Meeting the Challenge of Preparing for Future Conflicts: An Aussie Perspective


2017-08-29 By Robbin Laird

During my recent visit to Australia, I had a chance to continue my discussion with Major General (Retired) Jim Molan. He is a frequent commentator in the press and on the media generally on defense issues and with the recently announced Trump policy on Afghanistan as well as the North Korean crisis we had a chance to discuss the evolving policy environment for Australia.

Question: One of the impacts of the Korean crisis is clearly to remind us once again that we need to ramp up our capabilities and focus on the threat of coming high intensity and high temp military operations to defend our democracies.

Given the nature of our evolving forces, how should we view the mobilization challenge underlying the shift towards high intensity warfare?

Major General (Retired) Molan: It would seem to me that mobilization in relation to highly advanced systems is all about increased utilization on them.

I’m not sure that we have even considered that in the ADF. We have a fantastic system for training pilots but in peace time we may aim to train 1.5 pilots per airframe or something along those lines. Whereas, we should at least have plans and capability to very quickly increase our training for an airplane like the JSF, which is easier to fly than the F-18.

The idea of mobilization through increased utilization or whatever must start with government and flow down from government because like all things, it costs.

Question: Perhaps government needs to set up a mobilization department for national security and to provide a funding line.  This would increase not only monies available to the Department of Defence for preparation but also enhance public awareness about the nature of the conflicts we are facing.

Would this make sense?

Major General (Retired) Molan: We clearly need to do something along this line. Mobilization is not focused upon.  For example, the work of John Blackburn where he highlights the relatively small stocks of fuel that we have in Australia provides an example of not being prepared for the kind of disruption which an adversary would clearly aim at in the case of the run up or execution of high intensity operations.

There will be little point of having JSFs in Darwin if you cannot provide them with fuel. This is more than just a Defence issue, it is a national issue like building up Defence Industry in Australia which we are doing relatively well.

To get at this kind of mobilization capability, it will require a significant focus by government on funding and focusing on the core requirements and not just in defense per se. It also needs to be the responsibility of a minister so that someone is accountable and visibility is greater.

Question: Recently, President Trump announced his new policy on Afghanistan.  It is a clear attempt to focus the attention on the broader strategic situation, notably Pakistan and India, and to get out of the endless war ghetto into which Afghanistan has fallen.

 What is your take on the Trump approach?

Major General (Retired) Molan:  This is the first time that we have tried a sustained military presence to train the Afghan Army and to pursue tough action on the neighbors. I think this is the best policy that I have seen, the question I have is, can President Trump implement this policy the way it reads?

I think it’s a good policy but as with every one of these policies, the devil is in the detail of the implementation.

Can he achieve whatever he wants to achieve within four years, or eight years?

It is certainly refreshing that he has said that he is no longer providing operational details in relation to troop numbers.

Question: With regard to Australia and the US approach to allies, what do think the best approach going forward might be?

Major General (Retired) Molan: The first thing I’d say is that the U.S. is too polite to its allies. Far, far too polite to its allies. If anyone is going to change that, President Trump is going to change that.

When military realists like us are saying things internally about supporting the U.S., supporting the allies, and improving our own defense, we don’t get backed up by visiting U.S. people who come to this country and are too polite to us.

I believe that’s a real problem because it creates in the mind of Ministers and Prime Ministers the fact the Americans are very happy with the current state of affairs.

The second one, I think that we need to do much more. The U.S. needs to be frank in relation to the threat. That can be very hard but you can do it at a confidential or secret level.  We need to be much more realistic about the high-level threat.

The third thing is that Australia needs to realize and possibly the U.S. can assist us to realize that a disjointed development of our defense force does not benefit the U.S., or the Western cause as much as a balanced development of our defense force.

What I mean by that is that we are in the process of producing a magnificent Air Force. The Army and the Navy are so far behind that it will detract from where we’re going. The results of producing a magnificent Air Force but an Army and a Navy that cannot keep up means that the only thing the U.S. gets is a squadron of Growlers and a couple of squadron of JSFs.

If the U.S. encourages Australia to produce a balanced force, then either we can operate independently as a balanced and integrated joint force, or we can operate as part of the coalition as a balanced and integrated joint force.

The ADF has never been better than it is now and that our defense policy has never been better. But the strategic environment is significantly worse than when we planned for our force modernization.

We need to develop a generic operational concept, which expresses how Australia should react to a significant threat below the level of a fight for national survival. In a fight for national survival, anything goes.

What I’m saying is that a significant war of necessity may require from Australia an equally significant force deployment, far in excess of what we have done for years and years and years, because the strategic environment is so challenging.

If we are serious about Australian defense then we need to be serious about such a contingency. The question we need to ask is: Are we really designing a force capable of joint and integrated operations or are we creating an ADF that is still only capable of sending small contingents to fight beside a major ally.

We have done various analytical assessments along this line which suggest that an objective force of about 15,000 to 20,000 personnel is the minimum that would be needed, involving most Navy and Air Force assets (but not necessarily personnel), but a third of Army personnel in units.

This force should be able to be mobilized in a relatively short period of time (my judgement as an objective for government would be in less than 6 months) to be capable of conducting joint sophisticated warfighting operations against a peer competitor, and be sustained before rotation in various levels of combat for at least six to 12 months.

For the earlier interview, see the following:

Editor’s Note: The following biography of Jim Molan was taken from Wikipedia:

Major General Andrew James “Jim” Molan AO, DSC (born 11 April 1950) is a former senior officer in the Australian Army.

During his career he was Commanding Officer of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, Commander of the Army’s mechanised 1st Brigade, Commander of the 1st Division and its Deployable Joint Force Headquarters, and the Commander of the Australian Defence College.

In April 2004, he deployed for a year to Iraq to serve as the Chief of Operations for the new Headquarters Multinational Force in Iraq. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by the Australian Government, and the Legion of Merit by the United States Government. In August 2008 Molan released his first book, Running the War in Iraq.

Following his retirement from the army, Molan was appointed by the Abbott Government as a special envoy for Operation Sovereign Borders and was subsequently credited with being an architect of the coalition’s Stop the Boats Australian border protection and asylum-seeker policies.

In 2016 Molan was endorsed by the Liberal Party as a candidate for the Senate representing New South Wales at the 2016 federal election.

In August 2008 Molan released his first book, Running the War in Iraq. The book concentrated on his experience as Chief of Operations in Iraq during 2004–05, and contained some criticism about Australia’s capacity to engage in military conflict.

In an August 2008 speech, Molan stated that: “Our military competence was far worse than even we thought before East Timor, and people may not realise that the military performance bar has been raised by the nature of current conflict, as illustrated in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Writing in a February 2009 article, Molan called for a doubling of the Australian military presence in Afghanistan, from about 1,100 troops to 2,000.

Editor’s Note: If you wish to comment on this article, please see the following:

Preparing for Future Conflicts: A Discussion with Major General (Retired) Jim Molan