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President of the Victorian Branch General David McLachlan, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
One of the highlights in the calendar of any Chief of Army is attendance at a gathering of the RSL. The links between the Army and the League go right back to the RSL’s inception. We are family. As many of you know, I am the son of a returned serviceman who saw active service in both Korea and Vietnam. I have been familiar with the League and its wonderful contributions ever since my childhood. So today is definitely a home game in the language of that winter obsession you Victorians take nearly as seriously as the Army takes operations. It really is a privilege to be here.
I will speak to three challenges that face me as a Service Chief and all of them hopefully will have relevance for this audience. The first is about our Service culture and the health of our people. The second is about developments taking place in the ADF and Army to meet the security challenges that we face now and into the future and the third is about the budget for Defence over the next five years.
Before all of that, I want to pay my respects to the League and thank you all for your past service to Australia, wherever and whenever it was. The accumulated service to the Nation represented in this room today is beyond calculation in real human terms, but probably runs into the hundreds of years. Many of you bore the hardship and horror of war, while others have devoted the best years of your life to the Nation through service in the ADF. I thank you for that and congratulate you.
In preparation for my attendance here today I looked at your Corporate Plan for the period 2008-2015. I think your objectives are “spot on”. The number of young veterans has increased markedly over the last decade of operations, and there is a very relevant and welcome role for the RSL in supporting them, now and into the future. Indeed, the numbers of returned servicemen and women who are aged under thirty is at least equivalent to the numbers Australia saw at the end of the Vietnam War. There is much the RSL can do, and is doing, but as I will speak about shortly, you need to continue to “think young” and connect with this constituency if all of your objectives are to be realised.
Wherever I go, I tell every audience this country has an outstanding defence force. It is in very good shape and it is comprised of the very best of Australians.
We are still undertaking diverse, demanding and dangerous operations, particularly in Afghanistan. We have formed bodies of troops there and in Timor Leste, as well as the Solomon Islands, not to mention numerous individuals and small teams spread across the globe in a variety of peacekeeping and monitoring operations. Some of these are nearly as old as the United Nations itself.
Today, thousands of our fellow Australians, many of them young, of both sexes, are in harm’s way, or at the very least living in harsh environments far removed from their families and loved ones. I need not remind an audience like this one just what that entails. And you are at the forefront of the voluntary efforts to sustain them.
All of you will have read a lot, in our media, about Defence matters of late. Too much of it has been biased and ill informed. So, if I leave you with one salient point today I would want it to be this—you have an Army and a Defence Force of which you can be very proud.
That is not to say that there are not things that demand improvement. I shall attempt to explain what they are and how we are going about it. Some of these relate to our force structure and equipment and some to our culture and organisational climate.
I want to address the cultural issues right up front as they tend to be easily misunderstood and generate the most emotive coverage. And I will be blunt. There have been too many scandals and controversies about the ADF and the Army in recent years for us to brush the criticisms aside any longer. There have been 13 major investigations into Defence culture and behaviour over the past 15 years.
While the vast majority of our people are exemplary in their conduct at all times, we can no longer complacently set aside our failures as the isolated breaches by a ‘few bad apples’. There are systemic problems.
Of course the great paradox, which in turn makes this such a challenging issue, is that we have performed superbly on operations at the same time that many of these controversies have arisen. No one is prouder of our Army than me, but I know that elements of our culture have been distorted by some who have, in the mistaken belief that it is required to produce tough and resilient soldiers, encouraged the abuse of alcohol and the bullying of women and minorities, especially on the basis of ethnicity or sexual orientation.
Our induction and training systems are the best in the world, but attempts to build a combat culture through instilling a macho tribal ethos among our new recruits have led to a series of instances of poor behaviour and indeed to criminal offences that include harassment, bullying and in too many cases serious physical assault, some of them sexual. I have received first-hand reports from young women to whom these things have happened. They are cowardly actions and corrosive of the very trust and mateship that our culture purports to build.
I am not going to cop it any longer and the ADF leadership at all levels are as one in our determination to stamp this out. This is not political correctness. This is basic decency and respect for the law, and for one’s mates. That is what the best of Army values have always stood for.
An Army whose society does not trust it with its daughters faces extinction. We have to expand the opportunities for women and people from diverse backgrounds to serve and excel in the Army, or demographic change is going to reduce it to a rump that no longer reflects the Nation it serves.
The RSL faced a similar problem squarely and solved it by adapting. Many of you will remember the Vietnam veterans being told by the old and bold from the two World Wars that they had not been to a real war. Today their contribution to the League ensures its ongoing relevance and survival. The Vietnam generation has led the effort to open the League up to newer members from recent conflicts as well as those still serving in uniform. I congratulate you for that.
But I want to use this address to go further. I would ask for the RSL to consider public support for our efforts to make the Army more open to women and ethnic minorities, and for our stance of zero tolerance for the types of conduct that shame us all. It is the key to the long-term health and survival of both our organisations.
One more thing if I may. If any one tries to tell you that the Army is going soft, tell them go and take a look at our young women on the front line in Afghanistan. They are credit to all this wonderful national institution has achieved over the last 111 years.
That is enough on culture, but for one critical point. I have made a pledge that we will not leave a single wounded soldier behind. What I mean by this is that we will find ways to employ every man and woman who is wounded on operations within the Army if they wish to serve on - or should they wish to leave, to rehabilitate them and help them find fulfilling employment outside the Defence Force.
This will be very demanding. Some of these young soldiers are legally blind, while others have lost limbs or suffered brain trauma. But we are going to honour our pledge to these young Australians. And I am going to need your help to achieve this. I know of the wonderful work underway in the RSL to do just that, but I think that the biggest challenge will be in the area of mental health, especially that arising from post traumatic stress and I worry that we are only just beginning to understand the dimensions of the challenges that the Nation will face in this area.
There is a vital role that the League can play here, lending support to those who have sustained injury and providing care for families and loved ones.
I now would like to address current and future capability in the ADF, with specific reference to Army and make some comments about the recent Defence budget.
At the outset, be assured that we are in very good nick. It is a much more capable force than the one I joined in 1979 - that Army could not have achieved what we have been doing routinely over the past decade.
During the 1980s we lost our capacity to deploy beyond our Australian bases or away from our domestic contractor support. While the strategic shock of the East Timor crisis in 1999 exposed how far we had deteriorated, a lot of remedial work has been done and today we are in very good condition. Again, let me debunk some popular myths that are gaining traction in the media at the moment.
I’ll give it to you straight. We are facing an era of serious fiscal restraint, but this is true of every government in the Western world. It would be fanciful to expect Defence not to shoulder some of the burden of helping Australia weather the financial storms that are wrecking many other economies. At the Grand Strategic level, returning Australia to surplus is a national security issue.
An American analyst from the US Army War College has referred to this as The Age of Austerity. I think that term captures the essence of the era. At some point, financial failure threatens both social cohesion and the very viability of the State. We need to do our bit, but in that regard, I would rather be Chief of the Australian Army than my counterpart in Greece or Spain over the next few years.
Having said that, I believe that the plan that I am implementing for Army is viable and affordable, even in the light of the savings being extracted from the Defence budget. Indeed, one of the great virtues of Plan BEERSHEBA—the blueprint for the future of Army—is that it is the most rational and efficient manner of generating the land forces demanded by our strategic guidance.
For too long we were an ‘army of ones’, by which I mean we kept specific single capabilities alive within our Regular brigades on the assumption that we were a cadre army which provided a mobilisation base for the 3rd AIF when the next global conflagration occurred. That model served us well for a time, and it made us a versatile adaptable Army capable of generating balanced force packages, provided we had a sufficient degree of notice.
To criticise this model is not to denigrate the magnificent officers and soldiers who kept the faith through the long peace following Vietnam. They kept our ethos and skill base alive. We could not have conducted INTERFET without their contribution to maintaining the standards of professionalism and soldier skills that permitted that operation. In particular, may I single out for special praise one of my predecessors Frank Hickling, whose prescience in raising the level of readiness in our 1st Brigade in April 1999 was an inspired decision, and almost certainly saved Australian lives.
But every reputable army in the world now is a professional force. The age of mass mobilisation is gone for the foreseeable future. While the nature of war remains immutable, its character is best conveyed by that term ‘hybrid war’ coined by the shrewd US Marine Corps theorist and analyst, Frank Hoffman.
Without succumbing to hubris and arrogantly predicting the future, I venture that the future of war for the next couple of decades will look much like the recent past—complex, lethal battlefields populated by conventional and unconventional forces, insurgents and even criminals, all with access to highly lethal, often man-portable weapon systems, including of course IEDs. Further, the threats that they pose will often manifest themselves with little or no warning.
I stress to our soldiers that we cannot benchmark ourselves against the Taliban. We owe it to the Australian people to be capable of defending them from credible threats. What this means in practical terms is that we must be capable of operating as part of joint multi-agency forces and achieving decisive results against a near-peer adversary who has access to a range of direct and indirect fire systems, and who can compete with us across the electro-magnetic spectrum and contest our use of the air. This will be achieved, notwithstanding the savings being extracted from the budget.
Again there has been some unhelpful, if not hysterical commentary that we are now as poorly prepared for war as we were in 1938. That is simply hyperbole—to put it crudely, ‘Bollocks’. We learnt some important lessons from East Timor in 1999 and the Government urgently remediated a large range of capabilities especially those needed to deploy and sustain the land force away from our bases. That process continues, notwithstanding the savings measures recently announced. Recent initiatives have exponentially improved the deployability, survivability and hitting-power of the Australian Army and the ADF.
To put it bluntly, we are coming off a much stronger base from which to absorb the $5.5 billion in savings over the next four years.
The force that rapidly responded to the collapse of order in Timor Leste in 2006 was by then the most agile, potent, best-trained and equipped Australian joint force ever to leave these shores. And we continue to improve on that standard.
It is easy, when listening to the doomsayers, to overlook the fact that we are in the midst of the most significant modernisation and re-equipment program of the Australian Defence Force, especially the Army, since the end of the Second World War. We are digitising the force and we are hardening our echelon vehicles so that our sustainment and replenishment can be achieved with less risk to our supporting troops in hostile environments. I was able to preserve these vital measures as part of the cost incurred in foregoing self-propelled artillery. But I did it in the secure knowledge that the new towed artillery would still be a terrific capability—indeed the best indirect fire weapon that we have ever fielded.
I want to make a couple of really important points before concluding on why the Army is moving in the particular direction that it is. Firstly, as I have said often since becoming Chief of the Army: ‘Australia needs its ADF much more than it needs its Army, Navy or Air Force’. To that I have added Lord Edward Grey’s codicil that the Army must be a projectile fired by the Navy. We have adopted a genuine maritime strategy for the first time in my service career.
We have rejected the folly of defending the Continent from northern air bases using stand-off munitions and naval assets. We seek security within Asia, not from Asia.
We know that whether we are responding to a tsunami, or a civil war, or a request from a friendly neighbour against an incursion by a malign power, we need to be able to deploy and sustain joint forces in the archipelagic approaches to Australia.
That is why I was prepared to forego the largest single item on Army’s capability development program, the self- propelled artillery. I did so to free up funding to help remediate urgent shortfalls in Navy’s capability.
If we were to ever send Australian soldiers into the archipelagic approaches to this Country I want to know that the LHDs that carry them are protected, should it be required, by submarines and air warfare destroyers, by airborne early warning platforms and fighter aircraft. And I want those future land forces to have access to precision munitions and electronic systems that provide them with situational awareness while blinding their foes. We must be seamlessly joint and I am confident—despite pressure on the budget—that those effects I have just described are either already in service or on the way.
A final word on this subject before I conclude and it is here that I ask for the continuing support that the RSL provides to the Nation’s future security.
There are some in the defence and security “commentariat” who question why such capabilities are needed; why the ADF wants ships of a certain size, aircraft and submarines of a certain range, land forces with precision munitions and modern armoured fighting vehicles. They speculate that it is probably too much, too expensive, too capable for what in their view is the future threats that face the Nation.
But unlike most in this audience, they have little practical experience of actually dealing with the consequences of not being capable enough, not being able to respond with appropriate force when the Nation demands it of its ADF. Then, when time is a non-existent resource, and words and speculation count for little, Australia will look to the courage and the commitment of its uniformed men and women, who, in George Orwell’s words, stand ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm. It is our legacy to the Nation’s future prosperity, that they are able to do so with all the military might that the Nation deems affordable.
In closing, may I thank you again for your own service to the country and your continued support to the ADF and the Army. It has been an honour to address you.