Defence & Australian Strategic Policy Institute – Joined at the Hip

Sep 9, 2016

Following on John Menadue’s recent item in which he dissected the funding of Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and the pervasive influence of the ‘Australia/US Defence and Intelligence Complex’ of which ASPI is a part, he questioned whether ASPI as a supposedly independent source of strategic advice could provide the advice necessary to get the balance right for Australia between the US and China.

Andrew Farran argues that it is already too late because of the intertwining threads of our intelligence and military arrangements with the US, now inextricable. We have missed the opportunity to develop a force structure suited to our national strategic situation and interests at far less cost than will be incurred by partnering US strategic operations. In this regard ASPI has lost its original purpose and is not providing the independent strategic advice to government envisaged for it. 

Once again an Australian Prime Minister has asserted that Australia does not have to choose between the US and China as China strives for dominance in this region (M.Turnbull speaking ahead of the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, 7.9.16).

The truth is we already have. Was this intentional or unwitting? Probably both, in incremental stages.

Let’s go back a little.

On ASPI’s 15th anniversary Hugh White recalled a remark by the then Defence Minister, Ian McLachlan in 1996, somewhere over the Gibson Desert, when he said inter alia to Hugh and General John Baker, the then CDF: “I’m impressed with what you say…but I do not want to rely only on you and your colleagues for advice. I want to get expert advice from others as well – from outside Defence. Who can I talk to?”

Anecdotally this was the genesis of ASPI – to be an independent source of informed advice to government on strategic policy.

In his recent item “ASPI – By their fruits you will know them”, John Menadue (6.9.16) analysed the extent of ASPI’s financial dependence on the Department of Defence and its related defence industries – and its links with the Australia/US Defence and Intelligence complex and its pervasive influence on Australia’s foreign and defence policies.

He questioned how we can get the balance right between the US and China and the risks and benefits of the dramatic changes in our region and the world. In that regard he observed from APSI’s performance that it is difficult to see how ASPI is equipped to help us develop a new architecture to advance and manage our relations with both powers.

It was said back in the 1970s that Sir Arthur Tange when Defence Secretary stated that you can’t have a strategy without the money. But if the money is largely predetermined the strategy may be constrained. Our strategy is and has existed only as a sub-set of the US and its strategies.

Could it be other?

Post-Vietnam we had the chance to break that nexus and get a nationally relevant force structure within the money available. This was at the time of the Dibb Report which I have reason to recall personally. The chance was missed and instead we have since had Afghanistan, Iraq (twice) and now Syria – US wars of choice. We also had East Timor, which became a primary Australian responsibility but without an adequate force structure to do the job independently of US logistical assistance.

The underlying assumption over the decades on force structure has been preparation for or anticipation of state to state combat, though over several Defence White Papers this has never been assessed as likely until now. To keep pace with US expectations of our continued commitment, and looking at procurement as linked to US developments, we have for example obliged ourselves to purchase, far in advance of need or justification, and at huge cost, an arbitrary number of the untried F35 Joint Strike Fighter; and again at huge cost, an arbitrary number of French submarines without a coherent explanation of their purpose and capabilities.

These procurements represent an opportunity cost both to the acquisition of more relevant military items for an Australian defence and for other non-military purposes.

How does the F35 and the submarines make sense in a purely Australian context? I am reminded of the argument about aircraft carriers back in the 1960s. Although it was pointed out that because in a real conflict one aircraft carrier would be very vulnerable to cruise missiles a viable force would need three carriers – two protecting each other and the third in dock being serviced. But because the one aircraft carrier would be operating strategically with the US the other two could be dispensed with. One carrier, with state of the art capabilities as well as being inter-operable with the US navy, would allow useful training opportunities for the navy and its high command. Justification in itself whatever the cost!

Even if state to state conflict may be assumed how might our expensive state of the art F35s and French submarines, and similar, stand up to battle conditions and contribute usefully to the conflict whatever it is? Very problematic given that the emerging, most destructive weapons of choice are in the cyber sphere (for example, hacking communications and control systems, rendering aircraft and vessels impotent). Our capacity to cope with cyber threats may be dependent on US support. This may be an issue for the Western world generally but the availability of protection systems may not depend on being in an alliance with the US. ‘Coalition of the Willing’ formations admit of variable participations. Nonetheless there would seem to be too many unknowns too far out to be confident about the soundness such high cost capital acquisitions.

This comes back to the question whether we still have a choice between the US and China in strategic terms and their influence on our force structure. The embedding of senior and other military staff into US command and control systems in the Pacific and elsewhere, and the deployment of naval vessels with US patrols in the North China Sea, would be indicative of choice. But more than anything else the Pine Gap facilities are critical to US intelligence gathering, the deployment of its missiles and other attack weapons, and, it is understood, the containment of China itself in the South China Sea. Malcolm Fraser’s concerns in this regard (“Dangerous Allies” MUP, 2014) have not been sufficiently addressed and responded to in the Defence and Intelligence complex as described above.

The neglected question is what scope these commitments leave for a force structure for ourselves capable of dealing with disruption and conflict in our immediate region, particularly PNG and the islands, whether arising from insurrection, terrorism, piracy or other sub-national, lower level conflict. East Timor was enough of a stretch. What might these others be and how would we deal with them and protect our borders at the same time? No answers. Would the F35s conduct bombing raids? What might the 12 submarines be doing? Looking out for the Chinese?

As for China, we will have to learn to live with its emergence and to some extent on its new terms. Without its full cooperation our economy will be in serious peril. If China’s military deployments ignore basic international legal norms then balance of power issues may arise which only the US can deal with. It is unlikely this would lead to large scale military combat as both sides would be substantial losers. A high level conflict could be over in a flash and Australia’s ships and planes would be largely irrelevant.

The test for Mr Turnbull will be diplomatic and how we recast our military strategies to make them relevant and acceptable for our own purposes and to our regional neighbours.

ASPI might like to do some lateral thinking about that and restore itself to its original purpose of providing fully independent and relevant strategic advice to government. Our strategists missed earlier chances for this but that was a long time ago.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, former senior academic in public and international law, a former publisher of legal and accounting materials, and now a semi-retired woolgrower. He has been a Ministerial Adviser and Trade Policy Consultant. He is an active member of the IISS, the RIIA and the AIIA. 

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