ANDREW FARRAN. War games – more than burnt fingers

Jun 26, 2019

“Are policy makers driving policy or is it the country’s spooks and their ideological soulmates in the so-called security establishment whose views are amplified in the conservative media?” (Tony Walker, The Age)

War has its vested interests – powerful political establishments, military and industrial complexes, and intelligence communities that feed off them. The causes of peace and coexistence are nothing like that well supported. Even the words peace and coexistence invite ridicule in security obsessed quarters. But what is it that threatens global survival the most? It is not carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. Something more lethal transiting the atmosphere with split second speed and accuracy for which there may be no defences (see further below).

The above vested interests, the ‘dark state’, may enjoy power, wealth and resources. But their viability depends on the viability of war as a credible instrument of policy. Even the advent of nuclear weapons has not dampened enthusiasm for military preparations and the associated security aspects of the dark state, escalated by the Twin Trade Tower atrocity in 2001. In the past twelve months three pivotal geopolitical hotspots brought the prospect of nuclear war to the fore as a credible proposition – US warnings to North Korea over its nuclear program; to China over its militarisation of the South China Sea; and to Iran over its regional ‘aggression’ and uranium enrichment.

Before the crisis over each issue had subsided war talk was in the air and feverish, as if nothing had been learned from successive military conflicts in Asia and the Middle East in recent decades. How was our Defence and Intelligence Complex behaving throughout? Advocating more and more defence expenditure on ‘state of art’ capital items notwithstanding their delivery being decades away, by which time much of their critical systems would be obsolete and redundant.

The question for now is where is this advice coming from and how is it formed; and to what extent is it distorting our diplomatic relations and compromising the chances of reaching an acceptable modus vivendi with our most important trading partner – China? Those most susceptible as recipients of this advice, being both inexpert and highly impressionable, would be the political class at the top, deliberating in their secret conclaves on the big questions of war and peace, without much reference to sensible opinion in the wider populace.

The balance of influence in this regard has tended to rest over time with the military/intelligence cohorts, not where it should be most – with diplomacy and its global resources, through the agency of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is evidenced by the respective personnel numbers.

Within that period ASIO personnel numbers have increased from some 500 to 2,000 at present. The Signals Directorate now numbers 2,000, the Defence Intelligence Organisation is estimated at 350; the streamlined Office of National Intelligence, which succeeded the Office of National Assessments, was at 138 in 2015 but is now at 300, double what it was a decade ago. What we don’t know are the ASIS numbers – the overseas secret service. The total known in the above areas is some 4,650.

By contrast the figures for diplomacy (DFAT) are 1,996 in 1997; 2185 in 2007; and 3,785 in 2018. Excluding overseas engaged staff, this number apart from operating all embassies, high commissions, and consulates are responsible for political and trade advice in their respective locations, handling political and trade relations, conducting other representational activity in addition to some 211,000 consulate enquires (of which some 12,000 involved distressed consular assistance). At home the department is responsible for issuing some two million passports annually (up from 1.7 million not many years ago).

With tentacles everywhere ,the defence/intelligence complex exercises a prevailing influence on foreign policy underlain with strong security leanings. For instance, The Age columnist Tony Walker asked on 17th June: “Are policy makers driving policy or is it the country’s spooks and their ideological soulmates in the so-called security establishment whose views are amplified in the conservative media”. He goes on to point out that the part taxpayer-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has emerged as the repository of some of the more tendentious and, it seems, influential views on how we should manage the China “threat”. Recent examples are too numerous to mention but Walker noted well informed concerns among a mandarin class in Canberra about an ideologically driven anti-China sentiment prevalent in the country’s spy agencies, leading to a general feeling that the relationship is being mishandled. Specifically on defence policy the point is well made by Mike Scrafton in “Strategy in a Bubble: ASPI’s war plans” at: and “The Chief of the Defence Force and Political Warfare” at:

Walker himself concludes that China policy is much too important to be left to a non-accountable security establishment.

John Menadue in Pearls & Meditations has on many occasions analysed APSI (e.g. “The anti-China ‘think tank’ receives … largesse from the Coalition” at: ASPI, he reminds us, was established to provide alternative defence policy advice to government, not to contribute (or one might say, distort) public debate about defence policy. But a government already persuaded to the ASPI’s way of thought has in the 2019-20 Federal Budget increased ASPI’s funding from $3.528m to $20m.

This past week has seen ASPI‘s mantra at work in its ideological companion The Weekend Australian where its executive director, Peter Jennings, wrote approvingly on “Risk and reward for Australia as the US flexes its muscles in Asia”, see Inquirer, 22-23 June at p.15.

Subsequent to that article a distinguished former head of DFAT and President of the UN Security Council, Richard Woolcott, wrote that “if the US treats China as an enemy, then it will become one.” Same for us. Woolcott says that Australia’s national interest lies in avoiding any opposition to the present realities of a rising China and a resurgent Russia. He asserts that notwithstanding our long tradition of supporting US regional policies we should not follow the US down its present dangerous path. One might add that this is certainly true also in regard to US policy towards Iran. Woolcott also compares the South China Sea issue with the US ‘s dominant influence around Hawaii where if the Chinese navy were to encircle Hawaii the US response would be much the same as China’s in the South China Sea.

Finally, alluding to the lethal weapon mentioned earlier in this piece, the overwhelming world interest in avoiding war should be prompted by current activity in the US, China and Russia, all busily engaged in the development of hypersonic missiles. These new weapons will be able to travel at 15 times the speed of sound with pinpoint accuracy, and will change the nature of warfare for ever. As reported in The New York Times (R. Jeffrey Smith, NYT, 19.6.19), these missiles will arrive at their targets in a blinding, destructive flash before any sonic booms or other meaningful warning is possible. There are no sure fire defences against them. One strike would knock out an opponent’s control centres before they knew it had happened. If they had any retaliatory capability at all it would probably be an automated activation of a nuclear arsenal. That would be that for all comers.

Anyone still for war games?

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade policy adviser. Semi-retired in the West Wimmera.

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