In late 1999, the Australian Chief of the Defence Forces, Admiral Barrie said he did not believe military conscription would be a particularly useful option for today's modern, high-technology military, and thus not necessary for Australia.
He was then a bit like US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had excessive but unrealistic faith in his US air power doctrine of ‘shock and awe’ coupled with a followup Blitzkrieg style ground warfare. Maybe both fancied themselves as a cross between the 1967 Israeli Air Force and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
On the other hand, Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, stated he had no major philosophical objection to conscription, and would be guided by professional military advice. Howard was more farsighted in keeping his options open.
They were responding to calls for military conscription following expressed concerns about Australia’s ability to sustain its force levels because of its involvement with not only international peace keeping duties but also so many of the US military adventures around the oil regions of the world.
Lo and behold, in January 2006, a long retired Admiral Barrie, known as a John Howard man, suddenly emerged from wherever he had hidden himself, and where he ought to have remained, to be the keynote speaker at an international maritime conference in Sydney. But more astonishing, this previous believer of the 'modern hi-tech over ground troops' doctrine made an amazing volte-face by proposing a re-introduction of the military draft for Australia.
He predicted the Australian Defence Force numbers will reduce markedly in coming years, and that even financial incentives won't attract young men and women to the job, as the new Aussie generation will grow more and more disenchanted with Australia's military involvement abroad. Admiral Barrie said:
“How the hell are we going to find the people we will need for our military forces and, frankly, the other services that we provide in our community in a climate in a few years' time, and I'm now talking about decades, where 50 per cent of the available workforce is aged 45 and over.”
Last year there were talks of Australia recruiting some 2000 Pacific Islanders (Fijians, Samoans, etc) through a financial, educational and citizenship scheme, and turning the enlisted Islanders into the equivalent of Aussie 'Gurkhas'. 2000 blokes would have given the Australian Defence Force around two infantry battalions or half a brigade.
Just to make sure he would catch the ears of Australians, Admiral Barrie also touched on one of Australia's sacred cows, the over-rated ANZUS military alliance (Australia-New Zealand-United States of America), where he warned that Australia will become irrelevant to the alliance unless it does something.
I am not entirely sure whether he had connected the two issues he expounded on, namely the ebbing significance of Aussie contribution to the ANZUS alliance and the need to re-introduce military conscription?
His suggestion of conscription was pooh-pooh away by the new Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, whom many Aussies have stopped trusting since they detected his unbridled political ambition after he joined the Cabinet. Nelson responded to Barrie's call by reminding reporters that Australia had gone down the 'draft' road before, during the Vietnam War, and has no intention to re-embark on such an (unpopular) avenue!
But before we could say ‘Diggers, at ease’, another long retired personality, former deputy PM Tim Fischer, a likable and good sort of bloke, and a Vietnam war veteran himself, came out to support of Admiral Barrie's recommendation, and even proposed details on how and what form the military conscription should adopt.
So we have just heard from two former Howard 'boys' within a short spell of time that military conscription (the dreadful draft) has to be the solution to Australia’s worrying difficulties in defence recruitment. Bet you 100 to one that their public mulling had been staged testings of the public waters for the Howard government's top secret plans to re-introduce the unpopular military conscription.
Forget about what the new Minister of Defence had said. He’s a bit like Sun Wu, the renowned Chinese military strategist, whose most famous line was ‘making a feint to the east but attacking in the west’.
If PM Howard senses absense of any vigorous public opposition to the Barrie-Fischer 'litmus tests', Australia will get its military conscription pretty soon.