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$10b expansion will bring strength

 $10b expansion

Source: The Australian

LAST year's hardened and networked army (HNA) initiative, announced by Prime Minister John Howard and the Chief of Army Lt-Gen Peter Leahy, signalled the start of an expansion in both numbers and combat punch for a force which, just over a decade ago, was adjusting to its likely role as a defensive backstop to the RAAF and RAN.

The HNA announcement was followed earlier this year by the news the army would expand by two regular infantry battalions, or about 2500 troops, at a cost of some $10 billion in the next decade.

This expansion was universally welcomed: the army has been stretched in recent years by concurrent operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor and Solomon Islands. Furthermore, its equipment hadn't been updated sufficiently during the 1980s and '90s to both counter emerging threats and exploit emerging technologies.

Leahy has sought to change all that over a six-year stretch as, first, deputy chief of army under General Peter Cosgrove, and then as chief. He convinced the Government to commit an extra $1.5 billion in the last budget to new HNA-related expenditure, on top of the several billions of dollars already assigned to Army in the Defence Capability Plan.

And he has argued successfully for that most expensive option, a permanent increase in manpower.

However, Army is currently some 2000 personnel under strength so needs to recruit, and retain, over 4000 soldiers to meet its expanded manpower goals.

Interestingly, the Army isn't short of infantrymen so much as technical specialists and mid-ranking officers. Defence Minister Brendan Nelson and Minister Assisting Bruce Billson, have foreshadowed major announcements on recruiting and retention.

Some new measures have been put in place to address delays in the recruiting process, and family and lifestyle issues which have impacted on retention, but there's more to come.

Defence's sluggish and bureaucratic recruitment processes have discouraged some potential recruits. But the ADF has also denied itself access to a sizeable proportion of the population by not seeking to recruit more women and by refusing people with certain conditions such as asthma, or people who admit to having taken certain types of drugs.

Nelson has foreshadowed changes in this area, but the big announcements haven't come as yet.

Tomorrow's recruits will serve in or alongside a re-organised infantry force which will be harder-hitting and better protected: the Darwin-based heavy mechanised battalion 5/7 RAR will split into two units; 5 RAR will remain there while 7 RAR will be formed as its mirror image in Adelaide, to be combat-ready by 2010. A new light infantry unit, 8/9 RAR, will then be formed in south-east Queensland.

The location of 7 RAR in Adelaide is another attempt to address lifestyle and family issues for soldiers serving in the tropics, but the unit will still form part of the Darwin-based 1 Brigade.

Both mechanised battalions will operate the upgraded M113 armoured personnel carrier, using the Adelaide-Darwin rail link to bring them together for training and operations.

The $10 billion mentioned earlier covers the vehicles, weapons, equipment and high-tech communications equipment required for the two new battalions and supporting sappers and signallers.

Meanwhile the Sydney-based 3 RAR will relinquish its parachute role and transfer to Townsville as another light infantry unit.

The expression "light infantry" is misleading, however. Even "light" forces need protection today against land mines, terrorist bombs and booby traps.

The army won't leave its troops exposed unnecessarily, so it is expected to buy more of the armoured Bushmaster troop carriers which are proving so popular in Iraq and Afghanistan, while a significant proportion of the trucks and light vehicles being acquired under the $3.5 billion Project Overlander will be armoured to withstand car bombs, small arms fire and the other threats infesting the modern battlefield.