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Aussies Battle Over Army's Soul; Huge Spending Decisions at Stake

The battle is on for the military soul of what is arguably America's closest ally, Australia.

The center of the fight is the role of the Aussie army, most famous for its elite SAS soldiers who have played such an important role in both Iraq and Afghanistan. While I was in Canberra just before Christmas, I heard that the troubled White Paper the government is trying to turn out will hinge on what role the Army is to have. And much of that will be driven by the debate over just what strategy Australia's military should embrace.

Work on the White Paper -- forecasting the country's military needs for the next 20 years -- began in February this year and has not progressed well, according to several Australian sources. Apparently there are several factors in play. Those leading the study cannot agree on the country's strategic fundamentals. The services cannot agree on the fundamental roles they will play. The Air Force and Navy both want to be strategic forces, able to project power around much of the Pacific, raising basic questions about affordability and the division of spoils among the services. And there is a new Australian government in place, led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Joel Fitzgibbon is the new Labor Minister for Defense. On top of all this, of course, the global financial crisis will play its own role in helping determine how Australia changes how it spends its roughly $22 billion Australian annual budget for defense. The Australian budget gets done in May.

At stake in the White Paper are some fundamental capability choices. Should Australia buy 100 Joint Strike Fighters? I think this is a given, considering how well they suit Australia's strategic needs and the extremely close relationships it would foster between the air forces and navies of Australia and the US. Should the country replace its six Collins Class subs that caused so much financial and political heartache? And how should the Navy modernize its surface fleet. But these choices will all, in the end, revolve around the role and design of the Aussie army, the heart of the country's military.

In addition to the White Paper, the military is engaged in a force structure review to figure out just what size forces and types of capabilities the country needs, in addition to a number of studies on issues such as information and communications technology, industrial base, science and technology and logistics systems.

The traditional view of the Australian army -- by far the largest service here with roughly 27,000 members -- is that the country's relatively uninhabited north is the fulcrum for the country's defense. Any likely enemy force is likely to pour down on Darwin or Broome to the west or even via Cape York on the country's eastern tip.

It's certainly not a new discussion, as one of my sources noted. I first heard about the "northern strategy" when I interviewed the Chief of the Defense Force, Army Gen. John Baker, back in 1997. The debate surfaced again in earnest when Australia drafted its last major defense White Paper in 2000. An Australian Army major, Sean Ryan, produced a concise discussion of the issue in this paper produced while at the US Army Command and General Staff College when that debate was being hammered away at over middies of Coopers and Victoria Bitter in Canberra's pubs.

"The northern approaches from Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific represent the most likely and dangerous approaches to Australia. Should an adversary cross these approaches it will encounter the harsh northern regions of Australia, regions that are limited in infrastructure and populations. The harshness of this region also acts as a double edged sword for military operations. The lack of infrastructure and support bases limits the ability of the ADF [Australian Defense Force] to repel an adversary quickly. It is because of this factor that the army must look carefully at what capabilities it will require. The geography will naturally force the army to look for a mobile force that can move quickly to counter the adversary."

An Australian source pointed out that the larger military debate here about the size and capability of the force has three main streams. First, should Australia build a power projection force? That option can almost certainly be cast aside, though it is the favored view of the Air Force and Navy here. This requires a fleet of airborne tankers, a sizeable Navy and an enormous logistics capability. But Australia just can't afford this, either in dollars or in manpower. Second, should Australia pour its resources into the snake eater community, also known as the SAS? Some in the Australian government would pursue this, pointing to the superb performance of the SAS in the varied terrains and missions of Afghanistan and Iraq. But special forces are, well, special. Australia has a shallow manpower pool which makes it difficult to find numbers of the smart, tough and flexible personalities required to build SAS teams. And special forces are fabulously expensive. They use ammunition with abandon when they pursue the incredibly rigorous live ammunition exercises they engage in. And they are provided with the best and latest communications gear, aviation and ground support and intelligence. All that gets very pricey. And the Australian regular forces are just as skeptical of their snake eaters as are the US services.

So that leaves the focus on the Aussie army, a highly capable force but one that is still uncertain of its larger role. Australia owns heavy battle tanks but will never be considered a major armored force in the world since it fields only one armored battalion. Australia deploys superb light infantry and this is the core of the force. There are three light infantry battalions. And there are the special forces troops, as well as helo pilots and recon troops. But the country does not field a true land division, an organic force that can deploy and fight as one, carrying all its essential parts and capabilities into battle.

The Rudd government committed in May to spending $650 million Australian for the "Enhanced Land Force," which will mean a second mechanized battalion and the conversion of a parachute battalion for the third light infantry battalion.

What did our Aussie major recommend? Ryan said they should build "a full regular division with supporting troops and a more flexible army reserve force, develop a larger training force that can handle internal and external tasks, and maintenance of the existing sustaining force."

But Australia has not fielded such a force really since World War II and my sources say it is extremely unlikely to ever do so. The key to all this palaver may be for Australia to figure out just how it will play in international coalitions, where it can really leverage its special skills and capabilities and maintain the focus on the good old "northern strategy." After all, if world war breaks out Australia could then defend its territory and maintain its diplomatic and strategic role by contributing to whatever alliance power provided this enormous island continent with essential air and sea protection.

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