By Andrew Smith
The Australian government recently announced that Air Marshal Mark Binskin, Vice Chief of the Australian Defence Force (VCDF), will be promoted to Air Chief Marshal (four-star) and take over from General David Hurley as Chief of Defence Force (CDF) when the latter retires in July 2014. It also announced that the current Chiefs of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison; and Air Force, Air Marshal Geoff Brown, would be extended in their appointments until mid-2015, breaking the practice of rotating the CDF and all service chiefs at the same time. Given the importance of the Australia-United States defense relationship and the implications for the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) future capabilities these changes are worthy of some analysis.
Binskin joined the Defence Force in 1978, serving initially as a Royal Australian Navy fighter pilot before transferring to the Air Force to become one of its first F/A18 pilots. He has served mainly in air combat roles, including exchange duty in the United States and a stint in 2004 as the first non-United States Air Force Director of its Combined Air and Space Operations Center in the Middle East, and has headed Australia’s Air Combat Group and Air Command. Since 2007 he has moved rapidly through senior positions including Chief of Air Force and, since 2011, as VCDF.
At fifty-four, Binskin will be one of the youngest officers to become CDF. Arguably he has less and narrower operational, joint and international experience than his recent predecessors and a lower public profile coming into the job. But he has had excellent preparation for the position since becoming VCDF in 2011 and, with his previous experience as Chief of Air Force and the perspective of having served in two services, is well qualified to guide the ADF through some coming challenges. These include resetting the Force after thirteen years of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but probably the biggest challenge for Defence’s senior leaders will be finalizing the 2015 Defence White Paper.
The White Paper will spell out Australia’s defense policy for the coming decade and the major capability and budgetary decisions involved, including the acquisition of new submarines and how it will pay for them and the fifty-eight additional Joint Strike Fighters it just ordered. This is a difficult task that must comprehensively weigh the opportunity cost of each investment in terms of the important capabilities that must be foregone as a result—something that previous White Papers have done poorly. Each JSF, for example, represents other capability that the ADF must go without, especially when it seems unlikely that Australia’s defense budget will return to two percent of GDP in under five years. This increases the risk of the ADF becoming unbalanced, depriving the government of valuable national security options and potentially limiting the scope for cooperation with the United States.
Both the JSF and submarines have plenty of influential supporters in Australia and reflect strategic orthodoxies dating from the “Defence of Australia” days of the 1980s and ‘90s. Those orthodoxies tend not to support significant land warfare capabilities, which points to the wisdom of keeping the experienced Lieutenant General Morrison as Chief of Army through the White Paper process to ensure that such capabilities are properly considered. And despite strong support in government and the commentariat, the size, composition and cost of a future submarine capability is still highly controversial. Given their enormous cost, submarines and the JSF pose a considerable risk to a balanced ADF and to the broad interoperability and infrastructure investments on which the United States is relying to optimize its growing defense cooperation with Australia.
Apart from the White Paper, all of Australia’s senior Defence leaders, military and civilian, will have critical roles to play helping Australia thread a path through a tricky security environment that includes a rising China, a re-balancing America, regional instability and a national need to invest urgently to diversify a vulnerable commodities-based economy. Ongoing demands on the ADF will include the residual presence in Afghanistan and the Gulf region, supporting maritime border security against illegal immigration, domestic and regional disaster relief efforts, and developing its new amphibious capability. Pulling this off demands a significant feat of statecraft, getting the critical decisions right. As CDF, Binskin will have his hands full ensuring that the complex issues surrounding those decisions are properly considered. Given the importance to the United States of a strong and balanced Australian defense capability, it should wish him the best of luck.
Dr. Andrew Smith is a retired Australian Army Brigadier who now researches and writes independently on national and international security issues.