By Andrew Smith
The Australian government recently released a request for tender to supply reconnaissance vehicles for the army. This purchase is Phase 2 of Project LAND 400 that aims to refresh most of the army’s ground combat vehicle fleet. The announcement came a little later than expected, perhaps because Defense Minister Kevin Andrews needed time to come to grips with his large and unfamiliar portfolio.
At first glance LAND 400 is routine modernization business, especially as Phase 2 simply replaces the hard-worked Australian Light Armored Vehicles in cavalry units. But the announcement has rekindled an older, broader debate (sampled here, here, here, and here) about the sort of land power Australia should have — a topic of key interest to the United States as it continues its rebalance to the Indo-Pacific. Washington’s decisionmakers must recognize Canberra’s choices on strategy and procurement in 2015 will shape Australia’s ability to make meaningful global security contributions for decades.
Ever since the “Defense of Australia” (DOA) doctrine emerged in Australian policy in the mid-1980s, the army’s need to be able to fight and win in substantial conflicts has been questioned. Many commentators contend that Australia is best defended by reinforcing the “sea-air gap” to its north with aircraft and submarines, foreseeing scant need for army capabilities beyond those necessary for regional “low-level conflict” against something less than a peer competitor. This orthodoxy leaves little room for genuinely robust land force capabilities that require, among other things, armored vehicles.
A narrow sea-air gap perspective also ignores the experience of the past 13 years, which have seen Australian and allied ground forces fighting insurgencies—often classified as low-level conflict—that demanded high levels of troop protection, mobility, and firepower. Australia’s contributions to coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been dominated—both numerically and in the popular consciousness—by the army, which, conditioned by years of DOA-driven force structuring and investment, found itself surprised (along with its major allies) by just how intense those operations could be and needed to adjust accordingly.
Influential commentators have warned that this ground-centric experience could distort Australia’s force development by over-emphasizing army capabilities at the expense of, say, air power. Others fear that the pursuit of heavier ground combat capabilities will distract the Australian Defence Force (ADF) from realizing its important new amphibious capability, while a minority even advocate deliberately limiting the army’s capabilities to focus investment on what is most relevant to regional contingencies and most affordable for Australia. A few critics of Australia’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan take this one step further by suggesting that a lighter army will make it harder to be drawn into dangerous global misadventures.
These ideas are not uncontested: a countervailing view believes Australia cannot count on the discretion to fight only those wars that suit its military, but instead needs full spectrum capabilities to secure its interests, both regional and global. This debate is part of a larger conversation about the proper defense strategy for Australia, between regionalists who advocate an emphasis on regional engagement and activity, and those who see Australia’s interests inextricably connected to the global economy, and hence needing a global strategy.
Projects like LAND 400 also matter to the United States because their outcome will affect the spectrum of military conflict to which Australia can commit its army, and hence its ability to contribute to extra-regional security missions alongside global partners, including the United States. This issue should also be seen in the context of U.S. concerns about other key partners’ military capability and investment and the readiness of its own army.
Ideally, this question will be resolved in Australia’s forthcoming Defence White Paper, expected mid-2015. As yet there are few reliable indications as to whether the white paper will deliver a clear strategy, or what that strategy might be, but both regionalist and globalist arguments are playing out in the public consultation process. With major acquisition projects such as LAND 400 or the contentious submarine replacement program continuing ahead of the white paper, whatever strategy does emerge could be playing catch-up with force structure decisions already made. For now, those decisions seem to be favoring an ADF that can make meaningful global security contributions but continuation of that trend shouldn’t be presumed.
Dr. Andrew Smith is a retired Australian Army Brigadier who now researches and writes independently on national and international security issues