|Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor | August 14, 2008 The Australian
BIZARRE in every way though the Georgian request for Australian military support against the Russians was, it speaks well of our military reputation.
Yet it may be that we are sustaining that reputation somewhat fraudulently. I certainly do not mean any disrespect to our magnificent men and women in uniform. But consider this: in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US-led coalition would have liked us to take overall responsibility for a province, the sort of thing we did in Vietnam.
In both cases we declined because our forces are no longer capable of that kind of operation. This is a disturbing situation.
Recently retired major general Jim Molan has written one of the most important books published about Australia's defence, called Running the War in Iraq. It details his experience in 2004 as chief of operations in the US-led coalition in Iraq. It is extremely rare for an Australian general to write a memoir concerning operational matters in depth. However, the Iraq part is not the most important in Molan's book. Instead, it is the critique he mounts of defence policy during the past 40years.
My colleague Paul Kelly has written about Molan's book in these pages. But Molan's book is very rich and should be required reading for the defence planners writing the white paper.
Molan has extended his critique in a series of recent speeches.
Let's start with some troubling facts. During the Iraq war of 2003, our F-18s had to be upgraded to go to Iraq at all, but at no stage could they be deployed in the most dangerous area around Baghdad because they did not have the electronic warfare self-protection kit.
The F-111s were not able to be deployed to Iraq at all in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 or in 2003.
Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said yesterday, in response to the delays experienced in evacuating wounded Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, that Australia could not deploy its Black Hawk helicopters into Afghanistan because they too lacked the ability to deal with modern threats. And remember, this is not all-out conventional war but a stabilisation operation against non-state irregulars.
Recently I was told, not by Molan, that key technical positions in our submarines are manned by Americans because we cannot produce the people and the Americans want to keep our capability alive. We debate whether to buy 100 Joint Strike Fighters, but we've never been able to produce more than 60 combat pilots at any one time.
There is a disturbing hollowness to much of our force. This reflects badly on all governments since the Vietnam War, but particularly the Hawke and Keating governments, which left our defence forces bedraggled and grossly under-equipped, underfunded and undermanned, while proclaiming, wholly fatuously, that they had produced the defence of Australia. Only with the wake-up call of East Timor in 1999, a small, non-combat deployment for which we were profoundly unprepared, did we begin the long journey of repair.
Molan points out that the Dutch, British and Canadians use their ordinary infantry battalions in Afghanistan to do the same jobs for which we use only our special forces.
In recent years this column has been hugely supportive of the Australian Defence Force for their courage and their quality.
Australians have done outstanding work in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the only Australians who have experienced sustained combat in those theatres have been our special forces (Special Air Service and commandos), which are, in absolute terms, highly effective but tiny. They are one part of our defence force that works. So do the patrol boats. But so many other of our notional capabilities do not work, are insufficiently used in training or are just way below international standards.
In a speech a week ago, Molan enlarged on these themes: "If we think that what characterises the Australian defence experience over the last 100 years is the spirit of the Anzacs, we are wrong. What characterises Australia's defence experience is national unpreparedness overcome by the spirit of the Anzacs.
"Our military competence was far worse than even we thought before East Timor, and people may not realise that the military performance bar has been raised by the nature of current conflict, as illustrated in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There is a dangerous tendency to overstate our current capability and our current deployments, and to hide our deficiencies.
"Anyone who thinks that the policy embodied in previous white papers produced an ability to defend ourselves with our own resources should remember a few things. Years after that great self-reliant policy, we could not offer to government forces that could fight in 1991 in the Gulf War. We could probably have guarded the prisoners with army units, but not much else. We needed outside help for an operation that deployed one-tenth of our manpower to