The Defence Strategic Review: Rehash of US influenced orthodoxy?

Sep 22, 2022
Pine Gap
(Image: Flickr / Greens MPs)

Prime Minister Albanese is to be commended for announcing, so quickly after his election, the Defence Strategic Review but its real objective is too narrow, its timeline too short and its membership hardly “independent” as claimed.

As Defence set out in its covering media release, the Defence Strategic Review is designed to “help Defence to better understand where it should prioritise investment …..to ensure the Australian Defence Force is well positioned to meet the nation’s security challenges through to 2033 and beyond.” Its short timeline and limited scope precludes it from providing the far more comprehensive and ‘whole of government’ National Strategic Review which sadly has been lacking in recent years This would require a truly “independent” panel of experts drawn from a wide base of expertise across the national spectrum – not like those chosen who had both been steeped well into the prevailing Defence system.

Not only would that have provided a solid base for prioritising investment within the Defence budget it would also have established how the Defence budget should sit within the National Budget given the deadly serious economic issues looming and the competing demands from other sectors rising so rapidly – as the RBA Governor has so pointedly forecast. None of this is to deny the urgency for the incoming government to get a handle on the inherited funding mess of years of delayed and botched defence procurement (see my Ukraine highlights our defence procurement shambles” P&I 11 March 2022) which may be the real reason behind the Review.

On the wider picture, the Government has recognised, after years of denial, that the fundamentals of the strategic challenge now facing Australia are in crucial flux. But little in their recent policy comments indicate just how critical the need is for fresh perspectives – not a rehash of the well-entrenched Canberra orthodoxy, which has dominated both sides of political leadership as far back as the Gillard government opening the door for the rotating US Marine deployments and greater USAF usage of airfields in Northern Australia to enable the Obama visit. As many predicted, this orthodoxy has plunged us progressively into the now hallowed pursuits of interoperability and embedment with US counterparts – locking us into an ultimate dependence on the US apace.

The attendance of Defence Minister Marles at the recent opening of the Washington office of ASPI (significantly funded by the US government and defence industry) was just a further glaring example of how intertwined our defence and security establishments have become. And he has since begun to spout the virtue of “interchangeability”, which when pushed to clarify he has essentially said that he was talking of integration into the US military system. From which he waffled on further to muddy the waters by asserting that AUKUS was well and truly up and running with full involvement also of the British – only to assert firmly that none of this would change our long tradition that Australian ships etc would remain under full Australian command and control! All of this announced before the limited Review had produced even a word!!

This has been paralleled by the canonisation of the Five Eyes intelligence grouping into the panacea for all international issues – well beyond the purely military or even geopolitical – such as by former Treasurer Frydenberg in the global financial world. The media has claimed that the Australian representative was seated in the front row at King Charles’ accession because of our Five Eyes membership! Through its massive intelligence structure – especially in the high tech realms – American sourced intelligence dominates Five Eyes with the attendant risk of “policy driven intelligence”, which the US has not hesitated to deploy in the past – such as with WMD in Iraq and promoting reports of “success in the war in Afghanistan” as a series of US Presidents were seeking the holy grail of “peace with honour” (similar to the same ruse in the exit from Vietnam). We must ensure that Australia’s view of our neighbourhood is not being filtered through US eyes as increasingly it has been recently.

There are a few more specific comments on the Review.

Again in advance of the “independent” Review, Marles has proffered that a “porcupine strategy” might be appropriate for Australia in our current circumstances. Typically, this has been taken directly from the US playbook – US Naval War College in 2008 developed this concept for the defence for Taiwan – which the latter actually adopted formally in 2017! It comprises two layers of defence: an outer layer of intelligence and reconnaissance and an inner of guerrilla warfare (but in a totally different land environment!).

While China and the US will be key issues for the Review, it should not lose sight of the important strategic considerations Australia will continue to have in South East Asia, the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean where our national interests do not always accord directly with those of the US. And where there are potentially different force and weaponry needs to those for a large scale conflict between the US and China.

ASEAN: Our prime focus must be on Indonesia with whom we need to build a more solid bilateral across the board relationship to minimise any potential security threat for Australia which might develop in the Review period – unlikely as it may now seem. Deepening our relations with the rest of ASEAN is also necessary for a wide variety of reasons. The rank amateurish way Morrison and Dutton mismanaged the AUKUS announcement provided stark evidence of just how far the Canberra orthodoxy had diminished our relations with this region. Not only did they anger the French and embarrass President Biden but they failed to prepare ASEAN for what must surely have been expected would be its irritation with the surprise. Indonesian diplomatic activity continues to harbour its concerns– urged on by China as we have seen in its attack of the IAEA review of the AUKUS submarine proposal.

This presents a serious message for handling any policy initiatives from this Review. We must ensure that appropriately senior Ministers and/or officials (not military officers) travel extensively around ASEAN preparing the ground for the release of the Review. As Ramos Horta so professionally countered a pathetic gotcha question from Sarah Ferguson on 7.30 last week about possible Chinese interest in a military base in East Timor. He pointed out that what Australia had been doing recently to upgrade US military facilities in Northern Australia could be interpreted by others in the region as a threat. Particularly, the likely recommendation about the installation of a missile capability in Northern Australia (however “defensive” and directed against China we might seek to project it) is bound to raise serious concerns in Indonesia and elsewhere in ASEAN as a potential threat to the region’s stability.

South Pacific: We must continue actively to upgrade our assistance and activity across the region but in so doing not be driven by an imperative to “out China China”. Without being too semantic, there has been a long history of Chinese migration into the region well before an Australian presence. The Germans imported indentured Chinese labour into New Guinea in the late 1900’s which, in step with our White Australia policy, we blocked off when we assumed guardianship of the territory post-WW1. Chinese languages have contributed to Tok Pisin and similar creoles in Melanesia.

Nor must we lose sight of the fact that by its sheer population size and proximity to Australia, PNG presents a special priority challenge. Unfortunately our colonial management of PNG left much to be desired, as we were frequently reminded in the halls of the UN, and the early days of independence (when I was serving there) were challenging. PNG still faces some monumental social and economic needs as evidenced by the recent difficulties with its torrid election process.

The extraordinarily complex negotiations of the Torres Strait Treaty, in the early days following independence, underlined the critical importance of what essentially constitutes our only land border (just several hundred metres of sea with kinship ties between both sides). This presents some crucial strategic issues from the purely defence-related through navigational, quarantine, people movement and so the list goes on. We need a concerted strategic policy for the development of the Strait and nearby Cape York peninsular as well as the adjoining PNG mainland – as the media fuelled fears of a reportedly proposed Chinese fishing port on nearby Daru illustrated.

Defence Procurement: Given that this was probably the key objective of the Review it was not surprising to witness the conga line of senior US military and defence officials who descended so fast on Australia to promote their special interests and wares. Other arms selling countries have also joined the bidding process. No doubt the defence industry lobbyists would have been close behind (including those funding ASPI) but the public nature of some of the pitches were unusual and highlighted the challenge for the Review in recommending procurement priorities among the long list of projected acquisitions sought by Dutton.

Pine Gap et al: Surprisingly to date, most commentary on the serious threat China perceived by the Canberra orthodoxy has meticulously avoided factoring in Pine Gap and other sensitive US facilities in Australia. The more recent upgrade of USAF activity through airfields in Northern Australia now must be added to that list. If these are as vital to US global defence strategy as generally claimed, the review surely must examine very closely with the US their counterparts’ need for protection from ballistic missile attack. This will open up a panoply of additional challenges from command and control through to operational deployment. And again this would present a very serious concern of disruption to regional harmony to Indonesia and the rest of ASEAN – who likely would all be well within the range of any counter missile defence – ballistic or lesser.

NATO: Both sides of the Australian political arena have been playing up the recent signs of greater interest in the Indo-Pacific from the British, French, German and NATO more generally. In large part, that has been welcomed as adding (albeit a very modest) participation to the desperate US efforts to mount some sort of a coalition to constrain China – though, of course, the Americans disavow it. And to which most regional countries do not evince much enthusiasm. Particularly in the South Pacific, this also runs the risk of smacking of the return of the colonial powers – especially for the French in Melanesia while sparring continues between Paris and the Kanak independence movement. This could further complicate our own current problems with the Solomons. As for ASEAN, while they would be keen to strengthen economic links with Europe they would be unlikely to welcome further foreign military activity in their region – apart from purely flag flying.

Another separate but daunting issue which the Government should be addressing in the context of this review must be the excessive use their predecessors so often made of ADF manpower and resources for emergencies and a host of other strictly non-military needs. Aid to the civil power traditionally has been a pretty controversial topic for many of the world’s militaries: it risks getting the military caught up in domestic political problems (as we began to see for example in the Lismore floods this year) but it also disrupts the continuous training and skill development which the military needs to maintain an acceptable level of readiness. Not to mention also the resources that are consumed or damaged in the process and for which budgetary replacement funds then become a hurdle. There is also a concern on the part of some of the civilian agencies about the level of preparedness of the military to take on the emergency tasks. It was noteworthy this week to learn from an FOI requested Defence briefing document for the incoming government that this matter had been raised. There is also growing pressure on Canberra to restructure all of the various national emergency services.

Read more in our Defence Strategic Review series of articles.

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