New Government: Pressing the ADF Reset Button?

In September 2013 a new Government led by Tony Abbott was elected in Australia and a new Defence Minister, Senator David Johnston appointed. The election focussed on economic matters with little substantive debate about defence issues and consequently there were few major new defence proposals and commitments.

Even so, there are some problems emerging in Australian defence matters that will require near-term Government attention, perhaps earlier than the new government would prefer. Moreover, in Australia, the electoral system favours governments lasting on average three terms and so the new government is expected to be running Defence for the next nine years, from 2013 to 2022. Resolving the near-term challenges will have long-term impacts right across this period and beyond.

The first decision for any new government is where to concentrate: on current military operations or on building the future defence force? This judgment is not completely the government’s own. Adversaries and allies also get a vote.
The on-going Afghanistan War remains an uncertain business. While the major ADF elements are being withdrawn in 2014 the size of the force that will remain deployed is unsure. The main focus in the next few years will remain training and advising the Afghan Army and local security forces although a sizeable US-led force may remain in-country for counter-terrorism tasks and the ADF could well be involved. Across the wider Middle East, there is also considerable instability with the Syrian civil war showing no signs of ending.

New Defence Minster Johnston is particularly concerned about the highly volatile area from Pakistan to Lebanon and including Iran and Syria. He has nominated this as “ the area that we might need to go back into at some point in the future” with “a contribution from Australia…most likely to be in that part of the world.” The recent terrorist attack in Kenya, warnings of more and the US Special Operations Force raids in Somalia also indicate that violent extremists remain a threat outside of the Middle East area. The demands of counter-terrorism and of Australia’s American ally may see the new Government also contemplating committing small forces and training missions into the East Africa region as well as the Middle East.

In thinking about future contingencies, the new Government can be expected to draw on the lessons and experiences of the earlier Howard Government in office until 2007. The Howard Government in deploying forces to operational areas preferred using the ADF’s Special Forces rather than regular Army units as the recent Labour government did. The Howard Government during its term in office also continued with the practise of deploying Adelaide and ANZAC class guided missile frigates for Persian Gulf patrol operations.

In any future operations into the Middle East or East Africa regions to address new threats or manage new crises, the new Government can be expected to follow the Howard Government’s example and favour Special Forces and patrol frigates. These land and naval units are likely to attract the funding, manning and logistic support necessary to keep them at a high state of operational readiness. New projects to acquire new Special Forces equipment or keep the upgraded ANZAC ships combat ready are expected to receive priority. Other ADF units and force elements may not be so fortunate in being inappropriate for the kind of operations likely, too expensive or not at a high enough readiness level to participate. The extension of this is that these other less useful existing force elements may have their funding reduced to free up money for spending in other areas the new Government now deems of higher priority.

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