It would be wrong to assume that because Australia is withdrawing its combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 it will never deploy a fighting force overseas again, the Army's top officer has said.
Lieutenant-General David Morrison said that conclusion had been drawn in the wake of the Vietnam War and had cost Australia dearly.
He warned neither the size of the Australian army, nor the amount of money that is spent on it, should be cut back on the false assumption there was a ''peace dividend''.
''So-called peace dividends seldom, if ever, accrue. History has clearly demonstrated that 'peace dividends' invariably become 'peace liabilities' when the military must restore its capabilities, often as it grapples with new operational challenges at the cost of significant blood and treasure,''' he said.
Speaking to members of the Defence elite, including analysts, senior officers from across the services and defence contractors at an Australian Strategic Policy Institute Dinner on Wednesday night, General Morrison said war was inevitable and it was only sensible to be prepared.
''I agree with George Santayana, 'that only the dead have seen an end to war'. Soldiers are realists with a disposition to pessimism.''
He noted the stage appeared to be set for conflict in what has been described as ''the Asia Pacific century'' and cited British academic and demographer Coral Bell's 2005 ASPI paper Living With Giants: Finding Australia's Place in a More Complex World.
Dr Bell, the author of A World Out of Balance, warned rapid population growth - and its economic consequences - would have dramatic effects on the balance of power across the region in the 21st century. She said many of the 20 nations expected to have more than 100 million people by the middle of the century were in Australia's neighbourhood.
''That will mean unprecedented demand for oil, water and fertile land - some of which will be in short supply. That will mean the certainty of competition in demand and the probability of rather frequent crises.''
Countries on Dr Bell's list include China with an estimated 1.4 billion people by 2050 and India with an estimated 1.5 billion people.
''Our fundamental force development principle is that military operations against a credible, technologically enabled opponent, possessing war fighting capabilities similar to our own, must remain the foundation of all planning,'' General Morrison said.
''I have been telling the Army for some time now we cannot benchmark ourselves against the Taliban.''
General Morrison said the ''strategic shock'' generated by the realisation of just how poorly Australia had been prepared to respond to the East Timor crisis in 1999 had led to major change. ''Over the past decade we have substantially enhanced our fire power, combat mobility and levels of protection.''
Sources at the dinner said the spend on battlefield kit for individual diggers had increased almost 10-fold from about $2700 in the 1990s to around $30,000 today.
That money has bought state-of-the-art weapons, and better battlefield communications.