The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

We Don’t Seem To Know A Damn Thing About Defence

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I have a bit of a reputation as a party animal, and last week I confirmed it by spending an evening combing through the public submissions for the 2015 Defence White Paper.

This can be quite an informative exercise as industry groups, town corporations and academics across a range of disciplines tend to chime in on what they think should constitute our defence priorities over the next five years. But I don’t just do it for the education¬† – the vast majority of those sorts of submissions are written by the same people who contribute to the various policy and defence think tanks that I follow (like I said – party animal). No, what I read the submissions for is the pure comedy gold that happens when you ask a bunch of ordinary people to describe what they see as a coherent and future-proof defence policy.

While I applaud the participation of these people as a positive step towards increasing community participation in the business of government, I applaud it even more as a way to break up some rather dry reading with moments of hilarity, incredulity and downright insanity. Here’s a list of a few of my favourites.

  1. An infantry division should be deployed to defend the Hume Highway near some town in Queensland. One paragraph of this submission is dedicated to the strategic importance of the Hume at this particular point, and the rest of the dozen or so pages are an outline of the local businesses that would be ‘willing to support’ an influx of 10,000 new customers in uniform. The submission makes no comment as to where we are going to get enough soldiers to form multiple divisions.
  2. New Zealand isn’t pulling its weight, so we should pull their weight for them. Possibly by invading them.
  3. Something about nuclear missiles and ‘tracking satellites’ replacing all conventional forces. It was hard to spot a thesis in this one, possibly because a tinfoil hat may have been worn while this particular submission was being written.
  4. A complement of beachable concrete submarines filled with petrol should be built in order to guarantee our fuel supply in the event of an invasion. It’s unclear where the fuel to fill them is to come from, but on the plus side, it’s pointed out that a concrete tube full of petrol would make a useful seaborne battering ram.
  5. The Marrickville Peace Group suggests that we void our treaties with the USA because they keep getting us into wars. No comment is made on how we are to organise the defence of our trade routes all by ourselves, but much detail is provided about joint Australian and US military exercises, presumably on the assumption that the authors of the Defence White Paper are unlikely to be aware of them.

Now, this isn’t just an exercise in being snide ignorance. I don’t need the internet for that – I mainly do my snideness in the real world. Which might explain why neither one of my two friends is currently speaking to me. The thing is, these people aren’t especially ignorant. From what I can tell, they’re fairly representative of the average level of defence knowledge of all kinds of intelligent and well-educated citizens of Australia. Time and time again I find myself confronted with exactly the same misapprehensions. Like the mistaken belief that the ability to indefinitely hold off a massive amphibious invasion of Australia is at all relevant to our defence structure. Or the belief that the threat to our North means a threat of invasion, rather than a threat of regional instability. Or the idea that our degree of interoperability with the USA is undertaken for any reason other than sheer, absolute necessity.

It seems odd to me that a country so rightly willing to celebrate its military is, on the whole, so woefully ignorant about it. The recent debates on submarine and surface combatants are a good example. What debate, you say? Exactly. Outside of think tanks and specialist forums, hardly any strategic discussions have appeared in the public discourse. There’s been a lot of politicking, but next to no discussion of the issue on its merits. Which is worrying.

There seems to be a perception in this country that defence doesn’t matter, either because we’d be screwed instantly or because the Yanks will save us or both. This is ridiculous. We have a highly trained, highly skilled, well-equipped defence force that needs to be carefully steered in order to maximise its effectiveness. On top of this, the idea that defence policy is measured solely on the basis of some hypothetical invasion is sheer foolishness. Defence is a layered and complex issue, with far reaching ramifications that touch on everything from climate change to humanitarian relief to the regional balance of power.

Which leads me to conclude that there are two potential alternatives moving forward if we want to be better pleased with our defence policy.

  1. The Australian people finds some way to educate itself to the point where it can discuss defence without proposing the invasion of New Zealand or concrete submarines.
  2. The Australian people just give up on the idea and leave it all to the experts.

I, personally, would be very sad to see option two come into effect.

Category: Asinine, Politics

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