I read Leo Purdy’s response to my post about capability development and the utility of armour with interest. I agree with much of what he had to say and I’m happy to acknowledge that capability development isn’t pure maths—there’s no one rigorous answer. But there’s also enough to disagree with to put down the towel, put the gloves back on and go in for another round.
Firstly, Leo and I are going to have to agree to disagree about the level of sophistication of the capability development process within Defence. If ‘sophisticated’ is understood as a synonym for ‘elaborate’ then he has a point—at one stage the end-to-end capability process required committees to consider over 60 formal documents over at least a dozen different steps. It has been streamlined a bit since then but I suspect there’s still plenty of staff work to go around.
Nonetheless, it produces remarkably unimaginative solutions that for decade after decade have closely matched the preferences of the service chief sponsors, with everyone getting a go in turn. And sometimes it has produced results that are objectively wrong.
Before the First Principles Review, the Defence Capability Plan (the forerunner to today’s Integrated Investment Plan—the name has been changed to protect the guilty) was preposterously oversubscribed. Half a dozen ‘megaprojects’ alone accounted for the acquisition budget in perpetuity, leaving nothing for the remaining 100+ projects on the books. (Defence admitted as much later.) Hundreds of person-years of effort went into producing a plan that failed the grossest of error checks. Elaborate the process was, clever it wasn’t. I was involved directly or as a close observer for a quarter of a century and remain unconvinced that it’s a rigorous process that can transcend group-think.
And as for scenario planning exercises, I’ve seen a few of those up close too. I’ve previously described some of them as featuring a ‘Goldilocks war’—a scenario that is not too big, not too small, not too close, and not too far away. The answer comes out to be—you guessed it—an ADF that looks like the current one augmented with some new bits of kit.
A decade ago I looked at the ADF’s force structure and asked ‘what problem has as its solution 2,000 troops deployed on a foreign shore at the end of a long supply chain’? Then one day I walked into Defence to see a room abuzz with a beautifully hand-crafted scenario that had exactly that solution, with exactly the right amount of opposition to require some new plug-ins for the force structure but not so much that we’d conclude that the costs outweighed the benefits.
Leo is on much firmer ground when talking about the utility of various capabilities in plausible scenarios (though he’s a little unfair in suggesting that my binary choice illustrative example was meant to cover the full spectrum of things Australia has to worry about). As he points out, strategic guidance covers a huge range of activities in a wide range of places. And almost any sort of equipment or capability we could think up for the ADF will be useful in some of them.
But my key point is that not all requirements are created equal and the bucket of money is not infinite. Of the many potential tasks that follow from strategic guidance, only a few are in the ‘must be able to do’ category of leading to national disaster if we fail. To be fair, I think Leo and I agree about that as well, though he possibly weighs the other tasks more highly than I do—which is fine, and exactly the argument that needs to happen.
Where we part company is on the relative utility of an Australian armoured contribution to a future existential crisis in the Pacific. Leo draws on the history of World War 2 to make a point about the utility of land forces in instances in which decisive results can’t be obtained in an air-sea environment. That’s a reasonable point that requires some serious analysis.
My view—though I’m open to persuasion—is that ‘that was then, this is now’. The US had an economy more than ten times the size of Japan’s and a production capacity that overwhelmed the ability of its enemy to replace losses in a brutal industrial-scale war. After Midway the outcome of land campaigns were rarely in doubt, despite some punishing losses at times, and the USN and US Army Air Force outmatched Japanese forces in both number and quality from 1943 onwards. Costs were high but bearable and the benefits were large, as the US settled into decades of air-sea hegemony in the Pacific. (As an aside, anyone interested in that WW2 history should read Ian Toll’s wonderful Pacific Trilogy.)
History doesn’t repeat, though sometimes it rhymes. But today a war between the major powers in the Pacific theatre looks far more like a peer-on-peer proposition—the more so as the years tick past. And the US regional story hasn’t been the same on land as in the maritime domain. Since 1945 the US has fought two major land wars on our side of Asia, for a 1950s draw against a PRC that was far less capable than today and a 1960s/70s humiliating loss in Vietnam. It’s hard to see Washington thinking the potential costs of a contemporary land war would be worth the risks that would be involved.
So we can argue about the likelihood of a major land component in a future major Pacific war, and Leo and I would likely assign different probabilities. But even that’s almost beside the point. We’re not arguing about American strategy and force structure. Instead, we’re worrying about where to invest Australia’s defence budget. We can’t take on a major power alone, at least not far from home. Our strategic goal would be to help the US prevail.
So the question becomes ‘what is the best way to be able to sway the outcome of a war between major powers with the size and scale of forces we can muster’?
Now compare the potential impact of a single armoured brigade with a long logistics tail back to Australia, which is the scale to which the Army is being planned, against the contribution that the ‘plug and play’ force multipliers I mentioned (KC-30A, Wedgetail and P-8) can make to a wider American effort. I think the answer is clear, though others might still disagree.
Let me finish by making a couple of other points. First, armour is by no means the only capability I think we’re in danger of over-investing in, and it’s far from the most expensive example. The cost of the future submarine—over $50 billion, though we apparently can’t be told exactly how much over—is an eye-watering amount to deliver a relatively small number of weapons from the two or three boats we will be able to keep on station from sometime after 2040. I think the capability calculus is well off on that one.
Likewise, though at the much less expensive end of the platform market at ‘just’ a few billion dollars, armed drones that require a permissive air environment to be effective seem almost designed for wars of choice rather than necessity.
Second, there are indeed strategic circumstances in which investing in a larger and heavier army makes sense. If we were worried about an invasion of Australian territory—i.e. the land war comes to us rather than us going to a land war—then the more robust our land forces were, the more troops and materiel the enemy would have to bring, exposing it to potentially much higher costs from both interdiction in transit and in battle after lodgement.
That threat doesn’t exist at the moment, and I hope we never need to worry about it again, but the whole point of strategic planning is to recognise that the calculus shifts constantly and sometimes rapidly. Our decision making needs to keep up.
Note: Andrew Davies is an ASPI Senior Fellow and former Director of the Defence and Strategy Program. He previously spent twelve years in the Department of Defence in capability analysis and intelligence.