Despite recent Defence and Foreign Policy White Papers we are no clearer as to what the billions to be spent on force structure developments are to be used for. Decisions are being taken for acquisition and delivery of billion dollar items (F35s and French submarines, in particular) over a time period of multiple decades when in all likelihood the cost per item will have escalated and in all probability the items concerned will have already become largely obsolete or redundant in changed circumstances. Their acquisition reminds one of the internal tussles within the defence community in the 1960s over whether aircraft carriers (with fleet air arms) should be preferred to more tanks, more APCs and more troops for the army, or even F111s.
The White Papers naturally point to uncertainties. The future is always uncertain and the lesson of Australia being virtually naked in 1941 in the face of an anticipated Japanese invasion should never be lost. But resolving how and in what respects we should or can anticipate threats without leading the country down false or futile paths, determined largely by the internal politics of the defence and security communities which, in turn, lead politicians into taking decisions in line with that, to protect their backs and be seen taking care of the nation without a convincing case behind those decisions. Alternatives to large slices of questionable defence expenditure, such as for basic national infrastructure, are left circumscribed and underfunded thereby.
What are the threats arising from this uncertain future, and do they arise from a rising China and a falling US in the Asian region? How might an Asia without the US (regardless of Trump) affect Australia?
China will not be a direct military threat to Australia unless provoked. That does not mean that we cannot stand up and object to Chinese encroachments in the region, whether through breaches of established international law or island reclamations in peripheral seas?
In these cases Australia could and should pursue diplomatic and other non-military options. But would we risk conflict with a China that will by 2030 have a GDP 25 times greater than ours and whose current military expenditure is already 25 times greater than ours, and when the US will be concentrating increasingly on issues of its own elsewhere in the world?
Taiwan might be an exception if it seeks international recognition of its ‘independence’, but for Australia it should not be. Whether Taiwan has been given security assurances in this regard is an open question but there would be no gain for Australia being engaged in a war or providing military support on its account. As previously with the Iraq and Afghan interventions, such a course would distort and misdirect our foreign and defence policies for years to come and have serious consequences for our China trade and future diplomatic relations.
As for pursuing an independent defence policy, we are tied indefinitely and compromisingly to the US (‘at the hip’) whether we like it or not because of Pine Gap. This facility was intended to keep the free world safe but its current role is opportunistically to favour US operations world-wide in which we may have little or no interest. There are intelligence benefits to Australia which to some extent puts us off-side with our neighbours. For the time being the Australian public would not condone a withdrawal from the facility but in time it will become technically redundant which may free us from this yoke.
Currently there is political concern about Chinese sponsored activities in Australia. In so far as these may be seen to amount to intervention or interference in Australian politics their core purpose would seem to be to neutralise any possibility of active cells being developed among dissident or potentially dissident Chinese here that could undermine their government’s policies or its internal stability. For an autocratic state such as China this activity would be seen by it as being subversive. Where then to daw a line?
Should China attempt to reassert the suzerainty powers of the one-time Middle Kingdom and seek to dominate the Indo-Asian-Pacific region, this could not be pursued without serious pushback by comparable regional powers, particularly India, Russia and Japan. Conflict in that region is their business (or that of the UN), not ours. China should have no interest in threatening Australia as a functioning international citizen observing international legal norms and trading on mutual terms in the region. Doubtless there will be skirmishes, sporadic or on-going, involving lesser states of the region. These should take care of themselves. Possibly South Korea and Japan may acquire nuclear weapons because of concern about their neighbours – but hopefully the lesson of North Korea through the eventual weight of Chinese and Russian pressure will have neutralised that possibility and precluded further proliferation. It would be massively counter-productive for these and other regional countries, including Australia, to go nuclear.
Perhaps a direct threat may come in time from Indonesia or regions within Indonesia which are showing a longer term trend towards religious extremism or disengagement from the centre which could spill over into Australia should thousands flee seeking sanctuary. The possibility of some kind of military action directly involving Indonesia cannot be excluded, for which we need to be prepared in proportionate terms as distinct from being over armed to participate in wider world conflicts along side of the US, now less and less likely for us as a matter of national interest.
What is in the national interest is that we be equipped in the coming decades with the right kind of armed forces and force structure appropriate for a middle ranking power to safeguard our territorial integrity and maritime approaches, either on our own or in certain cases in partnership with compatible neighbours. This is a different order of magnitude from harnessing ourselves to a power whose interests will lie largely outside the region, with the danger that we could yet again be dragged into further pointless conflicts in those nether regions.
This means that it would be counter-productive and purposeless for us to continue shaping our defence forces as complementary to those of the US. Our force structure should possess stand-alone attributes and be proportionate to the type of military operations that are realistic and necessary to our position and interests. It should be geared essentially to air and maritime operations, backed by light, fast reaction, versatile forces as required. Land forces would be minimal as military interventions other than for peacekeeping should be avoided.
Major capital items should be procured off-the-shelf from other middle ranking powers or manufactured locally when marginal costs justify; not because of their local employment potential. The essential consideration is that we should be able to service critical items without being dependent on other powers who may not be supportive in a given situation.
As noted, there will be regional unstable situations from time to time in the South Pacific which Australia would be expected to contain, as previously with the successful police actions in the Solomon Islands and East Timor, and which may be necessary in time in PNG and possibly in Wesr Irian. The latter possibility does raise an outside chance of some kind of military action involving Indonesia which through diplomatic activity should at all costs be avoided.
Terrorism in Australia, such as it might be, should be a police responsibility. Border protection against piracy, smuggling, saboteurs, unauthorised intrusions, etc. should be the responsibility of joint maritime forces (customs and navy) appropriately structured and equipped.
As time goes by military conflict will be conducted more and more remotely with high-tech mobile devices utilising digitalised componentry on concealed mobile platforms. Their objective would be to deny air and sea access to unfriendly powers or irregular forces by way of multi-dimensional capabilities based on innovative asymmetrical strategies. That would include numerous fast attack craft, patrol boats and corvettes (with helicopter pads), extended range precision guided missiles, and high-speed minelayers. Generally in that future world larger ships and aircraft will, because of cyber capabilities and PGWs, be even more vulnerable to instant destruction than they are now. But in relatively low and mid-level combat, now and in the future, these smaller units can comprise a viable operational capability and an effective deterrent. They will not be inexpensive but the billions saved overall could be spent more productively on national development. Against wealthy and well-equipped major powers we can’t compete head for head with money and arms. But we can build a strong, multicultural and respected nation that others will wish to emulate, not destroy.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, defence official, and academic in public and international law