Australia is ignoring important lessons from war from Ukraine

Mar 22, 2022
Scott Morrison
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Defence policy and the reality of war should be at the centre of election following the Russian aggression in Ukraine . But Australian political leaders continue to ignore that reality.

The Prime Minster and the Opposition Leader each recently presented on national security to the Lowy Institute. Both offered up confused notions about the military challenges facing Australia.

National security has become an all-compassing concept in political discourse, largely losing focus, but defence policy is a more defined area which is about war. The Russian invasion of the Ukraine has brought this home. Reassuring rhetoric gives way to death and destruction with war and that’s is where the discussion needs to begin.

The military situation in East Asia was not directly addressed by Morrison or Albanese, yet each canvassed the issues of equipping and the force posture of the ADF, including the basing of submarines.

Morrison didn’t think there were “any parallels between the situation in the Taiwan Strait and Ukraine”. He said “these situations are entirely different, and the responses that would be expected in the Taiwan Strait would be completely different to what has occurred in Ukraine”. He didn’t explain how he differentiated between the two situations. Nevertheless, the government’s investment in military capability “is geared to delivering regionally-superior capabilities”. An empty phrase without some context.

Albanese identified “defending Australiaʼs territorial integrity,… preventing threats to our borders, our people, our infrastructure,…protecting our nationʼs political sovereignty from external pressure… [and]… promoting Australiaʼs economic prosperity and social stability, with sustainable growth, secure employment, and a unified community” as the key elements of national security. A confusing aggregation of disparate policy issues.

Notably, Albanese ignored the military balance of forces in East Asia, just as Morrison did. Although he guaranteed that Defence will have “the resources it needs to defend Australia and deter potential aggressors”, the scale and scope of that commitment was left hanging.

The reluctance to discuss war, the cardinal issue in defence policy, is odd. Any discussion of the ADF always should be primarily concerned with war. Despite Morrison’s claims, the war in the Ukraine is pertinent to Australian defence policy in a number of critical ways.

Ukraine showed that deterrence only works if the adversary believes your threats and/or they believe the balance of forces are not in their favour. Deterrence failed with Russia, because Putin believed the expected costs were acceptable. This raises clear questions about the likely efficacy of deterrence in Asia.

Ukraine also provides an unusual instance where two nuclear armed powers faced-off. The unwillingness of the US to risk nuclear war in support of a democracy under attack was on display. This is a critical development for any future confrontation between China and the US, or if Australia was relying on the US to come to its defence. It was America that was deterred.

The shallow analysis by the leaders of the military risk with respect to submarines and basing is particularly concerning.

An Albanese government will undertake a Defence Force Posture Review “to consider our long-term posture, particularly our strategically crucial northern and western approaches” and to “provide a more reliable basis for decisions on the final location of a new submarine base”.

Morrison, if returned to office, will adopt “new thinking“ and “establish a Future Submarine Base on the east coast of Australia”. He believes this ”will enhance [Australia’s] strategic deterrent capability”, although he failed to explain how, or against whom.

The leaders’ talk of “regionally-superior capabilities” or having the capability to “deter potential aggressors” is fantastical. This is evident from the Pentagon’s Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021. Both leaders seem to work on the assumption the submarines will go to fight a war somewhere else, and Australia will be somehow removed from harm.

A hard lesson of the Ukraine war is that the significantly bigger military power can bring the conflict to the home territory of the lesser. The major military power can dictate the scale, tempo, and location of the conflict. In a major war Australia would probably see smouldering docks and maintenance facilities, and nuclear vessels sunk at their moorings and radiating.

The evidence of the devastation of modern long range weapons in Ukraine doesn’t impinge on the thinking of Morrison and Albanese. How would Australia be defended against a major power in 2030, 2040, or beyond with a force designed to plug into US forces in North Asia?

China’s “anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities are growing rapidly”. The reach of its land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) deployed on submarines “would allow the PRC to hold land targets at risk beyond the Indo-Pacific region from the maritime domain” and provide “flexible long-range strike options”. Australian coastal military installations will be highly vulnerable to stand-off attack by regional military capabilities. As will major southern population centres and civilian infrastructure.

China is projected to have 400 battle force ships by 2025, and 425 by 2030, and is seen as “posing a major challenge to the U.S. Navy’s ability to achieve and maintain wartime control of blue-water ocean areas in the Western Pacific”. In a crisis LACM-armed Chinese vessels will be roaming the Tasman Sea.

Moreover, China is expected to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027 and “at least 1,000 warheads by 2030”. China’s new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) will deploy “multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities”. It is building three solid-fueled ICBM silo fields “which will cumulatively contain hundreds of new ICBM silos”. As Ukraine indicates, China’s nuclear capability could have a decisive deterrent effect on the US.

Defending the northern approaches or deterring regional powers is limited 1980s thinking. Investments in military capability only have meaning in the context of the military threat. A military power like China will in the very near future be able to strike anywhere in Australia. That’s the defence policy conundrum that’s avoided.

The military balance in East Asia deserves much greater attention in the election.

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