ADF needs to be able to venture far afield

Canberra Times, 15 December 2003

To fend off threats to the homeland our forces must be equipped so they can operate overseas, says Des Moore

Some commentators play down the terrorist challenge as not being an existential threat and so as not justifying the use of our armed forces, especially in distant lands.

Such people, wedded to old ways of thinking and to defending past stands, continue advocating the discredited concentric circles theory.

This says - wrongly and dangerously - that threat automatically diminishes with distance, that only threats of invasion matter, and that these are best left to be met on our beaches and in the nearby air-sea gap.

But the defence of Australia is far better pursued by operations further out in space and time, to prevent our security circumstances worsening to the point where invasion becomes an imminent possibility.

Moreover, invasion is not the only way in which Australia's territorial integrity and political independence can be violated; terrorist acts in Australia, inspired or enabled or directed from outside, are equally violations.

True, coping with the terrorist threat IN Australia is largely a matter for the police and ASIO; but the terrorist threat TO Australia can require armed action overseas against rogue or failed states, such as Afghanistan and Iraq were, which allow or encourage or arm or finance terrorist acts directed against us in Australia or overseas.

The stick-in-the-mud commentators criticise that on four grounds. Australia is putting close ties to America above our national interest, which is Asia. Asians believe fervently in the principle of non-interference, and so are put offside by Australia's readiness to place above that principle the right to self-defence against Islamist terrorism. So Australia should hasten to reposition itself alongside Asia, not America, and give up restructuring the ADF to make more effective our participation in future coalitions of the willing.

In any case, ADF rebalancing is pointless, as the world will see no more Iraq. For America is being given a bloody nose there, is in barely disguised retreat, and in no shape to repeat the exercise.

All four criticisms are misplaced.

We are not being led by the nose by America in adding our weight to international counter-terrorism efforts. Plainly our national interest is in reducing the terrorist threat, not in sitting irresponsibly by waiting for the threat to Australia to be made manifest in Australia - or to be removed by others for us.

Neither are we harming ourselves in Asia, nearly every country in which supported in word or deed the coalition against Iraq. Furthermore, Asia is not the only region of the world important to Australia; to believe otherwise is to succumb to the Tyranny of Proximity, which foolishly puts mileage above consequence.

Nor is the Australian Government misguided in modestly rebalancing the ADF's capability the better to fight alongside US forces in the far abroad when that is in Australia's interests. The Government needs to be able to choose from a variety of options, and not be constricted by a clanking machine designed for only one purpose - the close territorial defence of `Australia.

Finally, no more Iraq is much too premature a judgment. True, America is most unlikely to try to remove by force the regimes in Iran and North Korea. But that was so, each for its own reasons, even before the Iraq war.

And nobody can rule out a future need to deal by the use of force with an emergent situation. So the rebalancing of the ADF is far from unnecessary.

One frequent defence commentator (principal author of the 2000 Defence White Paper) claims that that rebalancing has gone the wrong way, in favour of fewer and bigger capabilities designed for higher-intensity conventional conflicts rather than lower-intensity unconventional operations.

But the true issue is the combat power available in conflict wherever occurring and for whatever reason, not whether the conflict is of low or high intensity.

For example, tanks are not an encumbrance to our light forces - the lightest in the First World - but a necessary addition to their combat and protective strength.

Likewise, the new but fewer patrol boats will have greater capabilities, able to operate 300 days a year instead of the current 200. And the new bigger troopships will provide greater capabilities wherever deployed.

In the air too, it is wrong to play down the capabilities of the cruise missile-armed F/A-18 compared to the F-111, and to decry, as this critic does, improved helicopter capability as useful only for landing troops against stiff opposition. In fact, helicopters are essential to any littoral operations wherever occurring - but heliborne movement would never be undertaken against stiff opposition.

One can only wonder when some self-concerned old stagers will catch up.