanding all of Army’s reserve brigades, is now more oriented towards providing surge forces to complement the active component should that scale be required.

The vision is for a mechanized combined arms team to be the basic unit of action, but not all programs have gone forward with that vision, including the 2012 decision to cut the self-propelled howitzer. As the Army prepares to undertake a Force Structure Review it is important to remember that as General Morrison described it, “for a significant part of my time as a soldier, the Army was consigned, by design, to be the weakest component of the ADF.” Thoughts of a peace dividend following the end of operations in Afghanistan should be informed by the deficiencies found within the force when the East Timor crisis began.

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Joint Force

In addition to an overhaul of the structure of the Army, Plan Beersheba places an important focus on building up Australia’s amphibious capability. Such a capability is inherently joint and central to Australia’s role in the region. It dedicates the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment as the core ground component of the future amphibious force, a requirement for which it is currently training. The annual Chief of Army History Conference was held in October 2013 and the theme was “Armies and Maritime Strategy,” reflecting the intellectual importance Morrison attaches to this area. Running parallel to Plan Beersheba is Joint Project 2048, which will deliver two Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Dock ships. The ability of this class of ship to embark over 1,000 Army personnel, along with vehicles and rotary-wing aircraft will ensure Australia has the needed rapid response capability for a range of regional contingencies. HMAS Canberra is expected to enter service later this year while the hull of HMAS Adelaide arrived in Melbourne in early February.

Morrison embraces this, explaining in a February lecture to the Lowy Institute that “few nations on earth will be able to mount joint operations orchestrating air, sea, and land forces linked by space assets as well as Australia over the next two decades.” The issue of amphibious lift to respond to crisis certainly impacted operations in East Timor and the Solomon Islands. More recently, heavy landing ship HMAS Tobruk got underway from Townsville for disaster relief operations in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan. At that time, the only other amphibious ship in service, Landing Ship Dock HMAS Choules, was undergoing planned maintenance after deploying in support of the country’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection operations during July-October 2013, in an effort to increase the capacity of the facilities on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. The February 17 riot at the detention center that left one asylum seeker dead and many more injured could bring further requirements to deploy forces in support of this facility. The maritime domain surrounding Australia, marked by the extensive littorals in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia requires such an amphibious capability to support forces operating ashore.

Alliance Importance 

The centrality of alliance relationships and the ability to operate in a combined force with coalition partners remains critical to deploying Australian contingents overseas. Morrison explained that “of necessity we can only collaborate with compatible major powers and contribute to good order at sea and achieve limited force projection in coalition with our allies.” That could be seen recently during Exercise Cope North, in its 85th iteration, where what began in 1978 as an exercise to enhance U.S. and Japanese air operations welcomed the Royal Australian Air Force for the third year in a row. Conducted over the skies of Guam, Cope North 2014 also included the Republic of Korea Air Force, which took part in the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief component.

Just as Australia did when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines last year, Japan responded by deploying a joint task force of over 1,000 personnel for relief operations. Japan is also focused on developing forces for amphibious operations, an effort that during Exercise Dawn Blitz of June 2013 saw a Japanese task force display a rudimentary capability to conduct an amphibious landing at Camp Pendleton, California. Japan Self-Defense Force and their U.S. Marine counterparts began utilizing the Northern Marianas to train together for amphibious operations in 2012, a viable location and realistic environment to incorporate Australian colleagues.

At the Trilateral Defence Ministerial talks in June 2013 on the margins of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Australia, Japan, and the United States agreed to work to “strengthen each nation’s capacity to respond to regional challenges, including regional disasters and the provision of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, through increased practical cooperation.” Training trilaterally to increase amphibious capabilities would track with General Morrison’s guidance for Australia to be a “credible contributor to coalition endeavors.”

Justin Goldman is an Associate Research Fellow in Military Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and a Non-Resident Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.