Hard power and Australia’s national security strategy

Feb 10, 2023
HIMARS medium range guided missile. Vehicle

The previous two parts in this series addressed soft power and Australia’s alliances respectively. The focus of Part 3 is hard power and a discussion of self-reliance and Australia’s evolving military strategy.

Hard power: Australia’s military strategy

In an offensive sense, hard power represents the ability of a nation to coerce another country and bend it to its will. In a defensive sense, hard power allows a nation to deter another country from attacking it or, should the attack proceed, subject the aggressor to unacceptable damage and destruction.

While we could and should rely more on diplomacy to avoid war, we cannot depend only on soft power and our alliances, which will always contain mutual obligations. Australia therefore needs to sustain sufficient hard power to inflict a degree of punishment on an aggressor in order to deter and, if necessary, repel an attack on this country.

In this context it may be useful to think of investment in our defence capability as an insurance policy. In the same way as householders still take out insurance policies even though they have done their best to flood proof and fireproof their homes, we cannot rely solely on soft power through diplomacy and treaties to avoid all future conflicts.

In terms of acquiring a strong defence capability, it is important for the government to make it clear that its military posture does not constitute a threat to any other country. It is a defensive stance designed to sustain Australia’s independence in the event of an attack. Nevertheless, as the war in Ukraine has demonstrated, it is difficult to deter an attack by a determined adversary when your armoury consists of only a defensive capability, no matter how strong. A credible offensive capability is also required to deter an attack at the outset or blunt it should it be attempted.

Why, it may be asked, should Australia maintain a significant defence budget when we are protected by the alliance with the United States? Regardless of whether or not ANZUS contains a security guarantee as discussed in Part 2, ultimately, no country can fully rely on its alliances to defend it against attack unless it has made sufficient effort to defend itself. In the last few years, as tensions have risen globally, the US has reminded allies that it looks to them to spend a minimum of two per cent of GDP in order for America (which spends over three per cent of GDP on defence) to willingly come to their defence.

This is not a new position. In the Guam doctrine, which has never been retracted, President Nixon stated in 1969 that the US could no longer afford to fully defend its allies and in future would expect them to contribute significantly to their own defence. At the same time, the United States would continue to use its nuclear arsenal to shield them from nuclear threats.

In Australia, the doctrine of self-reliance first made an appearance in the Fraser government’s 1976 Defence White Paper. For the next 40 years, self-reliance was seemingly at the forefront of Australia’s national security policy, being featured up front in every Defence white paper. Then under the Turnbull government, perhaps disconcerted by China’s rising military power and the increased costs involved in defending ourselves against it, self-reliance disappeared from view.

Another possible reason for that disappearance was that in reality, as Georgieff has said, much has changed since the last century and that a “one-liner referring to self-reliance in the Defence White Paper is merely deluding ourselves and the US that we are not free-riding off of their unrivalled military might”.

What then does self-reliance really mean? Can a small middle power like Australia be truly self-reliant when most of its defence assets are imported or designed overseas? The late General Jim Molan said when he worked in the area of defence looking at capability, they struggled to interpret self-reliance. Australia would always need to import much of its defence equipment and would rely on US extended nuclear deterrence. Ultimately he suggested that Australian operations should be, at worst, ‘Australian led, Australian supported, but US enabled’.

That may well be the best practical definition of self-reliance we are going to come up with. It is very important to note that it doesn’t imply that we would necessarily have the sovereign discretion to go to war with any other power unless our suppliers of defence equipment were supportive. For example, the Swedish government refused to provide spare parts for the Army’s artillery during the Vietnam war. More recently, the government of Belgium, now with the Greens represented in the coalition, refused to continue to supply spare parts for British nuclear submarines.

In view of our earlier conclusion that Australia’s posture should emphasise that, other things being equal, we will not threaten any other country, we can hope that this should not be a major problem for Australia. It also suggests, however, that we should be very careful in selecting our suppliers of critical defence equipment.

But if Australia’s posture is basically defensive, with the caveat that we would respond strongly to any attack on our territory or essential interests, we would expect to be supplied with critical matériel and ordnance by our allies even if they would not offer military support. Using Britain as an example, while President Reagan was keen not to take sides in the Falklands war where Argentina first attacked British interests, the US provided two vital resources: intelligence on Argentinian movements and the latest AIM-9 version of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile for the Harrier jump jet.

Since Australia invaded Turkey in 1915, we have not always used our hard power purely in our own defence. Twenty years ago, the invasion of Iraq may well have been illegal. But now both sides of politics appear to be agreed that with the rise of China Australia needs to focus our limited military resources on the defence of Australia rather than forward defence in the Middle East. The Morrison government’s Defence Strategic Update in 2020 stated that “defence planning will focus on our immediate region: ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific”.

This approach clearly implies a maritime strategy, that is a reliance mainly on naval and air power for Australia’s defence. It makes a lot of sense. The idea that the Army will need to take more of a back seat may not have filtered through to the Defence department, however, which has an almost pathological attachment to the concept of a balanced force. To the bemusement of many, in January 2022 the then Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, announced the acquisition of the latest M1A2C version of the Abrams main battle tank, a 67 tonne behemoth too heavy for many bridges in the Northern Territory let alone in any country in the Indo-Pacific where, under the new doctrine, the Army might conceivably be engaged.

The Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review should confirm the conclusions of the 2020 update and the focus on a maritime strategy. As Defence Minister Marles has said, the review will recommend how to recalibrate Australia’s “military capabilities, force structure and posture for more effective deterrence, to enable the Australian Defence Force to hold potential adversaries’ forces at risk, at distance, and increase the calculated cost of aggression against Australia and its interests”. We were subsequently advised that this would involve developing the capacity to enforce a strategy of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) north of the Indonesian archipelago.

This, you might imagine, would be the nail in the coffin for the balanced force. Yet the message still hasn’t permeated into the bowels of Defence. Less than a month after Marles’ speech, the government announced that the Army would acquire the HIMARS medium range guided missile, representing the “largest expansion of army strike capability in living memory”. While HIMARS clearly meets Ukraine’s requirements, with a range of 480 km its contribution to an Australian maritime strategy of denial north of the archipelago is yet to be elucidated.

Equipping the ADF to undertake a strategy of denial 2,000 km from Northern Australia and much further from existing bases will be neither easy nor cheap. It will require the capability to successfully engage aircraft, missiles, warships and submarines a very long way from Australian and allied bases.

Finally in this regard it is worth examining one particular threat that is rarely discussed, namely the damage that could be done by submarine incursions into Australian waters and how to address that. As with other military assets, the PLA Navy is investing heavily in submarines, including long-range nuclear-powered boats. These would provide a major threat to Australia.

As a maritime power with an enormous coastline to defend and a population of only 26 million, we would be extremely vulnerable to submarine incursions in any conflict. Because of the range of modern torpedoes and the ready availability of satellite detection, a hostile submarine seeking to interdict naval assets around Australian bases could patrol at a distance from the coast where it would be very difficult to detect. It could sink RAN submarines and warships almost at will when they departed or returned to their base.

An SSN’s cruise missiles could also engage warships docked alongside in our bases as well as essential infrastructure, including military command and control installations, offshore oil and gas rigs and onshore LNG processing plants. Being able to access satellite intelligence, enemy submarines could also have a field day, for example, by interdicting and sinking every petroleum tanker headed for Australia, thereby crippling our economy in a very short period of time.

One asset that could prove highly valuable in meeting the submarine threat north of the archipelago is a nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN). In Part 4 of this series, we discuss the planned acquisition of SSNs under the AUKUS agreement.


For more on this topic, P&I recommends:

Australia’s National Security Strategy

The role of alliances in Australia’s national security strategy


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