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Defence policy: in what direction after Afghanistan?

By Andrew Farran - posted Thursday, 26 April 2012

With the announcement of an earlier withdrawal from Afghanistan, what direction should defence policy now take given the wide belief that the 2009 White Paper and its concept of a 2030 Defence Force is already out of date. 

Anyone who has witnessed the several cycles or oscillations of defence planning and expenditures since the 1970s could be forgiven a sense of déjà vu. Then the dialectic revolved around a Continental Defence structure on the one hand, with a ‘core’ force that could be expanded if required; and a ‘Forward Defence’ (expeditionary) capability on the other in support of allied (US) commitments. Decisions taken at the time reflected neither and have resulted in a force structure costing billions with limited relevant capability. The world has moved on where the revolution in military technology, especially in the areas of surveillance and precision-guided weaponry, has made previous thinking largely moribund. 

Looking back over the past several decades, Australian forces have been deployed in support of alliance commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan in conjunction with other forces and did not involve a whole of force approach. The actions in which they were engaged in situations directly bearing on Australian interests were East Timor and The Solomans. In neither case were we able to deploy wholly from our own resources and were dependent on benign support from the U.S., particularly with surveillance and logistics.


So in future what should we envisage as essential for a viable Australian force in a realistic geo-political outlook.

Given that invasion is an unlikely contingency, and given the revolution in military technologies already referred to, we need to refocus and adopt a force structure that takes advantage of area denial strategies because of the relative vulnerability of attack-mode platforms. 

The potentially 'big bad wolf' in the region is of course China. The issue here is how far China might go in enforcing its resources claims in the South China Sea or, if provoked, by further claims from Taiwan for independence. The former would concern most Southeast and East Asian states, the U.S. and Australia: the latter, the U.S. essentially alone. The question for Australia would be how far to go in supporting those affected parties and with what resources? Any strategic ‘commitment’ to a U.S. response should surely differentiate between the respective situations and require on our part a clear choice based on the perceived ‘national interest’ – not just another ‘insurance’ premium or token deployment.

Conflict between the U.S. and China would have negative consequences for both. As ‘rival’ powers they have an extraordinary degree of inter-dependence, which is likely to be on going. What might disturb that is a political breakdown internally in China when a foreign distraction (i.e. conflict) might suit a struggling regime. The international community should encourage China to stay on track and conform to the norms of global governance. Current trends in multilateral diplomacy and international law would reinforce this endeavor.

Closer to home there is the potentially (actually) unstable arc of Melanesian and Polynesian states around our northern periphery, which may call upon interventionist forces to restore order and maintain a peace (when there is a peace to keep) – or on humanitarian grounds. Specifically there may be problems with PNG but these would more likely be in the nature of police rather than military actions (e.g. Solomon Islands). Our best expenditure has been on SAS-type forces. We may need more of these along with their requisite materiel support (helicopters, amphibious craft, etc.)where versatility and rapid response is imperative.

Surely we will not again indulge in out of area Iraq/Afghan type operations – unless it is a peacekeeping exercise unequivocally sanctioned by the U.N. or in support of ‘civil society’. The capabilities we have developed in East Timor and Afghanistan (the one positive from the latter) could prove useful, militarily and politically, and be very much in our interests to strengthen. Safeguarding our maritime approaches will remain a primary task for which we are presently poorly equipped.


At a routine level, high-sea state fast patrol craft are a necessity. Then, to monitor, deter and resist less benign intrusions, there is a role for light frigates and submarines (also for intelligence operations). Currently we lack the necessary equipment and skilled manpower for reliable submarine deployments but a new generation to follow the troublesome, near obsolete Collins-class vessels might rectify this deficiency in time. A role for guided-missile carrying catamarans (as being developed by China) would be interesting.

Air surveillance and deterrence is another formidable issue, because of its expense, our dependence on the overseas supply of aircraft, and the uncertainty of their availability. Will the F35 Joint Strike Fighter ever be available, and at what cost and for what purpose? This question is not being honestly addressed.

There was no reason why similar requirements, and issues, could not have been foreseen back in the 1970s. The broad geo-political trend has long been apparent. All this time Australia's physical security has not been endangered. Yet we have spent billions of dollars on capabilities that either have not been required or would not have been operational had they been. Meanwhile we have lost many good soldiers, killed or maimed, in conflicts that have lacked credibility and acceptability to the Australian public – or can be justified in terms of protecting the national interest.

In short we should leave out-of-area conflicts of others to them: be clever and focused in our diplomacy; clear headed about our national interests; and develop a force structure that is relevant to those interests with more attention than previously to cost efficiencies and effectiveness (administrative and military).

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About the Author

Andrew Farran, is a former diplomat (Australian) and academic (Monash University Law School). Diplomatic postings included Pakistan (incl 2 visits to Afghanistan), Indonesia, and the UN General Assembly. He was an adviser to the Australian Government during the GATT/WTO Uruguay Round and a former vice-president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. He is also a publicist and company director (Australia and UK).

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