|I wonder if the new white paper will be any better than previous efforts or whether we will see more of the same.
Cameron Stewart | March 31, 2009
Article from: The Australian
IF there were a moment when the fragile relationship between Joel Fitzgibbon and the defence establishment finally snapped, it might have been the surprise attack the minister launched on his own flock in Brisbane last October.
On that day Fitzgibbon did what previous defence ministers have rarely done: he gave his own defence force a blunt public spray about its big-picture priorities and its lack of preparedness for battle. Fitzgibbon was angry about not having the option of deploying the army's Black Hawk helicopters into Afghanistan. The minister had been taking political heat over an inadequate number of NATO medical evacuation choppers available for Australian troops at their base in Tarin Kowt, in Oruzgan province.
"If we do see a strategic and tactical justification for sending Black Hawks to Afghanistan tomorrow, we would be unable to do so as they lack the electronic warfare self-protection they require," Fitzgibbon lamented. "We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about important capability as we look far out into the future, but we seem to spend much less time talking about the capability we need to do the things we do right now and on a regular basis."
The minister's comments broke the rules of keeping such criticism in-house. Defence likes to see its ministers keep a stiff upper lip in public, confining any criticism to private meetings. Fitzgibbon put his department offside on that day, but he also made a telling point. Few Australians are fully aware that tens of billions of dollars' worth of front-line weaponry from the navy, air force and army cannot be sent to war today unless it is a low-level, low-risk operation.
As the Government puts the finishing touches to the new defence white paper, it is gearing up for a public relations blitz about the futuristic, sleek and powerful Australian Defence Force of tomorrow.
What the Defence Department won't tell you is that, as things stand, most of Australia's warplanes and ships cannot be sent to any conflict involving an opponent with a half-decent air defence system and modern anti-ship missiles.
Across the entire ADF, an alarming amount of expensive military equipment is not in a suitable upgraded condition to be sent to war. This is the legacy of project mismanagement and a Defence Department mindset that focuses more heavily on the defence force of tomorrow than on the force of today.
"It really is amazing how little (equipment) can be actually deployed overseas when we have a defence budget of more than $22billion," says Andrew Davies, an analyst withthe country's premier independent military think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Former senior defence official Allan Behm agrees: "I think the public would be absolutely astonished and gobsmacked to think we spend so much on defence every year and yet we can't send much (of) it into harm's way because it won't work or will not survive in acontest."
As the Government considers its military options for an increased role in Afghanistan, the frustration of the Rudd Government at the depleted state of the ADF is growing.
An investigation by The Australian reveals just how ill-prepared the ADF is for an immediate crisis. It finds much of the defence force's most powerful weaponry is awaiting future upgrades or promised replacements and is useful only for training purposes or deployment on operations where there is little or no risk of high-level conflict.
This problem needs to be seen in context. No defence force keeps its entire inventory on war footing; such a practice would be prohibitively expensive and pointless when no enemy is apparent.
All Western defence forces, including the ADF, are in a constant state of transition with armoury being upgraded and replaced as it becomes obsolete. But this long-term upgrading process must be balanced against existing requirements and future short-term contingencies. Experts say this balance has been lost.
"The problem with readiness planning has arisen because of peacekeeping and other short-notice commitments (that) have seen us having to deploy assets quickly and put them in harm's way," says Daniel Cotterill, a defence analyst with Hill and Knowlton and until recently Fitzgibbon's chief of staff.
"There is a bias within defence towards investing in the future force rather than giving government the fully functioning options they really need today." For example, if Australia were asked to provide warplanes for an immediate operation against a country with a functioning air defence system, it could not do so.
The F-111 strike bomber, which will be retired next year, can't be deployed to a hot war zone because it has insufficient electronic warfare self-protection and is too easily detected by ene