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Moving Past the Capability Argument for an Inclusive Military — Jarrod Pendlebury

The Air Force recognises that diversity in the workplace will both increase the pool of potential recruits, and improve the quality of decision-making in the organisation. In this post ‘Social Experimentation and Political Correctness Gone Mad: Moving past the Capability Argument for an Inclusive Military‘, Wing Commander Jarrod Pendlebury advocates for the need to move beyond these capability arguments to a more fundamental examination of the role of armed forces within a society, and their obligation to reflect that society.  

Much of the rhetoric supporting a drive for a diverse or inclusive military rests on what can be described as a capability argument. At its core, this argument implies that inclusiveness represents a good because of what it can bring us. While there is much evidence to suggest that harnessing a variety of viewpoints and experiences can result in beneficial performance outcomes, there are more compelling reasons to work towards an air force that is demographically representative of Australian society.

In On War, Carl von Clausewitz articulates the nexus between military action and politics by describing war as ‘the continuation of politics by other means.’ By extension therefore, I argue that the values espoused by a particular government should be demonstrated and reflected in and by the military.

In a western liberal democracy, the operations of the military are continually – and necessarily – bounded. International Humanitarian Law enshrines key principles for the conduct of war that resonate with western values; notably, proportionality of response and a broad requirement to minimise suffering. For example, reflecting the Australian Government’s codification of various Humanitarian Law instruments, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) does not operate to a default setting of total war. Aside from its gross disproportionality, such a strategy would also run contrary to many Australian values; values with which our elected government has signified our agreement by signing various international instruments and conventions on our – the citizens’ – behalf.

The Defence Force is part of the community, and must reflect community values [Image credit: Defence]

The Defence Force is part of the community, and must reflect community values [Image credit: Defence]

To me, this reveals limitations to the capability argument. To illustrate, I suggest the military might of a western, liberal democracy might be viewed as resulting from a confluence of three factors: requirements, resources and values. Government’s problem, then, is to maximise the value of all three factors while simultaneously minimising the impact of each on the others. To do otherwise (that is, to seek a maximal outcome of one or two at the remainder’s expense) is problematic. Take ‘requirements’ for instance. An air force equipped with a vast array of aircraft, each capable of executing one specific mission type might be the most effective way to prepare for any contingency but would likely drain a nation’s resources to the point that it was unable to fund other, non-military, obligations. So in this case, the effort to maximise the capability requirements of an air force would come at the direct expense of available resources. Conversely, very low levels of funding would significantly limit military capability.

My argument thus far follows a traditional path: careful capability planning and budgeting is necessary to avoid costly military mistakes. Apart from quibbling over the size of the Defence budget, I suspect there would be few who dispute that a dialogical relationship exists between available funds and capability requirements, thus necessitating compromise.

However it is evident from public discourse, that concessions in support of values-based considerations are with met with much greater resistance and suspicion than those supporting a resources or requirements argument. A common narrative decries the ‘weakening’ of our military through the corrosive introduction (variably described through colourful phrases such as ‘social experimentation’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’) of non-traditional members into culturally homogenous specialisations. Such an argument contends that the ADF is becoming soft (and therefore presumably ineffective in combat) by lowering the standards that have become normalised over years of male-only participation. Hyperbole aside, the nub of this argument reflects the proponent’s position on the relative weight that should be applied to the capability and values arm of the triangle. At its simplest, this argument suggests that capability should necessarily trump values.

But we already make decisions to circumscribe our capability in order to better reflect our national values. For instance, the deployment of anti-personnel landmines might be an effective method by which to deny access to parts of the battlespace, but their indiscriminate effects conflict with broader Australian values to the extent that the ADF prohibits their use. To some extent, this example muddies the waters, since there is unequivocal evidence indicating the harm presented by anti-personnel land mines. Less obvious, is any conclusive evidence that the risk (if any) presented by a more demographically reflective military is worth compromising our national values that celebrate the opportunity for all Australians to fully participate in public life.

In my view, basing the argument for a diverse military on the potential capability benefits risks marginalising what I see as a far more compelling reason to identify and remove unreasonable barriers to more equal participation in the ADF. To my mind, the imperative to build inclusive cultures within the ADF is simpler; to do so would reflect how we view ourselves as Australians. Seeking ways to better harness the skills of half of the Australian population (in the case of women) is not ‘social experimentation’; it represents a pragmatic approach to valuing and respecting the Australian value of a fair go for everyone. Instead of first looking at what we can gain from an inclusive military, we should recognise that aspiring to such an organization is a good in and of itself and moreover, is the right thing to do.

Wing Commander Jarrod Pendlebury is the commanding officer of No. 35 Squadron, and an RAAF/Williams Foundation Scholar. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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