Dangerous Luxuries: How the Quest for High-End Capabilities Leaves the Australia Defence Force Vulnerable to Mission Failure and More Dependent on the United States

Reflecting on the U.S.-Australian Alliance:

If you were to walk the long, maze like corridors of the Pentagon you would eventually come across the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) Corridor.  The displays in this hall commemorate over 100 years of U.S.-Australian military history, from the sailing of the Great White Fleet into Sydney Harbour in August 1908 to the first major engagement of American Doughboys fighting side-by-side with Australian Diggers against the German ground offensive at the battle of Le Hamel, France on 4 July 1918 under the command of Australian General John Monash.  Since this modest alliance in World War I, Australia has joined the United States in every major conflict that we have fought – World War II, Korean War, Vietnam Conflict, Cold War, Persian Gulf War, Iraq War, Afghanistan War and the Global War on Terrorism: always there, always at each other’s side, always able to count on one another, always capable.

About halfway down the A-Ring of the ANZUS corridor, the display cases trail off after the “Contemporary Operations” showcase into a series of random photographs and sketches, symbolically implying “more to come.”  But the ANZUS Corridor, half filled, leaves one to ponder “what’s next?”  Where do we go from here?  How do the United States and Australia take our defence relationship to the next level?  The future – marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – presses the United States to seek strong partners and to not take for granted our closest allies who have been there through the most trying of times.

The Australians are a great military ally and democratic partner to the United States, across all domains of national power.  This loyalty and shared sense of strategy has earned them serious standing and influence within the Pentagon.  The American military benefits from their frank and direct dialogue.  Australians, as well as the British, are on the inside of the U.S. defense thinking and planning.  They provide invaluable perspectives, constructively challenging U.S. assumptions and improving our defence approaches towards mutual interests.

It is in this spirit – mutually supportive dialogue – that this article examines the Australian 2009 Defence White Paper (Defence 2009)[1] and addresses where we should go from here to take the alliance to the next level.  Deeply concerned about the rise of China and the emergence of India, Defence 2009 seeks to move the Australian Defence Force (ADF) 2030 from today’s counter-insurgency operations to the higher end of the military spectrum of conflict.  Based on the threat perceptions demonstrated in Defence 2009 and its defence policy guidance, the Australian defence policymakers have overemphasized the development of new capabilities designed for conventional high-intensity warfare – as a hedging strategy in case of a conventional military threat to the Australian homeland or major-power war in Asia – and gave too little attention to the mid-level irregular threats, such as non-conventional conflicts or stabilization or emergency operations around the world.  This acute hedging strategy skews Australia’s defence priorities, resulting in capabilities less suited to deal with the more likely low- to mid-level operations the ADF will face in the 2030 timeframe.  The subsequent loss or erosion of Australia’s military capabilities will add additional burden to U.S. defence planning, increasing costs and limiting operational options to preserve Asia-Pacific regional stability and security.

The argument of this paper focuses on how the capabilities acquisitions outlined in the Defence 2009 – even if they can be realized as planned – would misallocate Australia’s limited resources and raise the risk of mission failure.  Defence 2009 makes other choices – some of them implicit – that carry implications for regional security cooperation and for U.S. defence planning; but issues beyond the major capability acquisitions lie outside the scope of this paper.[2]  This article also recommends a range of actions that the Australian and U.S. Defense Departments could take in order to ensure an interoperable and capable ADF.

[1] Department of Defence, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: 2030, Australian Government (2009), updated every five years, is the Australian government’s equivalent to the U.S. Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR).   Hereafter, it is referred to as the Australian 2009 Defence White Paper (Defence 2009).

[2] For extended discussions on cooperative security, U.S.-Australian alliance, and capabilities acquisitions see monograph by John E. Angevine, “Mind the Capabilities Gap: How the Quest for High-End Capabilities Leave the Australian Defence Force Vulnerable to Mission Failure,” The Brookings Institution (2011).