Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

The answer to Rodger's question ('Why so many JSFs, subs?') is not difficult except in its political dimension. Which is a bit like saying that the health care problem in Australia could be easily solved if we could just get rid of the sick people.

We will not make real progress in defence policy until we recognise that governments (not the ADF, not funding, not the quality of the argument or the strategic situation) are the biggest problem in the security of Australia. This is because there is absolutely no incentive for governments to be any clearer on strategic issues than they are at the moment. The result is as Rodger pointed out: voters don't know why governments do things in defence so we cannot assess government performance and therefore cannot hold them accountable.

Defence is so convoluted that very few understand it. Australian voters can readily see when things are wrong in health care because it affects them personally and they can vote accordingly. But because defence policy is so esoteric, the lag in cause and effect so long, and secrecy so often abused, Australians are forced to rely on the views of experts even more than in other areas. On the technical side, no government is expert to begin with. By the time ministers become expert, they also see the political benefit in not being open.

The institutional expert is the Chief of Defence Force. CDF gives his advice to the Minister in private, but at no stage do we, the voters, ever hear what CDF thinks is the right number of anything. Without doubt the Minister is the CDF's boss and the Minister should make the final decision and be held accountable. But we should know why the Minister acted, so we should publicly hear what the CDF thinks is the need.

Because, in the past, we the voters (and many good legislators) found that governments could not be trusted to keep their word on money matters, we found ourselves with a Charter of Budget Honesty. This aims to provide for sound fiscal management of the Australian economy, open dissemination about the status of public finances, and transparency in Australia's fiscal policy.

Let's have a Charter of Defence Honesty. A key part might be to institutionalise the role of the CDF in publicly giving his expert opinion on what is needed in Defence. The Charter would have to ensure that what the CDF said is understandable because he is speaking to uninitiated voters and the military is normally unintelligible.

In the absence of a direct and recognisable threat, a Charter would also need to impose some mechanism such as a 'generic operational concept' to manage long-term defence planning. Such a concept is key because it states 'The How' of defence and not just 'The What'. At some stage you always come down in voters' minds to numbers of major pieces of equipment, but without the voters understanding what the expert considers to be the need we can at no stage understand the risk that the government is taking in underfunding defence.

Alan Dupont's view that we might be able to fund other capabilities by having fewer subs and fighters can only remain Alan's personal opinion. His and my judgment about the mix of capabilities is much less than that of the one national expert, the CDF, yet he is not allowed to tell us. So we will never know if 100 fighters or 12 subs is sufficient, because we don't know the answer to the basic question: 'Sufficient for what?'

Photo by Flickr user luigioss.