Australia is on a ‘hiding to nothing’ from the escalating USA confrontation with China. If we choose USA, China can peacefully inflict devastating economic damage by choosing other countries to supply its resources. If we choose China, USA can withdraw its security guarantees, (albeit never tested in a situation where Australia, but not the USA, is threatened,) exposing Australia to the risk of hostile military action. How will Australia successfully navigate the turbulent waters of this strategic dilemma?
The inexorable rise of China, aided by the USA wasting a decade and a half on the ruinous ‘War on Terror’, has provided other nations the time to transform their economic and military capabilities to ‘world class’. USA’s intervention in Vietnam opened an economic artery, and the bleeding has continued unabated in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. USA’s self-inflicted injury has weakened it, changing the balance of power, with the clear trend towards a China ascendancy in the global order.
Professor Hugh White in his book How to Defend Australia, cogently examines the emerging USA China-imbroglio and its implications for Australia’s long-term security. One option canvassed for Australia is ‘Armed Neutrality’. How effective would this strategy be and how could it be implemented?
Modern examples include Sweden in World War II and Switzerland. These countries adroitly avoided the devastation that war caused across Europe, and the financial ruin of prosecuting a long, lethal and expensive war experienced by the United Kingdom. Australia could declare that its future foreign policy would be ‘neutral’, but that it would arm against, and respond to, uninvited ingress on its sovereign land, and that it would not commit its military forces to foreign soil unless requested by a United Nations Security Council Resolution, subsequently supported by a Joint Sitting of the Parliament of Australia where each Member has a free vote to commit and fund an expeditionary Australian Defence Force deployment.
Would Armed Neutrality be effective in securing Australia’s future? Lessons can be learnt from the beneficial effects of geography and climate in examples such as Napoleon’s Defeat at Moscow and Hitler’s defeat at Stalingrad. Nations defeating notionally superior military forces include Vietnam and Afghanistan, where people fighting on their own land for their own sovereignty prevailed. Australia’s vast spaces, arid land and extreme climate are factors that can help prevail over an aggressor intent on taking Australian land by force.
To prevail, Australia needs to deny an invader control of land and the airspace above it. Australia’s Army has a formidable reputation as effective fighters, demonstrated at Gallipoli, Palestine, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan – terrain similar to Northern Australia. (Monash’s Australian troop in World War 1 were also much admired as lethally effective soldiers.)
However, troops on the ground are mortally exposed if there is no control of the airspace above and around them from which an enemy can launch offensive weapons. Protection of the Australian Army from air attack has been woefully inadequate for decades, but local airspace can be ‘sanitised’ by two types of equipment: Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) and Fighter Aircraft. Russia is now arguably the developer of the world’s most lethal SAMs, with a resurgence development of effective SAM-based control-of-the-air weapons in recent decades. An example is the SA-22 Pantsir S1 with the truck version most suitable to protect Australia’s deployed forces.
Control-of-the-air at longer range is a more pernicious problem. An air combat Fighter must be able to deploy to remote locations, operate in hot and humid weather, be serviced by ground crew with minimal experience, have high availability, be affordable to purchase and operate and most importantly be lethally effective, not only against air targets, but against invading forces and ships supporting an invasion. Sweden’s Air Control Fighter was purpose-designed to deliver all these capabilities from dispersed locations that are difficult to find and attack. The Swedish Fighter can operate from all of these Australian airports as well as designated 3,000 foot roads sections. As Sweden is the manufacturer, ‘supply neutrality’ occurs because neither the USA or China (nor for that matter Indonesia and India) are the weapons suppliers.
The next subject to address is the ‘Concept of Operations’, described by the military as a ‘CONOPS’. Australia is a large country, and Professor White suggests that a fighter force of 200 is required. The actual capability required must be subject to operations research and wargaming, but for the moment take 200 Fighters as the requirement for the Defence of Australia. Twenty Squadrons of 10 aircraft would be commissioned, each commanded by a Squadron Leader, with two sections of four aircraft, one dual-seater and one aircraft in depot-level maintenance. Army would co-locate a Combat Brigade with the Squadrons which would require restructuring and expansion to optimise Army capability for the task. Each Brigade would include five Pantsir S1s, with four deployed and one in depot level maintenance. Army would protect the operating base and the RAAF protect the Army in depth.
Twenty Joint Army-Air Task Forces would be deployed regionally across Australia. Optimising locations is another operation research and wargaming task, but Home Operating Bases (HOBs) would be located in larger regional towns to attract local recruiting and to support regional economies. Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) would be identified, with a capability for rapid deployment using the RAAF’s fleet of C-17As and C-130J transport aircraft.
To reduce the possibility of a surprise attack, Australia could declare its Economic Exclusion Zone an Air and Sea Identification Zone, allowing Australia to request a ship or aircraft in the zone to declare its identity, and to conduct an intercept if the request was refused. Note that most aircraft and ships are routinely identified and tracked, so a request would only occur where a hostile intrusion is a possibility. RAAF aircraft operating from forward bases and RAN patrol boats would conduct interceptions and identifications.
Australia can be proud of its Jindalee Operational Radar Network and this long range sensor is well suited for the Defence of Australia, providing a persistent coverage of the approaches to the Australian mainland. Other sensors, such as the Wedgetail AEW&C, the Poseidon P-8A and Triton MQ-4C have the capability to contribute to securing Australia’s approaches and ensure Armed Neutrality is an effective strategy.
Armed Neutrality for the defence of Australia is likely to be as expensive as other military operations, although the high costs of long, overseas deployments would be avoided. Expeditionary sea-going platforms have unit costs in the billions, and there are substantial doubts about survivability of surface warships attacked by a swarm sea-skimming, supersonic, manoeuvring ant-ship missiles which are proliferating in our region; the RAN has struggled for years to fully crew 6 Collins Class submarines, and proposing a fleet of 24 requires heroic assumptions about securing the required number of crews. A ‘back-of-the-envelope’ calculation indicates a fleet of 200 Gripens would have a Life Cycle Cost of about 65% of the cost of a fleet of 75 F-35 JSFs. Thus, ‘rebalancing’ the Australian Defence Force for an Armed Neutrality strategy for the Defence of Australia might result in adequate security within a Defence budget of 2% of GDP. Once the CONOPS is settled, and more precise costing will improve the accuracy of cost estimates.
With Armed Neutrality, most Defence expenditure would be in Australia, contributing to local economies – a benefit much needed in regional Australia. When not deployed or training, forces at HOBs could provide aid to local infrastructure development, and of course, assistance in times of bushfire, flood and drought. Australian Airlines such as QANTAS and Virgin might sponsor Squadrons by providing air and ground crew to deploy when Australia’s sovereignty is challenged. (Example, a QANTAS Squadron with a HOB at Longreach.)
When planning a defence policy to secure a nation’s future, there are no ‘silver bullet’ solutions, and Armed Neutrality is no exception. Offshore territory remains difficult to protect, installations such as Pine Gap might have to be treated as ‘Consular Territory’, and Australia would have to forgo the intelligence feeds it receives from the ‘Five Eyes’ group.
Nonetheless, history has shown that Armed Neutrality can be an effective strategy to protect and isolate a country from the ravages of war. Australia has the economy, people, equipment, geography and climate to adopt an effective Armed Neutrality posture, which opens the opportunity to continue to conduct mutually beneficial trade with USA and China without having to choose sides and suffer the consequences. Neutrality also provides a long-term opportunity in a turbulent and ever-changing world to enhance our relations with our close neighbours: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and India.
Chris Mills, AM is a retired RAAF Wing Commander who was an Australian Defence Organisation Capability Development Officer for several years. He developed a CONOPS for an international group to protect aid agencies during military conflict. He has no association with suppliers of any of the equipment mentioned in this article.