Defence policy an enigma

Jun 8, 2024
AUKUS Nuclear submarine in the deep sea, The US, UK, and Australia have announced a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific, Australia new submarine deals with the US. France upset. Artists impression. Image iStock/ Homayon Kabir

The logistics of crossing the sea to invade Australia are insurmountable. In terms of cost/benefit analysis, invading Australia is simply not worth the trouble.

Australia’s strategy and policy on defence is enigmatic. It clearly has deep, historical roots and considerable persistence – but little or no basis in geographical or military reality. It appears to have been formed without reference to some very basic questions.

A couple of these question might be: Is anyone threatening us with harm? Who might threaten us, militarily and how might such a threat manifest itself? Surely, such questions should be the starting point for formulating policy.

In answer to the first question, there is no direct threat to Australia. Despite the fear-mongering of certain commentators, no nation is showing direct enmity towards us.

What we do have is a long history of imagined threats and a corresponding ‘fear of abandonment’. In the early 1800’s, when the British population was very small and vulnerable, the perceived threat came from France – but no attack ever came.

During the Second World War, Japan was definitely expansionist, so properly regarded as a serious enemy. There were, indeed, raids on Australian territory – but no actual invasion took place, nor was it ever even likely. Peter Stanley of the Australian War Memorial has argued, very convincingly, that no invasion plans were ever seriously contemplated. “Not only did the Japanese army condemn the plan, but the Navy General Staff also deprecated it, unable to spare the million tons of shipping the invasion would have consumed.”

Following WW2, Russia became the ‘enemy’. In reality, the Cold War did not threaten Australia in any meaningful way. Presently, we are being schooled to regard China as an enemy, totally disregarding its stated position of never seeking hegemony. (See“China’s National Defence in the New Era”).

To summarise, we have always felt threatened, when, in reality, we, the colonial victors, have never actually been threatened at all in the 236 years 1788.

As to the nature of the threat, what has always been imagined has been a full-scale invasion. Today, the graphic image of a Japanese soldier with fixed bayonet rushing towards us has morphed into a Chinese soldier. The fear of ‘yellow hordes’ pouring south still persists in the minds of much of middle Australia. This culture of fear has enormous social momentum. But for consideration of defence strategy, is it realistic?

To answer that question, one needs to stand in the shoes of the supposed enemy. Why might they want to invade? And how might they go about it? The glib answer has always been that they crave the abundant resources we have at our disposal. But to sieze said resources by military might would require total, military domination of the entire continent and its population. Far and away easier, and preferable for all parties involved, is to obtain said resources through trade (as takes place right now).

But the big, military question is the second one – How might they go about it? To answer that question it is necessary to adopt the perspective of the would-be aggressor – something that contemporary military strategists appear incapable of.

The first and greatest obstacle for any nation wanting to invade Australia is the need to cross water. Water is a highly significant barrier to military progress. For example, the little English Channel kept Britain secure during WW2. Even as narrow a strip of water as a river has significance:- crossing the Rhine was a major operation in the defeat of Germany on its Western front. The Dnieper River in Ukraine has strategic significance.

Compared with a river-crossing, a long sea crossing, for the purposes of invasion, is something absolutely formidable to contemplate, logistically. Not only must there be an adequate number of troops, their equipment plus air cover to fulfil the operation, they will need constant back-up with supplies and reinforcements, along highly stretched supply lines. If the Japanese calculated that they would need a million tons of shipping in 1942, how much more would be required today? Vessels at sea will always be vulnerable to attack (particularly by modern missiles). As the Japanese response (above) indicates, the logistical problems of implementing invasion plans are enormous. What nation would devote millions of tons of shipping over long-extended supply routes? Who would seriously undertake such a risky venture (especially when trade is the option)?

When the British invaded Australia, those defending the continent were not on an equal footing with the invaders. Military technology was advancing fast as that invasion proceeded, the musket being superceded by the repeating rifle. The technological superiority of the invaders was never seriously challenged, nor their supply-lines interrupted. Even so, it took the invaders more than 100 years before completion. Today, an invading nation would be met on more or less equal terms, technologically. Resistance of the invasion would be a very significant matter for the invader to take into account.

The more closely the idea is examined, the less likely it is that any nation will ever contemplate invading Australia in a conventional, military operation. The logistical problems of crossing the sea for the purpose are insurmountable, and the military resistance that they would meet would be significant. In terms of cost/benefit analysis, invading Australia is simply not worth the trouble.

The idea that Australia is threatened with invasion is ridiculous. No-one is going to invade Australia!

However, expectation of invasion still lies beneath our current defence policy. Hence the desire for partnership with a powerful ally and the view that our alliance with the USA is of fundamental to our military security.

It has not always been this way. Mike Gilligan insists that the 1976 Defence White Paper was “a rare, honest and competent attempt at giving material weight to our independent nationhood”. According to Gilligan it confirmed the hollowness of the ANZUS Treaty and exposed the dleiberate misrepresentation of its security benefits. However that changed about 2010, when President Obama came to Australia, followed by the stationing of US marines in Darwin – a move that Gilligan describes as shredding our self-reliance.

In his recent contribution to P&I, Bevan Ramsden has argued for self-reliant ‘armed neutrality’ for Australia.

Imagining oneself to be a would-be invader of Australia, Ramsden’s argument makes perfect sense. Australia, by virtue of its size; because it is ‘girt by sea’, and because it can match the military technology of any would-be invader, is extremely safe. No-one is going to invade us! We can make our defence quite adequate, without it being a burden.

The obsession with AUKUS submarines is utterly misplaced. We do not need to ‘deter’ any party. Our geography is deterrence enough.

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