ANDREW FARRAN. Hugh White’s Plan for defending Australia

Oct 28, 2019

Hugh White’s ‘How the Defend Australia’ is a masterly and lucid analysis of defence forward planning issues and force structure options that will be of enormous benefit to any thinking Australian with an interest in this area. As well as deserving high praise, it is of course open to some questions and specific criticism.  

His book traces where the armed services have been over the decades since the Second World War, where they are now, and where they should be heading. In particular he instances occasions in which force structure decisions have been unsound, misconceived, and led to waste, and how such  mistakes should not be repeated or perpetuated in future. There have been times when the forces have been over equipped for purposes we have not faced nor were likely to have faced; and at other times when they were not appropriately equipped for those we have faced (in situations of low intensity  conflict).

The distinguishing feature of the present time, and likely future, is that we may/will have to defend or protect our national interests on our own, and for this we will need a force structure designed essentially for that purpose and not as a bit player or adjunct to a senior power. The nearest we have got to this predicament in the past was in 1942 when Darwin was bombed with devastating destruction (more bombs were dropped there than on Pearl Harbour). At that stage Britain’s Far Eastern Fleet had been sunk off Singapore and we had very little expectation of ‘allied’ support of any kind. A further fact was that the relative power equation between Japan and ourselves was such that we would not have prevailed at that time in any circumstances. Australia has not been attacked since, though there was concern over Indonesia during its Konfrontasi with Malaysia in 1963-66 when the Australian ambassador in Jakarta went so far as to warn of the possibility of war.

On our own

In the coming decades the situation may not be very different to Darwin when it comes to China should there be military conflict at some point. But in 1942 Japan was bent on imperial conquest in the old fashion way. China has other ways of pursuing its objectives, not necessarily incompatibly with others (friends and neighbours). The power imbalance with China will in any case be far greater than it was with Japan. In the 1980’s, White points out, Australia had the second biggest economy in Asia after Japan. Our GDP was slightly bigger than China’s and India’s, and far bigger than Indonesia’s. Today, he notes, our GDP is about 5% of China’s and less than half of Indonesia’s. By 2050 our economy will rank well behind those of all major Southeast Asia nations. That is, he warns, while our risks are growing, our resources are, relatively speaking, shrinking.

It was not necessarily an error in 1942 that Darwin was poorly defended even if Japan’s larger intent was suspected because on our own it would have been futile to try and do more, apart from better protecting civilians. If China were to turn hostile towards us, and the region, and sought to attack militarily, it is problematical whether the US would join in common cause as it did in the case of Japan. A lot would turn on the circumstances at the time. Current isolationist trends in the US, likely to be sustained, are deepening our uncertainties and necessitate fresh thinking about force structure assumptions.

Where we are now 

We are not prepared for this. Since the world wars, when our defence culture was formed, Australia’s force structures have gone through at least half a dozen gyrations – from field army battalion and brigade formations for continental defence and/or anticipated expeditionary deployments (including Korea), to jungle warfare in Vietnam, desert warfare in the Middle East, the War on Terror (everywhere – described by the Defence minister at the time the defining strategic challenge of the age – instead of the distortion it has been shown to be); and all awhile prepared for relatively small peacekeeping missions or low level conflict as in East Timor and the Solomon Islands. The consistent feature has been the imperative of interoperability with US force structures and systems – involving a bit of this and a bit of that all over. Each phase in the replacement cycle has seen successor items being ramped up to look more impressive to the Americans, e.g. the Manoora and Kanimbla class ships being replaced by the Canberra and the Adelaide class frigates regardless of deployable need. They in turn being replaced by the even bigger Hobart class destroyers. Next, the Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs) to assuage nostalgia over the retrenchment of the long-redundant aircraft carrier (LHDs are actually 25% heavier than the former HMAS Melbourne!). White regards these as costly mistakes. Additionally Defence has been through the horrors with the Collins class submarines but these now seem, after extensive and costly modifications, to be largely functional in the present situation. Whether the scheduled program of French designed Shortfin Barracudas will meet the purposes intended for them is a long shot at this stage, but they would play a key role in White’s structure for the future force.

In summary, the forthcoming $89 billion naval package will include the 12 Attack-class submarines ($50 billion), nine Hunter-class frigates ($35 billion), and 12 Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels ($3.6 billion) for delivery over the next 25 years (if all goes well).

With the Army there has been a mismatch currently between the requirements respectively for lightness and mobility in amphibious operations (the ASLAVs) and heavy vehicles for more sustained actions over wider terrain (the LAND 400S) – being in one form or another tanks and APCs. But so far there has been little to show how and where they might be used when acquired. White writes: “The army we are building today is stuck between the dream of a return to high-intensity expeditionary operations and the reality that the only expeditionary operations it is at all likely to undertake are low-intensity peacekeeping campaigns”.

With the Air Force we have since the era of the F111s paid for the best, essentially as an on-going training program to keep with the state of the art. The key item going forward for some decades will be the multipurpose F-35 Joint Strike Fighter which has already proved problematical. They too would play a central role in White’s future force. Australia has 72 on order with a probable further 28 if all goes well, costing in the region of a billion dollarsr payable in tranches as delivery proceeds.

White’s proposals

So we come to White’s future force. Its overall advantage from the past is that it is coherent, consistent and not wedded to the mantra or constraints of the US alliance. He frames the areas of risk in terms of expanding concentric circles from the continent and our immediate islands; and force structures  built in multilayers, depending on how far reaching are the risks to be addressed. Each layer of force structure would integrate all service components relevant to purpose and would be more or less complete in itself and not, as now, an assortment of disconnected functions and capabilities. To achieve, this would require consummate organisational skills in the top echelons of Defence. In this regard White has sound advice for those at that level now and in the future (particularly at ps 255-59).

The key elements of his proposed force structure are, as foreshadowed, the acquisition of some 200 F-35s – a hundred more than on order, together with 24 (stretching to 32) new submarines – the purpose being to ensure sea denial to an enemy, not sea control (too difficult). There is of course much more to this, including enhanced maritime patrol aircraft, anti-ship missiles, sea mines, fast patrol boats as platforms for missiles, armed drones, and the adoption of known and unknown surveillance technologies. The Army for its part could be either Light or Heavy, depending on locale and purpose (peacekeeping or continental defence); but the essential point is that whatever the purpose, and given the equipment now available and anticipated, the numbers for a light army need not exceed 10,000 (or even less). [ I recall that when I proposed in various articles and submissions an army at this level in the early 1970s it was shouted down, as the absolute minimum then was in the region of 60,000 (including citizen forces).

With regard to the submarines, there would appear to be a strong case for making Darwin their forward operational base even if home porting remained with the heavier infrastructure and protection available further south (Perth and Adelaide). Being located in Darwin would increase their range and functionality in a relevant region.

Essentially White is advocating, to use his own words, a maritime strategy rather than, as earlier, one based on projecting expeditionary assault forces overseas. He believes it is one whereby, for most contingencies in the coming decades, we would be able to defend ourselves.

The details and reasoning underlying White’s proposals are spelt out with extraordinary rationality and clarity. He argues conditionally for local procurement and off-the-shelf competitive purchases of major items as long as we have or develop the capacity to service and maintain them. He is against Australia-made policies to enhance employment or gain political support. He puts the cost of his force at 3.5% of GNP per annum, rising to 4% – similar to spending at the height of the Vietnam War. Current spending on defence is around 2% per annum – a meaningless measure when not related to a clear purpose.

Some concerns

I have some substantial (to my mind) issues with some of his main proposals however.

First, they accept that we should be preparing to take on China, or at the very least deter China, at some stage on our own. Given the inevitable disparity of wealth, forces and technologies this would be a no-win contest at the outset for us. We could deal with skirmishes offshore as part of a plan of sea denial, not only against China but any other power that might take us on. But if the Chinese had conquest in mind, we would have to consider whether total resistance would serve a survivable purpose and at what cost. Frankly this is so questionable that the government should not be pre-empting our diplomatic and policy options prior to any question of war by making prematurely such superficial and over-anticipated judgments. Militarily we would not be short of asymmetric counter-measures if things were to get tight and we needed to demonstrate or manifest a clear stance. China has not in the modern era attacked or invaded any other country’s territory apart from a short-lived encounter with Vietnam in 1979 over Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, and border skirmishes with India in the Himalayan mountains in 1962, 1967 and 1987. Judge by actions, not words.

Secondly, and White concedes this, he underrates technological developments with war machines (especially missiles) from hereon. These have already reached the point where any vessel on or under the sea, any vehicle on land, or any lethal object in the sky or space can be destroyed before it has reached its destination and delivered its purpose. Any manned vehicle or craft on land, sea or air, if not vulnerable now, will be so within the timeframe in contemplation (with serious implications for personnel). We are reaching a point where war on the largest scale will be essentially fought remotely and for no profitable (or gainful) purpose. The devastating implications of hyper-sonic missilery have barely been digested. On the other hand, conflicts on a lower scale, arising, say, from regional instability in PNG and the South Pacific states; or ethnic or regional tensions in Indonesia resulting in an exodus of people to Australia, would require other responses – not F-35s and flotillas of submarines. We should prioritise such a force structure, with a strong policing element, capable of dealing with these situations more effectively – and developing the skills of knowing when and how to intervene and when not to.

For his part White concludes that if Australia sees itself as a ‘middle power’, and wishes to project itself as a middle power, it can’t take this for granted. The reality is “that Australia will have to work quite a bit harder and spend quite a lot more to remain in the ranks of the middle powers, because our relative power in Asia is falling fast”. This, he says, is an urgent choice.

White’s chapter on the nuclear issue is timely, and the reasons for rejecting that option clear and convincing, though he discusses this in terms of being a counter-force against other nuclear powers, big and less big. He didn’t ask whether it could be a deterrent against a significant but non-nuclear regional power other than to note that if we did so, such others (e.g. Indonesia) would be bound to follow. Nothing gained, much lost.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat with some additional experience in the Department of Defence, public law academic, and trade policy adviser.

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