DOROTHY HORSFIELD. Measures Short of War. Australian National University’s Emeritus Professor Hugh White’s Plans for Defending Australia

One response from a colleague to the contentious proposal by Professor Hugh White in his new book ‘How to Defend Australia’ that the government should seriously consider adopting a nuclear capability was the brief ‘Oh, for God’s Sake!.’  Underpinning such a comment is the prospect of the kind of dystopian nightmare that stalked the West’s Cold War MAD (mutually-assured destruction) containment doctrine. As Russia’s President Putin, among others, has suggested tersely, in a 21st century nuclear war ‘no one would survive.’

Professor White is no doubt one of the Australian National University’s most eminent, influential figures in defence and strategic studies. What is at issue in his brave proposal is Australia’s need for a strategic, upgraded defence posturein which, of sad necessity, we join the international league of countries with nuclear arsenals. According to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, whose mission statement is to catalogue and campaign against further proliferation, nine countries currently have developed such capabilities. These include the US, the UK, France, India, China, Pakistan, Russia, Israel and more alarmingly North Korea. In terms of expenditure on the development of advanced high-tech nuclear weaponry, top of the list by a very large margin is the US.

Given the vagaries of relations between states, Professor White has an oft repeated view that during the coming century – or even decades – America may, is likely to, or very likely to, or indeed will almost certainly, prove to be an unreliable ally. More specifically, in any regional conflict in which China would loom large, the US cannot be counted on to back Australia. For White, the  implication here is that having our own independent nuclear weaponry helps to ensure we are credible participants in the great global zero-sum game of threat and counter threat. Moreover reviewing our defence capability right now is a matter of urgency.

This last suggestion may well be good advice. As a matter of pragmatics, there is much about  Professor White’s perspectives that invites serious challenge.

Firstly, there is the overriding issue of whether commitment to a nuclear arsenal would make a blind bit of difference to either our short or our long-term national security. Despite the occasional burst of shirtfronting, nationalistic, tough talk, Australia is a small to middle level power on the south-eastern periphery of Asia which since first white settlement has been integrally dependent on great and powerful friends. For more than seventy years this has entailed commitment to the US domination of the Western Alliance. Among other things this has meant America has profited enormously from supplying Australia with a good swag of the country’s current non-nuclear weaponry – an arrangement that has included lucrative, US-controlled maintenance contracts.

The question here too is whether America will be the best in the business when it comes to new generation high tech nuclear weapons. With the accelerating sophistication of Fourth Industrial Revolution weapon technologies, there has been accompanying rapid rate of obsolescence. Professor White’s strategic planning of what he argues is an effective Australian defence force for the late twenty-first century thus acquires the aura of an overweening belief in one’s prescience.

This concern is currently reflected, for example, in assessments in Canberra’s defence circles of the practical benefits of Australia’s purchase of the multi-billion dollar American-manufactured F35 Joint Strike Fighters. The Australian government ordered seventy of them seventeen years ago, only four of which have so far been delivered, and about which apprehension has been expressed that they may be obsolescent in around fifteen years.

A worst-case scenario is that, even with a nuclear arsenal, the mind-boggling 3.5-4% budget defence allocation advocated by Professor White provides no guarantee that Australia won’t turn out to be deemed a dispensable pawn in the great games of considerably bigger powers of whatever new world order. Or indeed whether such an allegedly independent defence posture might ensure that unparalleled destruction is rained down upon the country – with its immense, heart-wrenching cost in blood and treasure.

Secondly, there is the issue which has been constantly raised by Professor White over the years of the inevitability of Australia’s being forced to choose between increased engagement with its regional neighbours and its US Alliance. A prevalent response to this has been that, as a matter of worldly, agile foreign policy, the country should strive never to make such a choice. Though limited, here the tools of the trade are all the measures short of war. These include constant high-level diplomatic engagement in all directions, cultivation of ‘back channels,’ cultural and educational interchanges and aid projects, humanitarian help by defence forces in natural and human disasters, strong participation in the institutions that support and foster global governance, and the maintenance of the hopeful determination in an imperfect world that these institutions have a role to play in diffusing regional conflicts. Then there is the diplomatic embrace of economic  multilateralism, in which trade and investment might enhance positive global engagement. Finally, it should be noted that, beyond a propensity to give lingering insult to the Chinese and Russian governments, these are all initiatives in which Australia is an abiding participant. After that, perhaps what is needed is simple good luck.

Thirdly, there is the apparent assumption behind Professor White’s views that with the revised balancing of the country’s naval, air and army capabilities and with the addition of a nuclear weaponry, the country is unarguably defendable. The likely perpetrator of a regional war, he suggests, could be China, though in a more generalised way a rising, militant Asia could be a problem meriting his recommendations for new strategic planning. The counter argument is that, as an island, Australia’s porous borders and expanses of desolate terrain, combined with Asia’s huge wealth and population, entail severe constraints on the country’s defendability.

Imagine, so an alternative satirical vision goes, a much preferable, certainly less expensive strategy, inspired by Russia’s centuries’ old approach of tactical retreat in the face of a foreign invasion. The extreme drought, crippling heat and the occasional dust storm would not be propitious for an attack on Australia by the Chinese Red Peril.  Add to the unfortunate geography an overpopulation of crocodiles and the world’s most venomous snakes, and an Asian victory might prove hard to come by.

By Dr Dorothy Horsfield, Foundation Fellow in contemporary Russian studies, Australian National University’s Australian Studies Institute, 29/07/32019


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10 Responses to DOROTHY HORSFIELD. Measures Short of War. Australian National University’s Emeritus Professor Hugh White’s Plans for Defending Australia

  1. Avatar Bruce George says:

    White’s proposal is perhaps a tacid admission that we are a nuclear target because we have a key USA base or two on our soil, but if Iran is not allowed to become a nuclear weapons power why would Australia? As Putin says no one will survive a C21st nuclear war, so lets talk about creating peace. A peace treaty with China and Russia would be a great start, though a peace treaty with the USA is probably an impossibility. Just try closing Pine Gap, as Gough talked of doing, and see if the USA is our ally, or is just using us for it’s own advantage.

  2. Avatar Penny Lockwood says:

    Excellent article! Thanks once again for your logical and sane analysis.

  3. I have just finished reading Hugh’s book. As usual, I agree with him, especially on the submarine construction programme for 32 Australian built vessels of the updated Collins class.

    Diplomacy and defence are not mutually exclusive. We need both and we can afford both but we can’t afford tax cuts. The major issue here is the one raised by Tony King in these comments.

    Are we up for it as a people? Do we think our continent, its people and our culture are worth defending?

    In the long run, beyond our lifetimes, the best hope for Asia is that the courage shown by Hong Kong protesters will spread to the mainland and the Chinese will break down the dictatorship of their Communist Party.

  4. Avatar Mike Hart says:

    I can but agree with Dr Horsfield. Yet Dr White and the coterie of policy and academic researchers continue with this complete falacy of a Great Australia part of the club of Western powers facing the might of Euro-Asian perfidy and the hordes, really what are these people smoking are they incapable of rational thought and a little study of history.

    First no power has invaded or sought to conquer Australia, except us! Second, China has never been an expansionist power and land grabber, why would it be? It is not in their history or culture. As for Russia well they have given up on the Communist Internationale and reverted to being well Russians again. So now we have ticked off the so called enemies – who is left? Nobody but then again we have already been taken over and Wconquered that was done first by the Pound Sterling and then the American Dollar. So were are these so called enemies lurking with intent to rush in and conquer this type of hardened paranoia is evident of the lack of intellectual growth of our so called policy experts. It is a disgrace to our own discourse and standing that this tripe continues to be meddled as an excuse for foreign relationships.

    The Whitlam government tried hard to reestablish civilised and sensible relations with China and it has been all down hill since. Keating tried hard with Indonesia, good or bad at least he tried, Howard even made a start with our nearest neighbour but alas nothing is ever followed through, probably because we never really meant it and we keep being derailed by our alliance with the United States (imagined alliance) and our British history.

    Go nuclear, is the most stupid proposition possible. Lets start with the cost, it would not be 5% of GDP but probably 25% if we were to even achieve parity with North Korea. You see we need multiple warhead ICBMS to hit anybody the same as they need them to hit us and you certainly would not waste an ICBM on Australia when push came to shove, a few spares will take out Alice Springs and Canberra and maybe Darwin but that would be it but that would be enough.

    In case our so called defence planners had not noticed Russia has a purely defensive defence force and system, they have sealed the country from invasion from the sky or ground and done it with missiles and very very smart computer systems. They have the capacity to strike any attacker before they even get close to their borders. In the meantime the Russians are reducing their defence spending not increasing it. China has a similar system, they have ringed the country with missiles and missile defence technology it is again defensive not offensive.

    Now this is what the Chinese are really thinking about Australia – “Both countries have no historical grievances and fundamental conflicts of interests and their interests are highly complementary” (Wang Yi Chinese Foreign Minister}. So why do we as Dr Horsfield points out continue to add insult to China and Russia both, we are not their neighbours, they do not meddle in our affairs, they are both on the other side of the globe.

    If we are going to have a defence policy then lets start with dealing with the continued heating of the atmosphere and the real existential damage it now is imposing, not toys that kills people.

  5. Avatar Frank Alley says:

    Perhaps we could invoke Russell Braddon’s ‘The Year of the Angry Rabbit’ strategy and put an end to warfare. Shades of Dr. Strangelove’s doomsday machine.
    Summary at:

  6. Avatar Charles Lowe says:

    Love your last paragraph! (BTW – the Scots practised a ‘scorched earth’ policy against the English: the English never conquered the Scots.)

  7. Avatar Chris Mills says:

    Why would China initiate a war when its grand strategy of an irresistible economic force advancing peacefully at a measured pace is so effective at raising the living standards of its population?

  8. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    I suppose that, with the collapse of the “New World Order” and the new cold war, in an insane assylum it is safter to be insane …

  9. Avatar Tony King says:

    In the interviews I’ve heard him give since the publication of his report Hugh White has always been at pains to point out that a nuclear option for Australia is not a preferred or recommended or desirable option but rather something Australia should be prepared to contemplate rather than dismiss out of hand should circumstances such as those he outlines eventuate.

    Clearly there are many who disagree with the premise that Australia should even contemplate acquiring nuclear weapons. However I’ve not yet seen a credible alternative proposal, and certainly this article doesn’t provide one.

    Hope is not a strategy for the defence of the nation. Not hope that diplomacy or other soft power initiatives will be sufficient. Not hope that no one will ever want to conquer Australia. Not hope that geography will save us. At least White has proposed something credible, notwithstanding its unthinkability to many.

    My concern with all of these proposals however is that they seem to be based on a view that to conquer Australia it would be necessary to physically set foot on the land. I’m not sure that’s true any more.

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