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Tough times ahead for Australia's Defence Force

By Gary Brown - posted Thursday, 27 March 2008

In the movie Titanic there is a scene where the lookout sees the fatal iceberg and calls a warning to the bridge. An urgent order to change course is given, but the massive liner responds too slowly to the helm, with the inevitable result.

National security policy, the official organisations which conduct it and indeed nations themselves are in some ways like ocean liners, though they do not automatically have to share Titanic’s fate. Indeed, though swift and decisive action can be called for, a due measure of careful deliberation rarely goes amiss.

What is more, the global security environment itself does not often change at breakneck pace - though it can do so, as during the collapse of communism and the former Soviet Union. Regional security environments, of course, can be somewhat more volatile.


There has already been a significant shift in Australia’s strategic circumstances: the challenges we face now are not those of 20 years ago. We face a terrorist threat, but the chances of our being attacked one-on-one by some hypothetical aggressor nation have never been lower. The only shooting wars in which we have been involved have been those we ourselves chose. Instead, we have had to deploy in disaster relief (on a large scale to Indonesia after the tsunami) or peace support and stabilisation missions as in East Timor and the Solomons.

But behind the clear terrorist menace lurks another challenge, one which will change the natural environment, and thereby our future security context. Global warming, not terrorism, has already been identified by Mick Keelty of the Australian Federal Police as the most serious long-term threat we are likely to face.

We can barely begin to assess the security implications of climate change. It will affect us directly, of course, notably in agriculture, but it will also affect our region. Any significant rise in sea level could have serious consequences for tens if not hundreds of millions of people. We cannot say how Asia’s traditional rice-growing areas are likely to fare as rainfall patterns change. In all probability significant effects will be patchy around the world - desertification here, a new coastline there, new wetlands somewhere else. Some adaptations will be possible - for instance, warming does imply longer growing seasons for some places - but these will be long-term.

We can at least be assured that whatever changes these new circumstances produce, they will not mostly occur over two or three years, as did the end of the Cold War. More likely, we are talking decades for the full impact to be felt.

In this context a lot of the standard national security vocabulary begins to look somewhat old-fashioned. And something else that looks rather old-fashioned in parts is the Australian Defence Force.

I don’t mean that we have lots of ageing or obsolete equipment - we have some, but any military always does. We also have problems in major defence acquisition projects, but I’ll say more on that below. It’s the thinking behind the design and the potential uses of our forces, not the equipment itself that is becoming obsolete due to changing circumstances and challenges.


What are the unavoidable challenges we are likely to face?

With Commissioner Keelty, I believe climate change and its consequences are going to become very important factors in our security environment, though the precise nature of the challenges it will present cannot yet reliably be forecast.

Their severity still (it is fervently to be hoped) depends on how well we - the human race that is - do at restraining ourselves. What should be done, for instance, about recalcitrant emitters who refuse to mend their ways, retaining dirty technology and adversely affecting the whole world? If things turn out poorly as climate change bites, this question is likely to be asked, in ever more stringent language, by important and powerful people.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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