Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 18, 2016

Firing Line, Australia’s Path to War (2016), by James Brown (Quarterly Essay #62)

Firing LineDid you know that in 2014, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott not only sent 200 of our special forces to Europe to help with the MH17 recovery operations, but also seriously – very seriously – also considered sending a battalion? (That’s 1000 troops from our small Australian army).  Fortunately he was talked out of it.  Citing a report in The Australian, the man who brings matters military to the long-overdue attention of the Australian public, former Australian Army officer and author James Brown says:

“Australia’s leading military planners … argued against that proposal, telling Mr Abbott there were serious problems with the plan: Australian soldiers would not be able to speak either Ukrainian or Russian, and the Australian troops would have difficulty distinguishing between the Ukrainian and the Russian militia”.  Beyond these concerns, the response of Russia to having an armed formation from a NATO partner country dropped near a sensitive border was a major issue.  The potential for harm to Australian troops was all too real.  The logic of deploying large numbers of troops into an active war zone alongside the border of a major global military power was entirely shaky.  (p. 51)

And that’s not all.  When it comes to assessing our capability to deploy troops, Australia has only the capacity to operate on a rule of three.  It’s called mathematactics.  That is, divide whatever our military strengths are by three, because while one third of our army, navy or air-force is on operations, one third is in for maintenance or repair, and the other third is working up the skills and procedures necessary to head out on operations next.   It’s obvious, when you think about it: maintaining a unit in the field soon exhausts people and equipment.  So plans to deploy a whole battalion or 200 of our special forces to anywhere for any purpose leaves Australia vulnerable if things go wrong elsewhere.

It is tempting to dismiss Abbott’s grandiose proposal as just another example of the embarrassing folly of the man who knighted Prince Phillip, but it’s more serious than that.  James Brown, now research director and adjunct associate professor at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, uses it as an example of how we in Australia don’t have satisfactory processes for determining when, how or why we should go to war, nor how to analyse whether the success of our military objectives, if there were any clear ones to start with, can be evaluated.  If Abbott had not been dissuaded, he could have made this colossal blunder as easily as John Howard committed Australia to deployment in Iraq.

Abbott’s stewardship of the ADF presents the clearest case in recent times of a prime minister struggling to grasp the limits of Australian military power. As much as overreach, Abbott’s thinking also reflects the flaws in Australia’s military model of the last decade.  Ours have been niche, discrete, tactical contributions, particularly of special forces, made to assist US coalitions.  That model may no longer be appropriate for a world of strategic rivalry among major powers.  In a world in which the United States and China are in prolonged competition, the decisions Australia makes on the alliance and the use of the nation’s military will be more complex, more deliberate, and involve combinations of responses rather than just the despatch of one or two units.  A better system for deciding to go to war will be needed – one that fosters long-term strategy, that can manage simultaneous crises, and in which prime ministers are well advised, but also have their power balanced. (p. 54)

Like most Australians, I am not interested in military matters, but if pressed, I would admit that I expect my government to keep me safe from external threats.   To have an adequate military force, and to have proper processes for determining when and how and why it gets used.  Although I’ve been opposed to nearly all wars since WW2, I’m not a pacifist, and I think some wars can be justified if they pass the Principles of a Just War.  I expect my government also to have smart people predicting potential scenarios, and analysing past deployments.

Well, according to Brown, we don’t have that, and he also says that government has lost public trust in the decision to go to war and we need better public accountability about it.   He argues that we have an Iraq war template that is past its use-by date, and although we’re beefing up our defence forces, we haven’t thought enough about what goes on in our region.  Our economy depends on access to the South China Sea, yes, that place where the Chinese are building militarised islands.  The US is clearly tense about China’s ambitions.  North Korea is going to threaten our neighbours in Asia with more nuclear capability; states in the southwest Pacific and New Guinea are unstable; Thailand is in a major political mess.  And technology in matters military is ahead of policy.   Australia is not ready for any of this…

I was pleased to see that a book Two Futures (see my review) written by my local member Clare O’Neil and fellow MP Tim Watts gets a mention as being on top of defence issues, but it’s important to get this conversation going.  If your eyes didn’t glaze over at the title of this post, and you’re still with me, get a copy of this Quarterly Essay or nag your library into getting one, and then read it.  You can also read an excerpt at the QE website.

Update: 26/8/16 A bunch of parliamentarians and former military chiefs are demanding action on the PM’s power to take us to war!  See the ABC report here.
Author: James Brown
Title: Firing Line, Australia’s Path to War, Quarterly Essay 62
Publisher: Black Inc,  June 2016
ISBN: 9781863958417 (pbk; also available as an eBook or to read online)
Source: my subscription to Quarterly Essay.


  1. My answer to the first two questions was yes and yes. But for the last one, can’t I just read your review?


    • Come on, it’s only 60-odd pages. You could read it over lunch.
      (But you raise an interesting point: I sometimes read reviews of NF books and think, well, I don’t need to read the book now).


  2. Scary stuff Lisa – who do we trust? Not one person that’s for sure because we’ve had some doozies as PM not just ‘shit happens’ Abbott. I guess we are only marginally better off than the Americans although they will be putting a lot of power in Trump’s tiny fingers if he wins – and that is terrifying. However, look at the legacy of Bush, Blair, and Howard. I’m not a true pacifist either yet can’t see many benefits in war and wonder if it is possible to ever get true accountability from government or the leaders of the armed forces. Depressing really:(
    I love your reviews but can the one you do next be a more cheerful book? x


    • That issue of accountability is (or should be) is current in the wake of the review in the UK, over and done with here with a two-minute interview with John Howard and that was the end of that.
      As for Trump, the Pauline Hanson of world politics? I keep reminding myself that we survived a president who used astrology in decision-making… but I don’t find it very comforting.
      LOL I hope you like my next two books: I’m reading Denny Day, the lawman who brought the Myall Creek murderers to justice, and Their Brilliant Careers which is a spoof of the Australian literary landscape.


  3. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  4. Agree that it’s tempting to put it down to Abbott the Idiot but…


    • It really is extraordinary that there is so little in place to ensure that wise decisions are made…


  5. That plan by the PM smacks of a politician trying to make the grand gesture to puff up their importance on the world stage. We have even more worrying examples in the form of Donald Trump. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed this time but you raise a key point about how decisions will be made in the future. Australia’s geographic location make its role in potential future conflict in the south China seas pivotal. Hope someone in yiur government is working on this.


    • *chuckle* So do I!
      But this whole topic has made me wonder about processes for deciding to go to war worldwide. Brown makes the point that a decision like that is the most significant decision any leader can make, yet it’s not just in recent times that decisions have been made in a cavalier way. And not having clear objectives, not having thought things through is why WW1 was such a debacle. What, I wonder, was Plan B in the Bay of Pigs crisis?
      In my naïveté I had thought that in the nuclear age that there would be a well-thought out process for all kinds of contingencies, but that’s not the case at all.


      • I think there are protocols and scenarios – the US military does extensive war games to plan for various eventualities. But what I’ve learned through involvement in various crisis situations (fortunately on a much smaller scale) is that you can plan and practice as much as you like but you can’t legislate for human reaction. People do odd things in stress situations. If you’re interested in the Bay of Pigs event you might like the film Thirteen Days which presents the military in a very combative way where the President has to consider other implications


  6. That book, Five Days in London, by John Lukacs ( is also an interesting one from the other angle, analysing the WW2 situation, which most people agree was a just war that had to be fought.


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