DENNIS ARGALL. The complexity of saying no to the Americans.

The degree of ‘interoperability’ with US forces shapes the minds of Australian service personnel from top to bottom as also it shapes procurement planning and justification. … Any review by us of the Alliance relationship would run-up against a deep history. It would require a radical shift in the pattern of power within Australian strategic policy-making bureaucracy and public commentariat.  

Earlier blogs have asserted that  ‘we can say no’ to the Americans. This is about the difficulties of saying ‘no’.

When I was, for a time, in the Australian defence department, I attended the 1973 Christmas party of the RAAF staff college at Fairbairn Air Base. I joined a group of army, navy and air force officers and asked why they looked so worried. “Well,” after looks to each other, one said: “until a year ago [election of the Whitlam, Labor, Government], we were receiving lawful orders from the Governor General. In the past year politicians have been interfering with the Governor-General’s lawful orders.”

These were officers selected for advancement to wing commander, commander, lieutenant colonel. They had emerged from a staff course without the rudiments of political education.

I explained the constitutional arrangements and they said, rather sweetly: “Thank you, we didn’t know that.” I do not know how far political perspectives in the services have advanced since then.

In the same year, in assembling information for an informed picture of great power naval presences in the Indian Ocean, I spoke to a naval Commander, a friend, in the Joint Intelligence Organisation, asking if in addition to providing information on Soviet ship movements, United States naval movements could be made available. He did his block, he would never provide intelligence on the great ally. This led to a direction from on high that no information would be sought from the Joint Intelligence Organisation other than via a very senior officer.

Over time since then, the command of the services over policy and strategic planning has constantly increased. Long gone the days when Sir Arthur Tange as Secretary said he wanted opinion based on wisdom not rank and that he would not receive anyone in his office in uniform unless that person had ceremonial obligations to attend.

In 1973, in the context of negotiations regarding Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape, I had my staff assemble a book, about two centimetres thick, called “Treaties, agreements, arrangements and understandings of defence interest, between Australia and the United Sates”.

It sold like hot cakes in Foreign Affairs. There were cries of “never knew that.” I imagine the book would be much thicker now.

The Gillard government’s 2013 security white paper said there were eight pillars of our approach to national security. Tucked at the bottom, as number eight was “Understanding and being influential in the world, particularly the Asia-Pacific.”

The 2016 Defence White Paper stated:

“The Government’s policy is to align Australia’s defense strategy with capabilities and resourcing, grow our international defence partnerships to support shared security interests and invest in the partnership with Australian defence industry to develop innovative technologies and deliver essential capabilities.” [page 13]

My concern with this is the extent to which force structure and force commanders drive policy. The degree of ‘interoperability’ with US forces shapes the minds of Australian service personnel from top to bottom as also it shapes procurement planning and justification.

As to world-view, the Defence White Paper stated:

“A strong and deep alliance is at the core of Australia’s security and defence planning. The United States will [to 2035] remain the pre-eminent global military power and will continue to be Australia’s most important strategic partner. Through this Defence White Paper, Australia will seek to broaden and deepen our alliance with the United States…” [p.15]

All this is not easy to budge, even when it’s wrong.

On 24 January 2017 the US Defense Department provided this ‘read-out’ of telephone discussion between Secretary Mattis and Australian Defence Minister Payne.

“Secretary Mattis thanked Minister Payne for Australia’s support to counter-ISIL operations in the Middle East, as well as for Australia’s continued contributions in Afghanistan. Secretary Mattis was encouraged by progress with force posture initiatives, including the recent signing of a cost-sharing arrangement.  …”

This is not easy to escape. The things that offend some of us are in plain sight, and now include the basing of US forces in the Northern Territory and the distorted public debate about the South China Sea.

Public understanding of our regional situation is retarded by the failure of the Australian media to report adequately on it, for example the shift of ASEAN countries away from the US posture.

Any review by us of the Alliance relationship would run-up against a deep history. It would require a radical shift in the pattern of power within Australian strategic policy-making bureaucracy and public commentariat.

We have not had, for a long time, political leaders who have had an independent civilian perspective on strategy and force structure development.

Political leaders have been prepared to tragically distort the Australian budget, not just defence budget, to embark on a submarine project, whose main purpose has seemed to re-elect Christopher Pyne.

In the early 1970s when we had an aircraft carrier and a fleet of submarines (which were so elusive that to make ASW exercises fair, so others could find the submarines, they had to run one of the submarine’s propellers backwards),defence systems analysts concluded that the entire Australian fleet might, just might, be able to see an iron ore carrier safely through the Indonesian archipelago.

There was so much argument about where to buy the new submarines, and almost none about why and for what specific purposes they were to be obtained.

The sorry fact is that it is easy to write a strategic justification for anything, with a bit of imagination and jargon and all this will reveal is that there is never going to be enough to defend Australia against the improbable.

It would be far preferable for us to begin by elevating from the bottom up to the top of the list of things necessary for national strategy: “Understanding and being influential in the world, particularly the Asia-Pacific”

I’ve not mentioned the intelligence sharing arrangements of the Alliance. This is a large and separate subject, which has its own mythology, because of the secrecy in which it is encased. We are frequently threatened with unspecified disaster were it to be discontinued. I invite the reader to ask how effective or useful does it in fact appear to have been, judging for example, the policy and military decisions on the Middle East and Afghanistan, that it has led to.

Dennis Argall’s career included time in the Australian Department of Defence as well as other departments, as head of research in the parliament and Australian Ambassador to China. 


Dennis Argall's degrees were in anthropology and defence studies. his governmental work in foreign, defence and domestic departments and for the Australian parliament. His overseas postings included Beijing as ambassador, and Washington. He regrets the extent of his personal experience with disability but it has perhaps sharpened his desire that the future be a better country.

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