Australia’s defense debate should focus on strategy and force structure, not tactics and tanks

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Regular readers of Australia’s defense discourse will not have missed the passions revealed by recent news that the the army intends to purchase new engineering tanks and armored vehicles– some critically reviewed throughout these pages, some quartered on defense industry sites and social media, and without a doubt, the Statler and Waldorf routine that entertained in the australian.

Inevitably, this debate has succumbed to an obstacle that plagues most Australian military discussions: we are mired in tactical discussions when we have to think strategy.

Discuss the specific merits of the weapon system on the Abrams M1A2 SEPv3 main battle tank or argue deeply the general purpose of the tank– although fascinating – is to really miss the point.

What is really in dispute is the future force structure and resources of the long-term Australian Defense Force against the new direction of the government in the Defense Strategy Update 2020. The government has clearly told the ADF that a “more precise prioritization is needed” and that its “new policy will require force structure and capability adjustments focusing on responding to the challenges of the gray area. , the possibility of high intensity conflicts and national crises ”.

But what many in uniform may not yet realize is that the government has unambiguously telegraphed significant changes in the design of ADF forces. This means that difficult choices have to be made, such as a complete divestment, a partial reduction or a transfer to the reserve of inherited capacities, which did not manifest themselves in the Force structure plan 2020. Among the three services and the new kid on the block (the Joint Capabilities Group), there will be winners and potentially many losers.

Why? First of all, it is a question of money. The ADF cannot ignore the country’s fiscal situation, which will last for decades beyond this pandemic. Debt is expected to peak by mid-2025 to $ 980.6 billion, or 40.9% of GDP. Australia has modest strategic weight and limited available resources. The government will not be able to afford a romantic investment in ADF legacy capabilities that are of limited value for the adverse conditions and trends encountered in our region.

Money must be found for long-range strikes and area denial effects, as well as increased resilience and self-reliance readiness.

While specific decisions on these issues have yet to be taken or made public, it is clear that significant expenditure will be required to achieve the envisioned “credible deterrence”. Even if future governments increase the defense budget in the years to come, it is an obvious inference that considerable sums will still have to be deferred. Attack-class submarines, Hunter-class frigates, and F-35 jets have already locked in capital and sustainment spending beyond the lifespan of the Force Structure Plan 2020. By For example, the plan provides for $ 9.5 to $ 14.2 billion for the army’s heavy armor capabilities through 2040, which excludes the $ 18.1 to $ 27.1 billion forecast for a fleet of 40 ton infantry fighting vehicles in Land 400 Phase 3.

Second, the ADF force structure lacks consistency for our strategic geography and the behavioral tendencies of our potential adversaries. This is because, as a nation, we haven’t had to make any tough security choices since World War II. It is true that the ADF has several highly sophisticated capabilities of which the nation can be proud, primarily through our alliance with the United States.

But the reality is, we’ve ended up with a boutique strength structure where there’s a pinch of everything to make every department feel a bit special. This ensures that we do not have sufficient mass in anything and that we are underinvested in combat tools, logistics and materiel stocks. The prejudices and traditions of service are perpetuated without rigorous contestability.

An aggravating factor has been our sustained operations in Afghanistan and Iraq against non-existential threats, which have distorted our mindset for the past 20 years. We now too often emulate our American military friends rather than developing capabilities, operational concepts and partnership relationships specific to our own geography and sovereign objective.

And, finally, it was time. The government has abandoned the assumption that Australia will have a 10-year strategic warning period in the event of a major conventional attack, noting clearly:

Growing regional military capabilities and the speed at which they can be deployed mean that Australia can no longer count on a timely warning before conflict breaks out. The reduced warning times mean that defense plans can no longer assume that Australia will have time to gradually adjust its military capabilities and preparedness in response to emerging challenges.

It is a clear inference that the government wants the design of ADF forces to be more agile in relation to real world imperatives. Thus, the defense enterprise can no longer indulge in complacent bureaucratic processes that have nothing to do with the strategic conditions we face. Some major critical vulnerabilities need to be addressed in the short term (within five years), and quickly, rather than waiting for perfection in the long term (10 to 20 years).

This means putting in place proven military systems now to offer credible options to decision makers and guard against surprises. If we are reluctant to buy directly, we should consider extended leases or try some options as hedging.

The clarity of the 2020 Defense Strategy Update allows for simple and clear test criteria to be applied to future force structure options. Military planners would understand that these are “essential tasks” in a staff officer’s lexicon. Service and joint planners should be able, in plain language, to convincingly explain how their desired capabilities answer the following questions:

1. Is the capacity adequate for the needs of our immediate region – the northeastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific -Where is ?

and

2. Does this enhance the ADF’s lethality for the types of high intensity operations that are most likely and the highest priority for Australia’s security or does it enhance the autonomy of the ADF? ADF to produce dissuasive effects?

Where

3. Does it broaden the ways and means of the ADF for activities in gray areas?

Given those criteria, then, what about the military’s acquisition of $ 2.5 billion in new engineering tanks and armored vehicles?

Building on extensive US Army experience with earlier variants, the M1A2 SEPv3 will undoubtedly provide the Australian Army with a mature and very powerful weapon system that is well suited to landmass maneuver. But in Australia’s surrounding coastal and archipelagic environment, how a 73-ton vehicle optimized for close combat will pose dilemmas, produce asymmetries, and compensate for other ADF limitations within range is much less obvious. .

Given how much medium and long range ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles are deployed in our region, head for the beach with heavy armor no longer seems careful. What is even more puzzling is why heavy armor is a priority in the short term rather than filling the major gaps in medium and long range area air defense, long range sea and land strikes and electronic warfare. offensive.

The army ‘accelerated warThe concept identifies warfare at distances of several hundred and thousand kilometers as a new standard. The current ADF, especially the military, is very vulnerable and has limited options for the application of force from a distance. The prioritization solution probably seems logical within Canberra’s committee layers, but not for a strategist or an advanced commander.

The orders of government are clear. Whatever their opinion and whatever their rank, participants in the Australian defense discourse must first consider strategy and not fall back on the comfort of tactics. If the ADF takes the easy route and perpetuates an inherited force structure, it will not be able to change at the pace demanded by the government and, ultimately, risk the failure of the nation it is charged with defending.


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