Our work

National Security Lecture

Lecture presented by the Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison, AO at the University of Canberra, Canberra, 26 October 2012.

Download the speech.

Well thank you very much for those kind words. I’m delighted that there has been so much interest taken in the Australian Army. Peter, I’m assured that this is the regular rollout for all of the lectures that are here, and clearly you are doing a magnificent job with the National Security series of lectures dealing with the key matters around Australia’s future security and prosperity. And it’s a great pleasure to have been able to accept your kind invitation to come and speak here.

Now, I would have had to have been living in a cave not to be alive to the fact that following an article that Brendan Nicholson wrote in The Australian today there has been a lot of interest in comments that I gave to him.

I’d like to make three points up front; firstly the quotes in Brendan’s article are correct, but the headline is not.

The second point is that the headline, as it’s written, impugns that I would, as servant of Government and as the Chief of one of the most respected institutions in Australia, choose to use megaphone tactics with my Government. I never would. And the headline is inaccurate.

The third point is that following the article this morning there has been no direction given to me personally, through my office, by the Minister, by the Government. There was an article written sometime ago, two weeks ago, that highlighted, following a comment by a Defence academic a climate of conservative approach to analysis and public oration by key figures within the ADF. I refuted that publicly the next day. It’s not true. This Minister has been prepared to allow the CDF, Service Chiefs, particularly me, to speak candidly about key matters to do with Australia’s future security and prosperity in public. And I have this year spoken at the Sydney Institute and at ASPI (Australian Strategic Policy Institute) on a theme that I will speak about today.

The final point I’ll make by way of introduction is that while the quotes were taken selectively, and that is entirely appropriate, I will now spend time giving much broader context to them. And I think I will in the course of the next thirty minutes both address the key issues in terms of the adoption of the correct security strategy for this country in the future, as well as giving the comments in The Australian some balance with regard to the way this Government and the alternate government, the Australian Defence department and the Australian Defence Force are approaching current operations where the safety and lives of our soldiers is foremost in everyone’s mind.

Now, as the Chief of Army, I am its main public advocate and champion in the public domain, and hence when I speak to audiences similar to this I am prepared right at the outset to say how deeply I understand the respect and affection that Australians of all walks of life, and across all age groups, feel for their Army. That respect has been earned by the deeds of successive generations of Australian men and women who have put service before self at their nation’s call in war and peace.

And I wish at times that the general public would understand better the complexity of the organisation and how important consistent funding and support for it is, but be assured that I am incredibly proud to lead it.

However as much as I love the Army, my purpose today is not to indulge in either nostalgia nor sentimentality. Yes the Army is one of our most treasured and revered institutions, but now I want to talk to you about it as an instrument of national power and as a substantial piece of public infrastructure. It is a large and complex organisation with a very distinct culture and ethos, but despite its mastery of violence it is a surprisingly fragile organism in some ways. Its capability must be painstakingly built up and nurtured, and this takes significant time and public funding. Yet its capability can be relinquished disturbingly rapidly if it is not carefully developed and sustained.

Now, both Peter and I, as a current Chief of Army and a former Chief of Army, have seen the capability and numerical strength of the Army fluctuate widely during the course of our three-decade plus careers. Right now the Army’s in great shape. We have steadily rebuilt our capital base through prudent investment by this Government and the previous government since the East Timor crisis of 1999. We are far better equipped than we have been at any time during my career and we are in the midst, budget constraints notwithstanding, of the most significant re-equipment program since the end of the Vietnam War.

Our soldiers have been exposed to sustained operations across the spectrum, from warfighting in lethal environments through to peacemaking and support, as well as pure humanitarian relief. Our ranks are seasoned by combat and led by junior officers and NCOs with significant operational experience. This is an intangible asset that few armies in the world possess in such abundance. And, of course, I hope that that potential for the guarding of Australia’s future and is not squandered.

In short, I think we are about the right size and that our modernisation plan is sound, being derived from a sober assessment of both the changing character of war and the tectonic shifts in the global system associated with the rise of China and India, assertive Islamic militancy directed against the West, rapid population growth manifested as intensified urbanisation, a changing world climate and what seems to be a semi-permanent global economic crisis.

Now, I’ll spend a little time explaining how Army plans and implements its modernisation shortly, but my most pressing concern as the current Chief is that our viable and appropriate plans will falter unless we make the correct strategic choices over the next three to five years.

As I said, Army is a surprisingly fragile being unless its capability is developed in a deliberate and sustained manner. And the current straitened fiscal climate poses a risk to the Army’s approved plan for development out to 2030, as encapsulated in the last White Paper.

But let me make two things very clear. In a liberal democracy such as ours, the civil authority is supreme. And secondly, the Australian Defence Force has always shouldered its share of the burden in finding savings to support the Government of the day in achieving the sound fiscal position upon which our security ultimately rests. In a globalised economy that has emerged since the end of the Cold War, Australian governments, under the scrutiny of deregulated capital markets, have largely forsaken deficit financing except as a short-term expedient. That is true of most liberal democratic governments regardless of their ideological disposition, right across the globe.

One of the Government’s most pressing stated objectives is the restoration of a budget surplus. And as a Service Chief I understand the context in which I must operate to assist them in that endeavour.

As you have all undoubtedly observed in the media, this year’s budget contained significant reductions in real Defence expenditure. There was some alarmist, and not entirely accurate, commentary likening the state of our Defence Force to that on the immediate the eve of the Second World War when we were in a parlous state.

That analogy was based on a raw comparison of the share of the Defence budget as a portion of gross domestic product in each era, and it is not that simple.

I can only speak for Army, but we are in substantially better shape than we were in 1939, or indeed, than we were when I first joined in 1979. And I also know that this is the consensus of my Navy and Air Force colleagues because of the significant and expensive remediation of all our Services that took place after the strategic shock of East Timor in 1999.

Moreover the Government has ring-fenced vital force protection measures and continues to improve the level of force protection available to our deployed forces:

In excess of $1 billion has been spent on force protection in Afghanistan and in other operational areas. We have invested significantly in trying to counter the threat posed by improvised explosive devices. We have fielded new armoured vehicles to do just that in Afghanistan. The review made 48 recommendations of which 43 have been adopted. We’ve upgraded our light armoured capability, our combat helmets, our pelvic protection system, our longer range machine guns and we’ve upgraded, of course, our Bushmaster vehicles.

At the same time, as I said earlier, we are embarked on a very significant Defence Capability Program which has not been affected except in terms of time by the current decisions around budget. We are procuring, as you would all know from its recent arrival in Victoria, Landing Helicopter Dock ships, the Growler capability, additional Bushmasters and of course, additional C-17s.

To me, the present climate facing the nation, and by implication its Defence Force, does not resemble the appeasement era of the 1930s, so much as that of the 1970s and 1980s, when our Defence capability was allowed to deteriorate through chronic underinvestment, particularly in the Army.

Some of this was undertaken in the name of an anticipated ‘peace dividend’ in the wake of our withdrawal from Vietnam and the end of the Cold War, but it was compounded, in my view, by some myopic strategic policy making, based on historical amnesia and a poor understanding of Australia’s geography and alliance arrangements.

I would hate to see the mistakes of that era repeated today either in the name of misconceived strategy or economic stringency. But I can say with confidence, so does the Minister. And he is on the public record as acknowledging what happened to the Army and the Defence Force after the Vietnam period and has made very categoric statements about maintaining the strength of the Defence Forces despite the Government’s decision to return the budget to surplus.

Now, in the remainder of my time today I will explain why implementing Army’s currently approved modernisation plan, called BEERSHEBA, actually represents both sound fiscal policy as well as strategic prudence. Good economics reinforces good strategy, and produces sound public policy.

And, here is the core of my argument. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the Army was severely cut back. Moreover, the bitter taste of defeat in a foreign war prompted many well-intentioned people to conclude that we simply should not deploy our Army overseas again. An era of Forward Defence, we were assured, was a racist anachronism of the colonial era. Rather we should rely on the perceived invulnerability of our continent’s sea-air gap to the north, to defy invaders. There, there is a superficial and simplistic elegance to this concept, but it is based on poor history and even worse geography. Let me explain why.

Happily Australia has only come under direct threat of invasion once in its history when the Japanese sought to create their so-called Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere through conquest. Darwin was bombed, as were a number of other towns across our north. But the Japanese understood Australia’s geography better than our strategic analysts of the 1980s and 1990s. Before contemplating any serious operations against Australia they knew that they needed to secure bases in the island chain to our north—hence their lodgements in Timor, Ambon, New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies.

The Japanese were essentially defeated through the application of sophisticated coalition joint operations in the archipelagoes of the south-west Pacific. Guadalcanal was as significant in the so-called Battle for Australia as were Kokoda, Gona and Milne Bay. The lessons of both history and geography are explicit—we are not surrounded by a sea-air gap, but rather live amid a densely populated archipelago, which constitutes a sea, air, land bridge to our northern approaches.

On the only occasion we were directly threatened under the hypotheses propagated by the advocates of continental defence, we relied on joint amphibious operations in the context of a coalition maritime strategy. We were not saved by a naval victory in an antipodean Jutland in the Arafura Sea, and it is folly to believe that we ever will be. No war in the global system established in 1648 has ever been decided purely at sea, or the air for that matter.

Even British primacy, as contingent as it was upon sea power, was based on maritime rather than naval strategy. In the words of Sir Edward Grey, a politician of the earth 20th century, ‘The British Army is a projectile fired by the Navy.’ And so it was from Blenheim to D -Day. The most awesome battle fleet ever created, that of Jellicoe in 1916, was unable to bring the war against Germany to a decisive conclusion despite the massive and unbalanced investment in the fleet, at the expense of the British Army, in the last decade of the 19th century and the years leading up to the First World War.

And the long century that has followed in the wake of that conflict has been dominated in part by what Phillip Bobbit in The Shield of Achilles describes as the Long War, fought in one form or another through to the fall of Communist Europe, has seen Australia choose to send its men and women to fight in other countries—Turkey, Egypt, France, PNG, Korea, Borneo, Malaya, Vietnam, to name but a few.

It is a practice that has most certainly been evident in this century with military operations conducted in Iraq, Timor, Afghanistan and the Solomons. And it begs a series of questions: Why did we invade Turkey in 1915? Or charge across the deserts of Beersheba in 1917? Why were our troops in France and Belgium in 1918? What brought them to Tobruk and El Alamein? Why has this approach been followed in this current decade?

To some these were merely examples of a recurring folly—a cultural cringe that induces us to engage in ‘other people’s’ wars’. Now, I accept the bona fides and good intentions of people who hold those views. And they make even more sense when our soldiers are fighting and dying far from home, and for causes that can appear opaque to the public mind.

However, I vigorously reject such theories as misguided, no matter how sincerely they are held. From our inception as a nation, I believe that we have made a series of calculated strategic choices, which ultimately can be seen to have conformed to a pattern of strategic practice coherent enough, in my view, to be given a description of a maritime strategy.

I acknowledge, to a degree, the contested nature of that term but let me state the obvious: that throughout our history we have supported the global order secured by the hegemony of the dominant liberal democratic maritime power—in succession, Great Britain and the United States. We have done that to secure our vital national interests. Every fibre of our culture and pragmatic self-interest supported that choice.

Indeed, its inevitability almost belies the employment of the word ‘choice’. Does anyone seriously contend that Australia’s interests would have been served by the ascension to global dominance of Nazi Germany, or Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union, or the radical Islamist theology espoused by al Qaeda?

Again it is puzzling that those who insist on the deterministic nature of our geography can miss the point that we are a trading nation, deeply enmeshed in the global economy and reliant on a benign global order underwritten throughout our history by Britain and later the United States. Every time the Australian Army has sent a contingent overseas it has been at the behest of a democratically elected Government, which has used this rational strategic calculus to calibrate the level of commitment and risk warranted. All our wars and all our peacekeeping operations have met this fundamental public interest test.

The real issue is not whether we need to be able to deploy military forces away from our shores. The issue is whether they are prepared adequately to do their jobs with an acceptable level risk. Too often, as the Australian scholar Dr Mike Evans has argued so well, members of the defence and security commentariat mouthed the rhetoric of continental defence, while the real world has required the nation to engage in military expeditions in pursuit of our strategic interests. Such ‘Tyranny of Dissonance’ as Evans describes it, merely ensures we send poorly equipped troops into harm’s way. And one need look no further than the training levels and equipment of our first deployed military contingents to both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and indeed Timor in 1999 to have that proposition confirmed.

Fortunately, as matters stand today I can place my hand on my heart and tell you that we are able to conduct operations that we have been assigned with decent prospects of success and commensurate acceptable levels of risk to our troops. Which is why the headline in today’s Australian was wrong. But we are approaching a point where doing more with less risks becoming a disregard for the ability of forces to survive against credible peer competitors. No rational voice in this debate contends that we should benchmark our Army against the Taliban.

As our next White Paper approaches I do hear again those discredited siren voices assuring us that after Afghanistan we are unlikely to send the Army away to another foreign entanglement; that what needs to happen is to mind our own business and concentrate on a strategy of denial of across the air-sea gap.

Well frankly, having been a part of INTERFET in 1999 as a senior soldier of this Army that had been seriously weakened by the proponents of such thinking, this fills me with concern. This is historical amnesia that is breathtaking in its complacency. I resent having to defend the rationale for an Army from first principles all over again—but I will do so if I need to.

And I make the point again. This is not a conversation that I am having with either this Government or the alternate government. But rather those who are offering, quite appropriately in a democratic country such as ours, their views about the strategic choices for Australia and its future. I simply choose as the Chief of the Army to add my voice to that debate.

And apart from the weight of historical precedent that I have already cited, even the most optimistic assessments of our strategic environment over the life of the next White Paper suggest that we are living in an unstable region where the global balance of power may be contested. Like Yogi Behrer I find predictions fraught with peril, especially where they concern the future. I prefer the stance of the eminent scholar and strategist Colin S.Gray who dismisses those who speak of ‘the foreseeable future’. Of its nature the future is entirely unforeseeable. And we nearly learnt that to our great detriment when the East Timor crisis occurred just over a decade ago.

Our Army then consisted of five understrength infantry battalions and a nascent commando regiment. Our deployable logistics were rudimentary for what they were asked to do. In terms of firepower and protection we had languished as mere spectators to the technological revolution in combined arms warfare heralded by the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Now, to some extent the Army itself was culpable. We always preferred to play in our comfort zone—small unit operations where light infantry forces could dominate ground through aggressive patrolling underpinned by excellent individual skills. We had mastered this in World War Two in Papua New Guinea, and refined it almost to our own way of war by the end of Vietnam.

We failed to stay abreast of the increasing lethality and precision of the battlefield. Despite our tactical hubris, by the early 1990s we had run down our mastery of combined arms war fighting and manoeuvre at the formation level, against a technologically adept adversary, was but a distant memory. And I speak with authority—I served through it. Of course, this did not matter we were assured, because the Army was merely a strategic goalkeeper, which would round up the forlorn stragglers who had not drowned in the sea-air gap after the second iteration of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

Such sterile strategic thinking was not penalised as severely as it might have been. But the strategic environment in our region in the aftermath of Vietnam was actually much less ominous than it is now. It is not the time to reduce our deployable military capability.

And thankfully in every public utterance since the budget, our Minister is acutely aware of the pitfalls of that form of Vietnam syndrome, and is, as I said on the public record as acknowledging the requirement to maintain the strength of the ADF.

Earlier I noted one point similar to the 1930s—and that is we cannot assume that state-on-state conventional war is a thing of the past. What is my evidence for that? According to the eminent Israeli scholar Azar Gat, many of our assumptions about the changing complexion of war are based on an ahistorical analysis of the period since World War II.

While there is persuasive statistical evidence that between 1989 and 2009 the number of major armed conflicts declined significantly, conventional wars still killed and injured more people than multiple smaller conflicts. As Pascal Vennesson concluded in a contribution to the Oxford Changing Character of War series—mandatory reading in my view—edited by that wonderful British academic, Hew Strachan, ‘The wars of these twenty years were predominantly low-intensity conflicts, usually taking place in the developing world and involving relatively small, ill-trained lightly armed forces that avoided major military engagements but frequently targeted civilians.’

As they grappled with the implication of this for their armed forces, many soldiers and scholars purported to identify an historic rupture in the nature of war itself, pioneering a raft of novel and stimulating theories. Some purported to identify either ‘New Wars’ or ‘Three Block Wars’ while others wrote of ‘War Amongst the People’ or ‘4th Generation Warfare’. They almost unanimously concluded that heavy conventional armies with artillery and tanks had gone the way of the dinosaur. That they were now obsolete. Only light conventional forces and special forces were required to fight in these new battlespace conflicts.

Like many meta-narratives, such as The End of History, all of these theories had transient and superficial appeal. However, each has tended to be undermined by reality over time. I incline to the school inspired by the Prussian Carl Von Clausewitz, who identified an immutable nature of war—a realm of orchestrated violence, akin to a duel, engaged in to pursue defined goals of policy. While war to Clausewitz was ‘a true chameleon’—absorbing the hue of the socio-political climate in which it is waged, and shaped by the cultures of the competing combatants—it nonetheless is immutable in its essential nature.

As a military professional I follow these debates with intense interest. But I can’t afford the indulgence of a pet theory. I am obliged to shape forces capable of conducting the widest range of operations and giving the men and women I command the best chance they deserve to win. But why I defer to scholars like Gat and Colin Gray is the harsh realism they bring to bear on the study of war. They adopt the pessimism that soldiers, who ultimately must bear the privations of war, bring to our analysis. As the infamous Confederate General Nathan Forrest once remarked. “War means fightin’ and fightin’ means killin’.” And so it has been through all human history and I cannot see an outbreak of general peace in that unforeseeable future.

Befitting a fine scholar, Azar Gat is more eloquent than Forrest. He makes a compelling case to the effect that whatever the statistical evidence, and there is an abundance of it, that state-on-state war has declined in frequency, most of the data applies to the period of post-colonial guerrilla war since 1945 and the proxy wars through which the Cold War protagonists jostled for influence.

Gat points out that the era of hybrid war since the demise of Soviet communism is actually atypical. The theory of the ‘democratic peace’ whereby the spread of free markets and democracy would herald an era of unprecedented peace no longer looks credible. Francis Fukuyama’s vaunted End of History enjoyed a very short shelf life. It turned out that history had merely taken a long weekend. The idea that we can will away war because we are about to withdraw from one that went longer and ended less conclusively than we liked, is wishful thinking.

And even if one concedes its relative infrequency, its catastrophic effects are immeasurable when it does occur. A serious middle power with global responsibilities such as Australia cannot will away the risks of armed conflict in our immediate region, or in areas in the stability of which we have a vital interest. It gives me no joy to say that, but wishing away harsh reality is hardly an appropriate basis for making assessments about the nation’s future security and prosperity.

And what are the implications of this for the Australian Army? Well fortunately the debate about whether hybrid or irregular war have eclipsed conventional war does not bear any professional implication for us. Our hard won experience suggests that balanced combined arms teams equipped with robust foundation warfighting skills are most suitable for the widest range of military missions. That assumption informs our doctrine and training, as well as our force structure and modernisation planning.

It is intrinsic to the last White Paper. It is certainly front-and-centre for those who are looking at the White Paper that will be delivered in 2013. It is a deeply held view of those who advise Government now.

Moreover, Australia’s never possessed the heavy formations that filled the inventories of some of the most advanced armies of the Cold War era. Frankly we have had to increase our combat weight to be even viable in the non-permissive peace enforcement space, much less to survive against the lethal insurgents that we have encountered in the last decade. I speak for all my leadership group, and for all of my living predecessors, in averring that the Australian Army has an obligation to the Government to be capable of providing and sustaining ready, relevant conventional military formations capable of fighting against a credible peer competitor. And every government since the 2000 White Paper has confirmed our assessment that this is the baseline requirement for force development. And I see no difference, even in the wake of the very difficult decisions Government has had to make about its current budget.

There is a national imperative to weigh carefully the real cost of diluting that capability, and that is my argument. The strategic case is irrefutable and as I ventured earlier, I believe that the fiscal case for sustaining the current Army is also sound.

A recent study that I commissioned looked at the inefficiency of the yo-yo process of shrinking and surging the Army to meet short-term economic gains. That work confirms that cyclic changes in capability, characterised by the removal and subsequent re-growth of capability is exponentially more expensive than retention of capability over time, unless, of course, a lengthy benign future is actually foreseeable.

The bottom line is that we have not even yet completed the remediation of our land forces found to be necessary to achieve the strategic tasks assigned to the ADF by the 2000 White Paper. However, this process has already incurred massive sunk costs, and that’s not just in Army. The vital enabling component for the simultaneous deployment a brigade and battlegroup, within the archipelagic approaches to Australia is only now just being realised with the arrival of the first Landing Helicopter Docks.

The point at which we could reduce the size of the Army, and reconfigure the rest of the ADF to implement a pure sea denial strategy and actually achieve budget savings I believe has already passed.

In brief, the plan for Australia’s future force structure, BEERSHEBA, also makes financial sense, characterised as it is by the standardisation of our combat brigades and their vehicle fleets. This will achieve significant efficiencies and savings. And we remain committed to nesting a dedicated amphibious capability, based on the Second Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment within the 3rd Brigade in Townsville in Queensland. This is a vital initiative as demonstrated by the rapid deployment of our forces to East Timor in 1999 and again in 2006, as well as the Solomon Islands in 2003 and our tsunami relief operation in 2005.

Let me close with three quotes. Of course they can be seen as gratuitous and used selectively to enhance my arguments, but I am here today to put across my views and such flourishes are, I believe, within the bounds of acceptable rhetoric conventions. If it is of any solace, none of them are taken from long dead German militarists. They are taken from two Russians revolutionaries and an American gangster.

The first is from Trotsky whose history, come blatant propaganda, of the Russian Civil War following the Bolshevik Revolution I enjoyed immensely as a university student. It is the oft quoted line, ‘you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’

The second is taken from the great protagonist of Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, whose observation that ‘quantity has a quality all its own’ was stating, in my view, a simple fact in regard to the physics of war and military operations.

Having now truly entered politically incorrect regions, thanks in no small part to Brendan Nicholson, I may as well compound my move by quoting from Al Capone who, while applying his observation solely to the protection rackets of the 1920s, lends weight as to why armed forces are likely to remain an intrinsic part of how all nation’s interact with each other. He observed that, ‘You can go a long way in this neighbourhood with a smile. You can go even further with a smile and a gun.’

I wish those of who are students here and who are facing exams the very best for their future. I would like to thank the principal staff at Canberra University, most especially the former Chief of Army, and I must say a mentor of mine for many years, Lieutenant General (Ret’d) Peter Leahy for the opportunity to come and speak to you. And now I would be delighted to take any questions you have.