November 2010


The Defence Minister

By Hugh White
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

It seems so unfair. Stephen Smith is one of the nicest people in politics. What did he do to deserve defence? Consider the record: in the past 40 years, 17 men (yes, all men) have served in the job he now holds. Few of them left it with their reputations undamaged, and only one went on to hold another ministerial portfolio. That was Kim Beazley. For all the rest, defence was the end of their ministerial career.

Why is defence so toxic to its ministers? It should be an easy job to look good in – hobnobbing with the Australian Defence Force (ADF), managing weighty matters of national security and spending a lot of money. Of course the portfolio has an unparalleled capacity to shoot itself and its ministers in the foot, often over issues that are trivial in themselves. Smith will run into the usual defence screw-ups soon enough, but his real problem is much deeper. He has taken over the portfolio at an extremely difficult time, and he will find himself very much on his own, dealing with two major problems.

In the foreground is Afghanistan, where he must manage the messy endgame of a failing war. It has killed ten young Australians so far this year, and yet no one really believes in it. His predecessors relied on the senior leadership of the ADF to persuade the public that the operations in Oruzgun Province are working, and worth the cost. Smith would be wise not to follow their example. It is not only constitutionally improper for military officers to become the advocates of government policy, it is also politically imprudent.

The credibility of the chiefs is looking shaky as stories from the front line paint a different picture from the one evoked by their perennial airbrushed optimism. The stories are likely to keep coming, as the soldiers in Oruzgun see their friends killed and risk death themselves, in a war that the government seems not to take seriously. Combined with the sharp surge in casualties since midyear, the soldiers’ own complaints will do more than the independents in parliament to impel the government to justify its policy on Afghanistan.

Smith’s predecessor, John Faulkner, tried to explain the war by saying that the ADF’s key mission is to train Afghan National Army units in Oruzgun. Smith must now decide for himself whether this explanation is credible. That requires plain answers to some simple questions: Can we seriously expect to create an effective local military force in Oruzgun? Does the training we provide to Afghan troops do anything to address their deeper problems – their motivation, aptitude and, above all, their leadership? Even if we succeed in creating effective fighting units, do we know whom they will fight, what they will fight for, and whom they will take orders from? Would effective local army units in Oruzgun make any real difference – to the province or to Afghanistan as a whole – without an effective government to serve? Is there any real chance of success for the Coalition mission? Does David Petraeus’ strategy look any better than – or even much different from – what has gone before? And, above all, will success or failure in Afghanistan make a difference to Australia’s security from terrorism? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, then the government’s rationale for ADF operations in Afghanistan is fatally undermined. As is the justification for the casualties we have suffered so far, and for the casualties we will continue to suffer unless policies change.

In fact, the answer to all of these questions is ‘no’ – and I venture to predict that this is what the chiefs would tell Smith themselves if he really pressed them. It says something of the failures of Smith’s predecessors that these obvious and vital questions have apparently not been searchingly asked before now, and it says something of the weakness of the ADF’s leadership that direct and clear advice on these issues has not been volunteered.

All the talk of training the Afghan army is a politically expedient fiction to cover the simple truth: we are just hanging on in Afghanistan until the US starts to leave, because to leave before them would damage our credibility as an ally. This is not necessarily bad policy, until it starts costing soldiers’ lives; certainly the run of losses we have seen over the past few months makes it hard to justify. The critical conclusion for Smith is that he should be taking no risks with soldiers’ lives that are not absolutely necessary to sustaining our presence. He should follow the example of John Howard, who as prime minister flew the alliance flag in Iraq at low cost by finding a safe role for our troops in Al Muthanna. It was perhaps not very glamorous – and it raised some eyebrows in Washington – but Howard’s unheroic policy did save lives that would otherwise have been lost for no strategic end.

Afghanistan is just the start for Smith, however, because even with the mounting death toll he faces much more important decisions than what to do in Oruzgun. It has been clear for a decade that Australia’s underlying strategic situation is changing, which now requires us to fundamentally rethink defence policy. Since the end of the Vietnam War, when China accepted the US’s primacy in Asia, our region has been very stable, which has greatly limited the kinds of armed forces we have needed. Now China is challenging the US again, and much more seriously this time because it is so much stronger. Whichever way the relationship develops – and there are several possibilities – Asia will work very differently, and Australia will face significantly higher strategic risks. Australia urgently needs to decide how to respond to these risks, including what kinds of armed forces may be needed in case things go badly. Military capabilities take decades to build, so the forces Australia will rely on in the 2020s, 2030s and beyond must start being built in the next few years. We should have begun building a decade ago but Smith’s predecessors ducked the issue. John Howard’s defence minsters were distracted by the ‘War on Terror’; Kevin Rudd did better with last year’s Defence White Paper, which acknowledged that China’s rise overturns key defence assumptions, but he completely failed to address the resulting questions. A vital opportunity was missed and defence policy is now just a sad muddle.

Not only will Smith find no coherent defence policy as he tries to sort out this muddle, he will find a defence organisation – military and civilian – with very little capacity to help him develop one. There are many bright individuals on Russell Hill but the organisation collectively is not well placed to provide clear and cohesive advice on Australia’s future military needs.

This is something of a scandal; imagine if the Treasury could not provide a picture of our long-term economic outlook. There are many internal causes for defence’s policy deficit but the fault lies ultimately with Smith’s predecessors. They did not care that defence couldn’t produce good policy advice because they had no intention of making serious decisions about Australia’s long-term defence requirements.

Instead, they were content to go with the flow, signing up to the projects and programs that emerged from the defence machine – having been nudged along by industry lobby groups – and that lacked any coherent strategic rationale. Smith will find the results in projects such as the Air Warfare Destroyer, a $10 billion white elephant to build three warships with no cost-effective role to play in meeting Australia’s future strategic objectives – though they are much beloved of the navy and the government of South Australia, where they are being built.

Can Smith do better? It is hard to say. Many people had high hopes that John Faulkner would break the pattern of mediocrity set by his predecessors. But, sadly and perhaps tellingly, he gave it away and retired to the backbenches after little more than a year – and before he could make any real difference. If someone of Faulkner’s calibre retreats when confronted with the challenges of defence, what hope is there? Stephen Smith is a person of great seriousness, decency, intelligence and application; perhaps he has what it takes. We’d better hope so, because in the ‘Asian century’ Australia cannot afford to make do without a defence policy for much longer. He’d better hope so, too, or he will face the end of his career.

Hugh White

Hugh White is an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

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