Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Abbott's Casualties: A Coherent and Judicious Defence Strategy

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Abbott's Casualties: A Coherent and Judicious Defence Strategy

Article excerpt

Speak softly and carry a big stick

- Theodore Roosevelt

It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it

- General Douglas MacArthur


The aim of this paper is to examine the Abbott Government's defence policies, as far as they can be determined from publicly available sources, to determine whether, before he was replaced as Prime Minister by Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister Abbott was on a path to maintain the defence of the realm on the basis of a suitably diligent approach to strategy and capability development, and a suitably cautious approach to the use of military force.

Lead times in defence are long, as is the service life of major platforms - planning for the Collins Class submarines began in the 1970s, the winning design was announced in 1987, and the first of class was commissioned in 1996. It was cleared for operational service in 2000, and will be in service until the 2030s. F-111 aircraft were in service with the RAAF for almost forty years.

This means that every incoming government is the inheritor of a spectrum of defence capabilities, and of inescapable contractual commitments, that are the product of decisions taken by its predecessors. It in turn puts its mark on the capability spectrum, the force structure and the acquisition pipeline that it hands over to its successors.

Nevertheless, it is possible to gauge within a relatively short time, by the decisions it is making and the decisions it is failing to make, whether a government is adequately discharging its responsibilities to maintain and develop the capabilities of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Important components of any assessment include whether the government has a clear view of Australia's strategic environment and how it is likely to evolve, a coherent sense of what the ADF needs to be able to do, and effective management of the required capabilities. It is also possible to gauge whether it makes judicious use of armed force for combat operations - supposedly a last resort since the signing of the United Nations Charter in 1945 - because such decisions are made within the life of the government, based on the circumstances and using the capabilities of the day.

A Note About Sources

The researcher seeking to analyse contemporary defence and strategic policy faces severe limitations on access to authoritative sources. The relevant Cabinet documents will not emerge until 25 years have elapsed, and as they will undoubtedly carry a national security classification there is no guarantee they will be released even then - unlike the United States, Australia has no system of automatic downgrading of classifications. Similar considerations will apply to all classified documents bearing on strategy, force structure, capability or defence acquisitions. We may not have to wait so long for memoirs or diaries to appear, but it is likely to be years rather than months. The only authoritative sources we have are the official statements of government, which are important, and can on occasion be very informative, but must be treated with caution because they are intended to cast the government in the most favourable light, and not to be a reliable guide to history.

For additional information and deeper insights we must rely on the small but important community of scholars and writers outside government who have high level military or civilian experience in defence, and maintain their professional links, and the community of experienced and reputable journalists who talk to them regularly, as well as to Members of Parliament across the political spectrum. Only in the rarest of cases will these writers, whether academic or journalistic, identify their sources.

In analysing the commentary that emerges via these channels, therefore, the task of the researcher is more akin to the task of the intelligence analyst than the scholar. Hence, the researcher needs to bring experience and professional judgement to bear on whether the writer in question can be relied on to attempt to corroborate information, whether they are likely to have been in a position to talk to someone with first-hand knowledge, and whether the story itself is credible. …

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