Deployed Reality and Australian Reliance : Can Australia Stand and Fight Alone?

By Scott Graham Lovell

Looking back at the history of Australia at war, there has not been a single major conflict that has been undertaken solely by the ADF.

Although conflicts like Timor Leste have been conducted as a stand-alone force and regional peacekeeping activities have been a success with little to no other nation’s assistance, all of the major conflicts that the ADF has been involved in (WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq 1 and 2, Afghanistan, etc), we were there as a supplementary force in support of the major war effort led by our big brothers (US and UK).

We have always relied heavily on other nations equipment, infrastructure, logistics, transport etc. in order to get the job done, which poses the question… Can the ADF stand and fight alone?

What if there was a major regional conflict that was the sole responsibility for the ADF to fight.

Would the ADF have the manpower, equipment, logistics support and deployable infrastructure to deploy on a large scale and fight a major war on its own?

Is the ADF grossly undermanned and underequipped for full scale modern warfare?

This article takes a look at a brief history of ADF deployment reliance, the minimum requirements for a force level deployment, how the current ADF model stands up against these requirements and some possible force transformation options the ADF could consider.

Looking Back at ADF Deployment Reliance

The question being asked here is “has the ADF ever truly deployed outside Australia as a self-contained contingent force”? Let’s take a brief look at some recent ADF deployments:

Al Minhad UAE – Headquarters of ADF Task Force 633, logistic hub and staging location for all ADF Middle East operations. This is a UAE Air Force Base. All infrastructure is provided by the UAE Air Force and the ADF (as well as other nation’s forces) are their guests.

Kandahar Air Base Afghanistan – Built by the US in the 1950’s, recaptured by the US from the Taliban in 2001 during OP Enduring Freedom and operated primarily by the throughout the Afghan conflict. Elements of the ADF’s 5th Aviation Regiment presence there were reliant heavily on infrastructure provided by the US and at times they had leaned on the US CH-47 logistics chain to continue operating their D models.

Tarin Kowt – The ADF primarily operated out of US built FOB Ripley and Dutch built Camp Holland. Although Australian SAS troopers were involved in the initial taking of locations throughout Afghanistan, the main infrastructure components that allowed continued operations such as reconstruction and mentoring was provided by other nation’s forces.

Iraq – Post initial invasion in 2003, where Australian Army, Navy and Airforce all played vital roles, the bulk of Australian Forces returned home after the major fighting effort, where continuing operations like humanitarian supply drops were run out of Al Minhad. Although the Al Muthanna task group re-entered Iraq in 2005 as security forces for Japanese engineers and trainers to the Iraqi Military and were accompanied by Australian ASLAVs and Bushmasters, the contingent was at max strength 500 personnel and were injected post support infrastructure development.

Timor Leste – an initial conflict resolution force followed by sustained peacekeeping operations in a nation merely an hour and a half’s flight north of Darwin.

This WAS primarily an ADF operation and deployment, so credit where it is due, however the following factors detract from the success of this deployment:

  • In 1999, Diplomatic support from the US, where President Clinton warned Indonesia (who was struggling financially) that their actions would directly affect future assistance from the international community, forced the Indonesian President to relent and withdraw troop to allow the ADF peacekeepers to do their duty – pretty much allowing the ADF to take control of the capital with minimal resistance and clear troops from the area within a month.
  • In 2006 when the Military coup occurred and Australia was asked to intervene again, this was at the request of the Timorese government, so the entry into Dili was unencumbered.
  • The 2006 re-entry effort was supported by other nations such as Malaysia, New Zealand, Portugal and the UN.
  • The ADF relied heavily on local and contracted support to sustain these peacekeeping operations right up until 2012, outsourcing everything from cooking, cleaning and laundry services to transport, logistics and medical. Both the people of Timor Leste and Toll Transitions took a big financial hit once the ADF evacuated Dili.

The ADF has some of the bravest, best trained, effective and competent personnel in the world, however they seem to be let down with short of the mark indigenous support required to conduct major operations autonomously.

Going all the way back to Vietnam, I have been told stories by my veteran uncle, where the Australian logistics supply situation in Nui Dat was so dire, that on a regular basis they would send an SAS soldier to sneak into a US logistics storage yard with a can of yellow spray paint and a stencil of a kangaroo, then the next day arrive with trucks and ask the duty QM “has any of our stuff been delivered here by mistake”?

Deployment Requirements

If the ADF is required to enter a hostile first world nation in order to conduct war-like operations towards a conflict resolution, what would be required in order to enable such a deployment?

Air Superiority

The key enabler to conduct operations.

Forget being able to put boots on the ground in a country that controls the airspace.

The ADF air-power inventory is impressive for such a relatively small Defence Force (F-35A Lightning II, Hornet, Super Hornet, Growler), yet to claim air-superiority against other first world countries in our region (e.g. Indonesia, China, North Korea, Singapore, India, Pakistan, etc) is a stretch at best.

Naval Force Projection

Without naval superiority, it is difficult to deploy forces into a hostile nation.

Again, for a small Defence Force, the ADF Naval compliment is excellent, allowing us to generally “punch above our weight” in naval operations, but is it enough to be able to project force through our neighbouring nations naval defence systems without unacceptable attrition?

A Sufficient Insertion Force

Assuming that we can now get boots on the ground, does the ADF have sufficient numbers and resources to establish a secure a point of disembarkation and forward operating base?

Just some considerations for such a force would include:

    • Forward security force
    • Landing forces
    • Area defence consideration (GBAD, obstacle fields, hardened perimeter material, etc)
    • Stand-off artillery
    • Airfield / port capture and hold or construction capabilities
    • Secure logistics supply routes
    • Air/ground equipment maintenance facilities
    • Medical services
    • Mess facilities
    • Hardened fuel storage
    • Water purification
    • Armoured vehicles
    • Protected Mobility Vehicles
    • Troop and cargo airlift capabilities
    • Secure communications infrastructure
    • Mail services
    • Mortuary services
    • QM services
    • Storage and warehousing
    • Quarters/barracks
    • Ablutions and septic treatment
    • Etc

All of the above and more needs to be established before you can begin sustained operations or asserting influence on a large scale outside the wire.

For the most part, the ADF does have the capability to provide the above minimum requirements for a landing force and sustained operations, but on what scale?

How many different strategic locations could the ADF hold at one time?

I believe that a single, self-sufficient FOB establishment activity as described above, is a Brigade level effort for the Army (with Divisional element and SpecOps support).

As of the execution of Plan Beersheba in 2019, the ADF can realistically provide one Division of three (3) Brigades of regular service personnel, with a far less capable second Division of reserves for supplemental support.

In reality, regardless of the conflict scenario, the ADF would never deploy all of its capability at once, leaving the homeland defenceless, thus the true limitation of the ADF’s effectiveness in this context is its size.

The ADF consists of approximately 58,000 personnel with 21,000 active reservists. In recent operational history, we have struggled to deploy more than 5,000 of these personnel at a time.

To suggest the ADF is capable and ready to deploy at the Division level is being optimistic at best.

An argument can be made that suggests that in times of war, the country will rise to meet the challenges, like we did in WWI and WWII.

In times of great need we could again count on the patriotism of the men and women in our country and surge to over half a million active personnel, and have the housewives and non-combatants all working in munitions factories and ship yards supporting the war effort.

But with the generational changes and dynamics would this be true today?

This generation of woke, anaemic, vegan keyboard warriors can barely handle the pressure of a 2 week quarantine or the offence of being misgendered, let alone the possibility of going to war.

There are many exceptions of course, but most of those brave people are already serving their country, have previously served, have the will but not the ability or find themselves in a position where they would take a significant financial loss if they were to drop their current vocation for uniformed service (this isn’t the late 30’s where there is no other available work for able bodied people).

In reality, the ADF, although they are a well-equipped, well trained and highly efficient modern Defence Force, due to their limitations in Air superiority, Naval force projection and sheer size, could not now nor in the near future be considered capable of self-sufficiency leading to a meaningful single-handed contribution in a war against a regional first world threat nation.

What needs to change?

The answer in my mind is reasonably straight forward… the ADF needs to grow, and grow in the right ways.

The following outlines some basic changes that would need to occur in order to grow the ADF into a self-sufficient regional force to be reckoned with:

We need to be smarter with the Defence Budget

The ADF budget tends to hover around the 2% GDP mark, equivalent to over $30 billion per year, which is more than enough to allow for aggressive growth if we were to spend the money wisely. The ADF seems to be obsessed with buying nothing but brand new (and most times, unproven) capabilities, costing a significant proportion of the Defence Budget (e.g. JSF program = $17b, MRH90 program = $4b, LHD program = $3b, Super Hornet program = $6b).

Although these platforms can help give a technological edge on the battlefield, there is a limit to what can be achieved with these relatively small fleets. The ADF should perhaps try to get more “bang for their buck” buying second hand, reconditioned fleets from our allies (especially the US – they retire more platforms in a year than we own!).

They are proven capabilities that you could pick up at a fraction of the price and could expand the ADF capability significantly in short order (assuming that lifing and sustainment options are viable).

Just as an example of what these savings could achieve; for the cost of a single brand new JSF aircraft (procurement only, not including sustainment), you could gain, train and sustain over 100 Defence personnel for 10 years and reclaim approx. 30% of that cost to the government through income tax, with the other 70% going into the economy.

Stockpiling of non-perishable deployment critical material

During deployments, the ADF regularly get gouged by suppliers due to the reactionary nature of deployment necessity, and are often left wanting due to the supply turnaround times. If the ADF were to plan better with respect to all necessities required for a self-sufficient deployment, stockpile these items and actually utilise them as they were intended, then their flexibility and surge capacity would increase dramatically.

This includes items such as munitions, ballistic protection barriers, hardened/climate controlled shipping containers, etc. This is done to a small extent already at the Joint Logistics Units and the national storage and distribution centre, but not at the scale required.

The ADF needs to be able to expand their logistics capabilities significantly.

In times of war, you cannot rely on civilian companies to provide any logistic support into a war zone. There are exceptions, but for the most part, you’d either be paying through the nose for the service, or not be able to get the service at all. The ADF should think about procuring, refurbishing and militarising civilian logistics transport assets (container ships, deployable cranes, cargo aircraft, etc) in order to ensure the logistics support required. These types of assets would be perfect to be run by reservists, who would now get their own dedicated equipment to manage and support mission.

The ADF needs to take control of their supply chain.

those of us who have worked in Defence procurements know that any supplier, regardless of what they make, have two prices; one for the military and one for everyone else. The military pays above top dollar for almost every item or service they procure, simply because the Industry suppliers know their processes and their budget and take full advantage.

The ADF, being such a large and well-funded government organisation, has been instructed to always carefully consider the Defence Industry and local economy when making critical capability decisions, to the point where we have gotten the wrong capability entirely, just to satisfy local political agendas.

It is time to put the lives of our fighting men and women first! It is time to ensure that the right equipment is procured, regardless of local job creation or politics and to pay real market value to ensure we get sufficient materiel and services within a reasonable budget.

This is all a part of being smarter with the budget in order to grow the military.

In the end, it would be a long and cumbersome process to change the ADF into a truly self-sufficient military force that could hold its own in a modern first world conflict scenario.

It is my opinion that the way ahead for the ADF is to shift their focus from primarily spending on cutting edge technology procurements towards growing the military by at least a factor of four (4) and expanding their Army organisational structure into at least three Divisions of full time, fully equipped personnel, supported by sufficient indigenous deployment capabilities, robust logistics infrastructure and less technologically advanced, but far increased volume of Naval and Air Force weapon platforms.

And when I say “less technologically advanced,” I am not referring to WWII era weapon systems, or anything that is obsolete. Any capability used must be fit for purpose and capable of providing suitable battlefield effect.

Scott Graham Lovell (BE Elec (Hons), MEngSci (Aero), MSysEng):

Scott is an ex-Army Soldier (Signals) and Officer (RAEME) and an Electrical, Aerospace and Systems Engineer with 20 years Defence experience.

He has a wide range of experience within the ADF, from deployed operations to major acquisition and design projects. Scott is currently working as an independent contractor on various civilian and military aerospace and infrastructure projects under his company LAESE Pty Ltd.