The ‘Army’s future force structure options’ conference (convened by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ASPI) was recently held on 24–26 June. A key topic among many of the prominent speakers was the issue of the Army’s role in the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) international engagement, particularly regarding the benefits obtained through such interactions and the potential scope to increase these efforts.
During the conference’s first session, Chief of Army Lieutenant General Angus Campbell‘s remarks highlighted the role of international engagement, as part of the Army’s support to various ADF operations. He particularly noted the importance of international engagement in ‘building confidence, and promoting common strategic understanding and interests’, and identified partnerships within the ‘Indo Pacific region’ for further capacity-building through enhanced cooperation.
International engagement was also the main subject of the address by Deputy Chief of Army, Major General Rick Burr. Major General Burr particularly emphasised the strategic significance of Australia’s regional army-to-army engagement, as six of the ten largest armies in the world are in the Indo Pacific region—and are often ‘dominant and influential pillars of the national establishment’. He also contextualised the current scope of the Australian Army’s international engagement, incorporating:
- relationships with armies in over 40 other countries
- annual senior leadership staff talks with 18 other countries
- ·over 120 bilateral and multilateral exercises each year and
- approximately 260 personnel permanently stationed overseas, with reciprocal opportunities in Australia.
In terms of tangible benefits provided by the Australian Army’s international engagement program, Major General Burr cited humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations as a clear ‘return on investment [where] a vital element of any HADR response is the coordination of the many contributors in what is typically a complex, chaotic environment’. Within this context, experience from participation in multilateral HADR exercises can improve the response of contributing defence forces, as seen in the response to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 and the earthquake in Nepal earlier this year.
However, Major General Burr also cautioned that despite the many benefits that international engagement provides, the Australian Army’s relatively small size and restricted resources will require a considered balance of effort among competing requirements. Additionally, the needs of partner nations must also be fully recognised, especially in understanding their capacities to absorb Australian assistance.
For its part, the Australian Government has continued to increase funding for the Defence Cooperation Programme, which is a substantial component of overall international defence engagement. The total 2015–16 budget estimate for the Defence Cooperation Programme (p. 127) is approximately $106.6 million, an increase of 17.5 per cent from the previous year. A key element of this is an almost $12 million rise in funding for defence cooperation with Papua New Guinea, while additional funding has also been allocated to reinstate Australia’s defence relationship with Fiji.
The future of the ADF’s international engagement program will almost certainly be addressed in the upcoming 2015 Defence White Paper (DWP). This document will be ‘released in the next few months’, according to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who also addressed the ASPI conference. The previous 2013 DWP devoted an entire chapter to Australia’s international defence engagement program, and claimed that this is ‘a critical component of the Government’s approach to managing the strategic transformation occurring in our region’.