Major General (Retired) Molan on the Reshaping of Australian Defense

By Robbin Laird

During my recent visit to Australia, I had a chance to meet with Major General (Retired) Jim Molan.

He is a frequent commentator in the press and on the media generally defense issues and given the significant dynamics of change in Asia and the coming of Trump to the presidency, provided some thoughts on the challenges facing Australia and building out an appropriate defense capability.

We started our discussion by discussing his recent trip to Israel and the meetings, which the analysis group of which he is a part had with senior Israeli officials.

Major General (Retired) Jim Molan

Major General (Retired) Molan: The Israelis face a number of difficult threats, and threats, which we need to pay attention to in Australia, as some of the capabilities being displayed by the Hezbollah, are globally transferable. The Hezbollah have access to thousands of missiles, many provided by Iran.

A key threat to Israel then is the potential use of these missiles not just against Israeli territory but the shipping into and out of Israel. Israel is a very export dependent country as many of us are.

And the threat to attack civilian shipping and then freeze the sea trade is real. For these are civilian ships which move because there is a commercial insurance trade; and that trade stops when ships are sunk or attacked in areas of high threat. And in turn traffic is stopped.

Hezbollah sank a commercial ship at relatively long range in Israeli waters in 2006, and not one ship visited Israel for a month. And this is one of the things they’re worried about.

The ability of terrorists or states to hit commercial shipping is one which should be of high concern to the liberal democracies.

Question: And given our dependence collectively on foreign merchant marines this is doubly so. Your thoughts?

Major General (Retired) Molan: That is a good point.

If we don’t think more broadly about the security of seaborne commerce we are collectively facing a very serious challenge indeed. What good is keeping sea lines of communications open if no ships come?

The Israelis focused on how the state of Lebanon has become a launching point for Hezbollah and they underscored that they were not simply going to sit back and wait to see a full scale attack from Hezbollah.

They were not going to accept the notion that Lebanon is a sanctuary from which Hezbollah could operate. The government of Lebanon had to understand that they were a possible subject of a preemptive strike if needed.

As we were told: “We have the option of acting preemptively. But we’ve got to be provoked to act preemptively”.

And if they do, then their view is that they will see no difference between Hezbollah and Lebanon, and they will ensure that any supporting infrastructure from the Lebanese community that goes to Hezbollah will be destroyed. It would take ten years to replace that, if the Israelis are provoked, act preemptively, and do what they’re very good at doing.

And we do not want to see a similar strategy show up in our region threatening Australia’s sea lanes of communication as well.

Question: Trump is clearly not the most popular American president in recent memory in Australia. But the inability of the US and the allies to stop North Korea is clearly putting in place a more realistic sense of what needs to be done.

How do you see this?

Major General (Retired) Molan: One reason Trump is not popular is that he has spoken the truth about American capabilities.

The US is no longer a hegemonic superpower; the rise of China can not simply be met by the United States. We, the allies of the US, need to do more, much more in our own defense.

The best allies are strong allies.

We Australians have shaped a very good template for 21st century defense; the service chiefs and the Minister have done a good job.

I have never seen a better defence policy in Australia since the first in 1976, nor have I seen the Australian Defence Force as good as it is today.

But the demands from the strategic environment in which we operate are so very much higher and unpredictable than anything really since 1945.

But we are still significantly underfunded to get that template in place with enough capability to make a real impact on the Chinese or other challengers in the region.

In the past we have spent as little as we possibly can spend on defense, because we expect the US to do the heavy lifting.

We’ve been a long way away from any significant conflict in the post-War world, we’ve never had to mobilize seriously, or even expand seriously.

That has now changed.

Question: How has the situation changes for Australia and how would you identify the way ahead for Australian defense policy?

The threats are in Asia and on our doorstep.

We need a policy and resourcing that recognizes that we are facing not wars of choice but threats close to home, including real nuclear ones, real wars of necessity.

We now find the US as a much less relatively powerful country, a point which Trump has realistically underscored.

We Australians need a policy, which recognizes this and builds more of our capabilities and alliance capabilities in the region, not just with the United States.

If we were a logical nation we would say, “the strategic environment has significantly changed, therefore Australia can no longer be the dependent ally , it must be a self-sufficient ally.”

The Australian National Flag flies high on Anderson Air Base during Exercise Cope North.  Held from 15th February to 3rd March 2017 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, an Air Task Group from the RAAF involving F/A-18A Hornet, E-7A Wedgetail, C-130J Hercules aircraft as well as combat support and medical elements have deployed for the Exercise. CN17 involves over 2000 personnel and approximately 100 aircraft and aims to increase the combat readiness and interoperability of the USAF, JASDF and RAAF. Credit: Australian Ministry of Defence

And that makes us a much better ally in the big challenges that are to come down the road.

We’re always a good ally because we provide relatively high quality small forces to whatever is going on, therefore you’ve got a good flag and you’ve got some forces on the ground. And that’s how we paid our dues.

The situation has changed dramatically, but it hasn’t affected our defense policy one iota in terms of resources or sense of urgency.

It then is a question of focus as well.

Where do we put our emphasis?

Clearly part of this focus needs to be building out our capabilities with our regional allies.

It is as well shaping the forces necessary to make a difference.

One way to do this is to focus on the Chinese push out in the South China Sea and recognize it for what it is.

We need to work with Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia on our own version of anti-access area denial to the Chinese pushing out into our common area of interest. We need to get serious about proactive capabilities, which can enforce sea denial to the Chinese.

Any South China sea conflict will occur through the Indonesian archipelago, that’s where the things will start to happen first. The first thing that anyone will want to do is close off the energy flows that go to China.

And the way to do that is to close those straits, and the way to do that is to either put mines in them, clever mines in them, or put clever submarines in them.

Working with our allies we can certainly do this; but it will take focus and resources, something that is required now because of the objective situation of the United States and the proximity of the threat to us.

It is no longer a show the flag at distant shores drill; it is preparing for the real defense of Australia in a world where the United States is not a hegemonic power.

We need to get serious in terms of funding and commitment and act on a sense of reality.

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: In a recently published edited book, Molan discussed the current situation facing Australia and concluded the following:

Therefore the profound shift in the threat environment means that the traditional role of the ADF, to provide small forces for wars of choice distant from Australia, now needs to be supplemented by serious preparations for the conduct of high end joint warfighting in defence of the nation…

As a nation with the fifth highest per capita income, the twelfth highest GDP and the fifty-fourth highest population of about 200 countries in the world, the only thing that Australia needs to defend itself, even against extreme threats, is resolve and time.

The more resolve we develop now, the less time we will need in the future, and the greater our ability to deter conflict or to win if deterrence fails.

And for a 2016 radio interview which discussed the global refugee crisis, see the following:

Are we at an impasse in terms of Australia’s refugee policy?

Retired Major General Jim Molan, former federal government advisor and envoy for Operation Sovereign Borders, says Australia’s current refugee policy is heading in the right direction.

He’s part of a panel discussion at Manning Clarke House on Tuesday night:

Duration: 8min 11sec

Broadcast: Mon 10 Oct 2016, 9:00am

Published: Mon 10 Oct 2016, 10:58am


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