When Peter Leahy joined the Australian Army 37 years ago, our soldiers were highly proficient in counterinsurgency warfare. Coming out of the New Guinea campaign in World War II, the army had been engaged continuously in unconventional conflict, including the Malayan emergency in the 1950s and confrontation with Indonesia in the early 1960s, followed by Vietnam.
Nearly four decades on, the army is back in the counterinsurgency game in Afghanistan, acquiring new war-fighting skills. Army planners are now writing a new counterinsurgency doctrine that embraces a wholly different battlefield to that experienced in the jungles of South Vietnam.
Lieutenant-General Leahy, 55, retired from the army on Thursday as the longest serving army chief since Harry Chauvel 80 years ago.
But unlike Chauvel, who stepped down in 1930 at the onset of the Depression, leaving a budget-starved permanent land force of barely 1500 men, Leahy is leaving when the army is flourishing and in the middle of a 10-year, $10 billion rebuilding program.
During his six years as army chief, Leahy has presided over the most radical transformation in the land force since Vietnam. The 21st-century Australian army has undergone significant changes in its combat formations and acquired new equipment worth billions of dollars, including tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, sophisticated satellite communications and armed reconnaissance helicopters.
The new hardware has been accompanied by a thorough overhaul of training and war-fighting doctrine, as well as the army reserve. During the Leahy era the army has been fully stretched by a broad range of overseas operations, including combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and stabilisation missions in East Timor and Solomon Islands.
Under Leahy’s leadership the army’s intellectual core has been reinvigorated, putting it well ahead of the air force and the navy when it comes to defining its essential military doctrine and capabilities. Leahy has combined this intellectual rejuvenation of the officer corps with political skills of a kind seldom seen in a service chief in the modern era.
As chief of army he won John Howard’s support for a $10 billion rebuilding of the army under a hardening and networking plan that involves increasing the land force to 30,000 personnel by 2014. He also stared down opposing military and departmental chiefs, convincing Howard that the army should acquire new tanks.
In a farewell interview with Inquirer this week, Leahy’s key message is that the army must be progressively more skilful, adaptable and flexible in the face of an overcrowded and disordered world.
He predicts that the army may have to grow even larger than the planned 30,000 within the next decade in the face of globalised security challenges.
“If this volatility is sustained in the security environment, there would be an argument for a larger army beyond this. Now I don’t know how big that is, but right now it’s about right. But in the future, in the next five to 10 years, there could be an argument for a larger army.
“What we are seeing and will see increasingly in the future is that deployments will be land-centric. The army is naturally the force best suited to working among populations. Post-Iraq it’s not a momentum that’s going to subside.”
Leahy argues that the post-Cold War era has led to a “democratisation of lethality” as insurgents use more powerful weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs. The enemy has vacated an ordered battlefield and gone to the cities, he says.
For the Australian Army, this unconventional challenge means building composite combined arms teams with a high degree of firepower and protection, an army “harder to hit, and able to hit harder with real precision”.
A typical battle group now deployed overseas on operations has specialists drawn from more than 20 different corps or skills sets with the “big muscle movement” provided by infantry and cavalry units serving alongside each other.
The 2000 defence white paper called for the army to be capable of sustaining a brigade on overseas operations as well as having at least a battalion group available elsewhere. This strategic guidance has underpinned the planned expansion to a 30,000-strong force, including two new battalions, one of which has already seen operational service.
Leahy is unapologetic about the army’s drive for more firepower and armoured protection in the form of the Abrams tanks, light-armoured fighting vehicles and troop transports such as the highly successful Australian-made Bushmaster. “I am a conservative sort of guy,” he says. “There are unnecessary risks that other people are prepared to take with soldiers’ lives that I am not prepared to take. Tanks save lives and I just wish the critics would inform themselves rather than continue with inaccuracies.”
He sees Afghanistan as a long-term assignment for the Australian military, with “five or more years of work to be done”.
Leahy believes Afghanistan is winnable but will require a sustained and focused effort involving a much broader strategy than military operations against the Taliban.
“We can only do so much and then you need people to help with education, roads and the economy and everything else that needs to be done.”
Leahy is cautious when asked about a wider military role for Australia in Oruzgan province should the Dutch reduce their involvement from 2010, but acknowledges the army has the capacity to do more if required.
“We are a non-NATO contributor and we are one of the larger contributors. I think there is an increased role (for) NATO and we should not be rushing to do any more before we see NATO make a forward commitment.
“Do we need more Australians? No. We are making our contribution. Do we need more NATO forces? Yes. It would be good to have them more broadly spread across the south.”
He says he had no misgivings about Australia’s military involvement in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
He adds, however, that the US made mistakes in the post-war phase of its occupation of Iraq, particularly in terms of disbanding the Iraqi army and the extent of the de-Baathification process in the Iraqi civil service.
A lesson from Iraq, Leahy says, is that there are strict limits to the utility of military force in contemporary conflicts. “There needs to be a concerted whole-of-government approach,” he says. “We can deliver security but we can’t deliver reconstruction and rehabilitation without a lot of help.”
Leahy nominates among his achievements the enhanced role of women in combat units and the revamp of the Army Reserve, which now includes reservist units serving in Solomon Islands.
Today’s soldiers, he says, are better prepared for operations in places such as Afghanistan than ever before, learning local languages and cultural mores before deployment, in addition to undergoing intensive pre-deployment exercises. “We have native speakers come to them. We have imams come to them and talk to them about how to show respect in the local communities. We are doing protecting, supporting and persuading.”
Army recruitment rates are the best in years despite the nationwide skills shortage, with retention rates now averaging more than 10per cent.
“I keep hearing about generation Y, the short attention spans, wanting more. We are getting generation Y but they are not the ones I see described in the literature,” he says about recruits born between 1980 and 1994.
“These are people who are making a commitment and are proud to do the traditional things and are prepared to go overseas and accept the difficulties and the dangers and do something for Australia. We have got plenty of them and I think Australia should be very proud of them.”
Leaving the service he joined nearly 40 years ago at the age of 18, Leahy has no doubts the army is in good shape.
“I think we are a generous country. I have fond memories of Villers-Bretonneux (the French town Australian troops recaptured in April 1918), where French men and women come up to you and say, ‘Thank you for coming to help save our democracy.’
“We have got a great country and we have ideals for other people as well as ourselves. That’s what I saw in the army when I joined in 1971, and that’s what I see today.”