It is marvellous that the Australian Defence Force is able to help the emergency services deal with the Queensland floods - and this will be one of the only purposes it is good for on the federal government's current trajectory.
That's not necessarily a terrible thing. That's the choice New Zealand has made, for example. The New Zealand military is useful in natural disasters, it can join peacekeeping missions and it contributes special forces to international ventures.
It's just that it is useless in a traditional large-scale war. New Zealand has decided that it doesn't need to worry about old-fashioned wars, strategic competition and invasions.
It has been described as a "postmodern state" by British diplomat and theorist Robert Cooper. This is one that relinquishes the traditional tools of the independent nation and pools its resources with other nations to solve common problems.
This is a bit of a luxury because it saves that country a lot of money. In 2010, New Zealand spent 40 per cent less on defence as a proportion of its GDP than Australia did.
It's also a rare luxury. The only others to qualify as postmodern states are the European Union, with its project of unification, and Japan, with its postwar "peace constitution" that renounces the use of armed force.
Cooper said that the globe was moving towards a postmodern system because "the world's grown honest". As he wrote in 2002, "a large number of the most powerful states no longer want to fight or conquer".
That may be so in Europe, but in Asia the trend is the reverse. Former US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, likes to say: "It's unthinkable that we could wake up tomorrow and find that a major war has broken out in Europe; it's quite conceivable that we could wake up tomorrow and find that a major war has broken out in Asia."
Japan is rapidly reverting to "modern state" status. Its new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has declared that he aims to rewrite the constitution to authorise armed force, and he intends to increase military spending.
The peace constitution was thrust upon Japan by its World War II conqueror, America. The move towards revising it is being propelled by rising tensions with North Korea and China.
Pyongyang has responded to a recent tightening of United Nations sanctions against it by stating that it will never yield its right to develop nuclear arms. Analysts expect North Korea to conduct another nuclear test in the days ahead.
The historical resentment between China and Japan has flared in recent months. The two nations have engaged in an escalation over the disputed group of tiny islands known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China.
China took the dispute to a new level by sending military aircraft to fly over the islands. Japan responded last week by saying it would fire "warning shots" if any Chinese aircraft failed to heed warnings to back off.
This "increased exponentially" the risk of a serious strategic crisis between Asia's two biggest powers, in the words of Chris Nelson, a Washington-based Asia analyst and publisher of the Nelson Report.
Abe sent an emissary to China's new leader, Xi Jinping, in an effort to break the cycle of escalation. The result is not yet clear.
But Abe's broader intention to recover the use of armed force for his country is really just reverting to the norm. This is the way of most countries, nations that maintain the full range of mechanisms to control their own destinies.
It recognises the reality that China has increased its defence budget faster than any nation in Asia over the past decade. Its military outlays grew at an 11-year compounded annual growth rate of 13.4 per cent, according to a CSIS study. At this rate, it quadruples in a dozen years and will eclipse the US defence budget in 25 years.
In large part, New Zealand has been able to afford the luxury of abandoning its strike capability because it is protected by the strategic bulk of Australia.
In its public pronouncements, Australia has taken a very different course. In the defence white paper published in 2009, the federal government said: "Maintaining a credible defence capability is a crucial contributor to our security, as it can serve to deter potential adversaries from using force against us or our allies, partners and neighbours.
"It is the government's policy that the main role of the Australian Defence Force should continue to be an ability to engage in conventional combat against other armed forces."
And acknowledging that it wasn't enough to just issue declarations of intent, the white paper said that "we have to be prepared to invest the resources required".
Announcing a new vision called Force 2030, the government promised a major new fleet of 12 submarines to replace Australia's existing six decrepit Collins-class subs, and up to 100 of the new US-built air force jets, the joint strike fighters.
The meaning was clear. Australia under Kevin Rudd was hedging against the risk that a rising China could prove to be an aggressive rising power. A strategy of hedging means working towards the best outcome, while preparing for the worst.
Australia would be able to defend its northern approaches and contribute to the defence of its allies in the event that the worst came to pass.
But with the passing of Rudd went the passing of this plan. The former defence official and founder of the Kokoda Foundation, Ross Babbage, sums up the Gillard government's dramatic revision of the 2009 policy:
"The Australian defence budget was cut by almost 5 per cent in 2010-11 and then in last year's budget it was cut again by 10.47 per cent. This reduced our defence spending to 1.56 per cent of GDP, the lowest it has been since 1938. Further cuts can be expected in this year's white paper."
These cuts mean that the Force 2030 vision is effectively dead, according to experts, although the government will not admit as much. A leaked draft of the forthcoming defence white paper suggests that Australia might have just two of the US-made joint strike fighters by 2020. Australia's defence force, already inadequate for any serious conflict, will increasingly lose credibility and relevance.
In truth, Australia's defence position is very similar to New Zealand's. As New Zealand hides behind Australia's strategic bulk, the Gillard government is hiding behind America's "Asia pivot" and its commitment of marines to Darwin.
The difference is that what New Zealand has said openly, Australia will not admit. The Air Force may continue to impress the kids with the Australia Day flyover, but with each passing year the Australian defence force will grow less and less impressive to the rest of the world.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor.