The Australian Defence Force is evolving from a misconceived and unbalanced continental defence force into one configured for manoeuvre warfare - highly mobile, joint force operations across a spectrum of conflict in a global security environment.
Between now and 2020, the ADF’s major platforms will be overhauled substantially, its weapons systems upgraded and its deployable combat capabilities restructured. These changes entail, and will be driven by, a profound mutation in its doctrine and training.
The changes are already underway, but will require between five and fifteen years to take effect fully.
This shift has occasioned a desultory public debate but is rooted in a decade of serious thinking - led, by common consent, by the Army - inside the defence establishment.
There are good reasons for this. The Army bore the brunt of Australian military deployments for many years during which it was also poorly funded and cut to the bone in terms of core capabilities. This was due to both the strategic priorities of the old “Defence of Australia” doctrine and the federal Labor government’s budgetary priorities under Hawke and Keating.
The professionals in the armed services, and especially the Army, were aware of this anomaly and the emerging challenges in the security environment. Operating within serious constraints, they set to thinking through how they would meet the current and arising challenges.
From its first months in office, the Howard Government saw a need for major reforms in the defence portfolio but has found them to be far more difficult than might have been expected. Defence establishments in general are hard to reform because of their complexity, conservatism and ponderous institutional structures.
Three problems have needed to be addressed for some time. The first is the dysfunctional bureaucratic structures that have impeded strategic planning, vitiated relations between the civilians and the military within the defence organisation, and diffused accountability in the acquisition process.
The second is the chronic budgetary problem, exacerbated by defence organisation inefficiencies but rooted in the federal government’s chronic under-funding of the portfolio over many years. And the third is confusion over procurement priorities, compounded by the two foregoing sets of problems but rooted in a strategic paradigm which badly needed overhauling.
The good news is that all these problems are being addressed, at least in part, and progress is occurring incrementally on all fronts. Indeed, it might not be too optimistic to state that in strategic terms the “enemy” has been out-manoeuvred and his defensive lines breached. Now is the time to press home our advantage.
In pressing that advantage, however, reformers must be cognisant of three constants in the defence reform equation, which will always set limits to the pace and extent of change: the political election cycle, the budgetary balance and the procurement cycle.
Governments tend to be averse to major reforms - especially in an election year - unless they feel secure about a range of other issues which have only an indirect relation to the substantive matters that need reforming. A change of government may accelerate incipient reforms, but equally may deflect, or occasionally even abort them.
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