'Too few boots on ground'
May 04, 2009
AUSTRALIA will struggle to lead military operations in the South Pacific, according to analysts who argue the defence white paper has overlooked the crucial role of the army in stabilisation and peacekeeping missions.
Defence experts claim the white paper, which asserts an Australian "leadership role within the South Pacific", underrates the value of "boots on the ground" and focuses too heavily on the navy and airforce.
The head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, Hugh White, said the white paper showed indications of "sloppy drafting".
"The document does not show they have carefully examined whether the land forces we now have can achieve the strategic objectives they've set out," Professor White told The Australian yesterday.
"I think they've switched their attention so strongly to the maritime stuff that they've overlooked the adequacy of the land forces.
"What happens if Fiji goes pear-shaped? What happens if there is widespread violence in the PNG highlands? What happens if East Timor goes pear-shaped? Eight battalions doesn't cut it."
Alan Dupont, director of the Centre for International Security Studies at Sydney University, said most potential operations in the South Pacific would be "manpower-intensive".
"Your submarines are not that much use in those situations, where we need to take a leadership role," Professor Dupont said.
"There'll be all these messy type situations, everything from humanitarian intervention to peacekeeping."
Professor Dupont said there was a "very strong case" for the development of another infantry battalion.
"If you cut back on those numbers in the surface fleet, it frees up a lot of capital for things we use all the time, which is essentially ground-based forces," he said.
"I don't have a problem with acquiring a Collins-class submarine follow-on. But I do have a question mark over whether we need 12." Professor Dupont said there was a fundamental imbalance in defence spending.
"I think there should be some reweighting of the defence budget in the future," he said. "There is no substitute for boots on the ground.
"If you go back, since the early 1990s, in virtually every one of the operations which we have been involved in, it is essentially the ground forces that are doing most of the work. And yet they're getting the least amount of money."
But the former chief of operations of the multinational force in Iraq, retired Australian army general Jim Molan, offered a counter view.
"I would love army to have more resources," he said. "But I'd say that army should not be too disappointed. It was navy and airforce that needed the increase."
General Molan said it was the "overall incoherence" of the white paper that stakeholders should be concerned with.
"The paper promises everything to everyone," he said. "There is no connection between the strategic guidance and any of the numbers. Absolutely none."
The executive director of the Australia Defence Association, Neil James, said the white paper was "good overall" but lacked clarity on the replacement of the ageing armoured personnel carrier fleet.
He flagged the urgent need to replace them with infantry fighting vehicles, which he described as essential to modern armies.
He also said there was no explicit reference to a heavy armoured capability, essential for land forces in conventional warfare scenarios.
"There's one word missing from the paper that you never see: that's 'tank'," Mr James said. "And tanks save lives."