Federal Politics


What Defence really does

The Defence Force does more than fight wars. It is also a tool for foreign relations and humanitarian relief, ATHOL YATES writes

You might think that the military's withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan will naturally lead to a reduction in the number of operations carried out by the overstretched Australian Defence Force. This would actually be true if Defence's mission was just to fight and win wars. However, the ADF is used for far more than this, meaning that the high tempo of its current operations is likely to continue indefinitely.

Today, the ADF is not simply a machine to apply sanctioned violence for national security purposes. It has become a rare and valuable tool of the Australian government that is used to signal its concern, intent and willingness to cooperate to both international and domestic audiences. By employing the ADF following a natural disaster or in protection of maritime borders, the government can signal publicly its humanitarian concerns or political determination to both foreign governments and the Australian people.

Tasking the military with engaging with other militaries indicates a desire to build relationships with foreign governments, which hopefully leads to addressing more contentious issues such as maritime piracy, counter-terrorism and organised crime. This desire to build confidence and trust is behind the ADF's recent increased interaction with China. Examples are the 2011 humanitarian assistance exercise between the ADF and the People's Liberation Army, and the 2010 live-firing exercise between the ADF and the Chinese navy. The Australian government is also finding the ADF more critical to its support of other government agencies in areas such as cyber security and intelligence gathered through electronic signals intercepts.

Three factors have made the ADF more useful to the Australian government.

Firstly, the ADF has significantly greater capabilities to contribute in far more circumstances than ever before. For example, in the last decade the ADF had only the relatively low payload and medium-range C-130 Hercules aircraft by which it could provide rapid disaster relief to other countries. Today Australia has the massive, longer range C-17 Globemaster which carries more than three times the payload of the C-130. In addition, the ADF has moved from being a rigid inflexible organisation to a more nimble and joint service organisation which has better trained, better educated and better supported people.

This is best seen in the army where the quality of the Special Forces has increased significantly, meaning that they can more confidently be used for many non-traditional military tasks such as counter-terrorism, covert intelligence-gathering in friendly countries, hostage recovery, and support of counter-drug operations. While the military have always had a ''can do'' attitude, nowadays they are more likely to actually complete novel missions quickly, effectively and free of mishap.


Secondly, the military has become comparatively more important for the government as a tool for foreign relations. This is due primarily to the decline in usefulness of more traditional mechanisms such as foreign aid, diplomatic recognition and trade policy. Gone are the days where Australia was the undisputed regional power able to influence Pacific and some south-east Asian countries through its powers of diplomacy, economy actions and foreign aid largesse. Today, the rise of other regional powers, constraints on Australia's ability to use its powers imposed by the World Trade Organisation and other multi-country agreements, and the growth in the power of both business and non-government organisations have combined to mean that the traditional tools of Australia's influence have less impact.

Employing the military internationally for both hard (military) and soft (non-military) power purposes has become an effective sign of the government's international relations intent. For example, having the Air Force's C-17 with its distinctive Australian livery arrive in Japan following last year's tsunami visibly signals Australia's solidarity with the country far more than providing funds to country-independent organisations such as the Red Cross or funds such as the Pacific Disaster Appeal.

The third factor that has made the ADF more useful to the Australian government has been the public's growing pride in its military. This is reflected in the surge in interest in military commemorations and recognition of the ADF's contribution to domestic and international relief operations. Notwithstanding the negativity from the ADF's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ongoing abuse incidents, the public's favourable reaction to the military makes its use more appealing to governments.

The benefits to the government of deploying the military were illustrated following the 2009 Victorian bushfires. ADF personnel were involved in the response for seven weeks and their engagement peaked at 850 personnel.

The Victorian public was effusive in its praise of the ADF's involvement, which reflected well upon the government. Contrast this with the subdued recognition for the other main government agency involved in the disaster, Centrelink.

This agency deployed several hundred staff to support the recovery activities including staffing Relief and Recovery Centres and Community Hubs, processing the huge number of emergency payments and handling call centre overflow for the Victorian Bushfire Information Line. Despite the sterling job that Centrelink did and the fact that its role was probably more critical than Defence, the government got little reflected glory from it. As these three trends look like continuing, it is inevitable that the government will increasingly call upon Defence for many and varied tasks. It is also certain that the government will expect that the ADF delivers what is asked of it even more effectively and efficiently.

Given that the development of the new Defence white paper is under way, now is a good time for the reality of what Defence does to be embedded into its strategic guidance. One idea would be to change its mission statement from ''defending Australia from attack and protecting national interests'', to the more prosaic but accurate ''providing the government with options''.

Dr Yates is executive director of the Australian Security Research Centre.