How should Australia defend itself in the 21st century? Silencing the drums and dogs of war

May 29, 2023
Australian missile defence system concept, 3D rendering

The following is a paper by retired Australian Army Major General Michael G Smith AO, first published in The New Daily on .

Decisions taken by the former Coalition Government and the current Labor Government have and will shape and decide the destiny for future generations of Australians. The stakes are high. These decisions have been made and are being made behind closed doors and without acceptable public or parliamentary debate.

Indeed, the misguided predilection of our parliamentarians to adhere to a bipartisan approach on national security issues has proved counter-productive for the prospects of peace. Bipartisanship is not an end in itself. Our political system operates on the basis of an adversarial system pitting the Government of the day against the “Loyal Opposition”. Bipartisanship is the consequence of agreement on good policy. When pursued for its own sake, it becomes a fools’ journey delivering the lowest common denominator.

The AUKUS agreement heralded by the former Government was reached in secret, even from most Ministers and with no public consultation. Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison boasted that AUKUS was the most important defence agreement since the ANZUS Treaty. He even gloated about how clever he was to keep it secret. And then our current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese followed through without public consultation, avoiding being politically wedged because of the ALP’s lack of a coherent national security policy before coming to office.

In his preface to the recent Defence Security Review (DSR) our Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles, correctly states that “there is no more important and consequential task for Government than protecting the security, interests and livelihoods of its people”. If national security is the most important responsibility of Government, and I believe this to be true, then my children and grandchildren, and yours, deserve much better.

My disappointment with AUKUS, coupled with my growing concern at the stridency of the anti-China lobby and the ‘securitisation’ of too many Government policies, explains why I made a lengthy submission to the DSR. It is that submission, largely ignored by the Review’s Co-leads and their writing team, which has led me to this paper.

I want to emphasise the critical importance of Australia doing all it can to avert war, particularly between the United States and China, but also more generally. If we are unsuccessful in averting war between the United States and China (or their proxies), then I want the Australian people to have been fully consulted and to have expressed their views as to whether or not we should again follow our closest ally into another war, the consequences of which would be horrendous.

I want Australia to show its independence as a democratic middle power. I want us to help rekindle the ideals of the United Nations Charter which were forged on the bodies of 80 million casualties. I want us to again take a leading role in matters of conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, with priority given to our immediate region and doing all we can to ensure our northern region remains a nuclear free and peaceful zone, with its main focus on economic development and mitigating environmental disasters. And I want us to have a strong and independent Defence Force to help us achieve these vital interests.

To be clear, Australia’s future national security depends on much more than our defence policy and preparedness, but the very worst outcome for our national security and prosperity would be to become engaged in a war against China. The global balance of power, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, is not changing, it has already changed.

Australia must chart its course in the knowledge that China has already become the major power in Asia and that it will no longer accept containment and economic sanctions by the United States and its allies. This is the reality we now face, and so we need to rethink our approach. Unfortunately, the thrust of the DSR and even recent comments by Foreign Minister Penny Wong are beating the drums of war.

It is often said that the best leaders are good listeners. On national security our Prime Minister needs to listen to the learned views beyond Washington and the Australian Defence and Intelligence agencies. He needs to actively promote a conversation with the Australian people on national security issues, just as his Treasurer Jim Chalmers is doing on economic issues.

Four important questions

There are four inter-related questions we need to keep in front of mind. The answers to each of these questions will better shape Australia’s national security and defence preparedness for the 21st century. Answering these questions sensibly should at least diminish if not totally silence the drums of war.

First question: do we need an open conversation on national security leading to a National Security Strategy before implementing all the significant recommendations in the DSR?

Second question: what key actions should we consider to avert, or at least diminish, the likelihood of war with China?

Third question: should we reappraise and recalibrate our current relationship with the United States?

Fourth question: do we need to reshape our current Defence Strategy? Please note that this question, correctly in my view, is subordinate to the other questions.

Q1: A National Security Conversation and Strategy?

If it is the case that Government has been captured by its intelligence and security advisors, and the indicators are that it has, we desperately need a broader national security conversation that identifies the nation’s policy objectives rather than simply reacting to so-called intelligence assessments. Intelligence is a test of policy, not its driver.

The current debate on admitting non-government and non-opposition MPs and Senators (for example, Independents and Greens) to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) is an indicator of the problem we have.

The PJCIS gets classified briefings that cannot be discussed in the Parliament! How’s that for transparency and accountability? And how different from the US system, where the House and Senate Intelligence Committees probe the communities with much of their evidence placed on the public record.

So, does Australia need an open conversation on national security leading to a National Security Strategy? In summary, yes we need a National Security Strategy and we need it urgently. However, it cannot be rushed because it needs to be underpinned by extensive public consultation. The last thing we need is a National Security Strategy constructed on the model of the DSR.

Devising a National Security Strategy is no easy task. While our strategic objectives remain relatively constant over time, a comprehensive national security strategy is shaped and influenced by myriad domestic and international circumstances that change over time.

Australia’s security challenges are headlined by the likelihood of war or serious conflict between the United States and China (and/or their proxies). But our nation’s security is jeopardised further by nuclear proliferation, the likelihood of global economic recession or depression, protracted ecological threats impacted further by climate change, the continuing threat of terrorism, mass population displacement and movement caused by conflicts and ecological disasters, and the exponential growth in artificial intelligence (AI) in the absence of effective regulation, particularly to control lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).

Many nations, including our major allies, have a National Security Strategy that sets the benchmark for more detailed subordinate policies. The best of these strategies connects domestic realities with global trends to provide the most feasible approach to reduce risk and enhance national resilience and prosperity. Defence is but one important pillar of national security, but successive Australian Governments have tended to use Defence and National Security both interchangeably and with ambiguity.

Defence policy should not masquerade as national security policy and it should not be determined or articulated in isolation from other national security challenges. To do so, as evidenced by the recent DSR, is to put the cart before the horse. Defence policy must align with and often contribute to other critical policies – economic, social, foreign, resources, employment, education, health, agriculture, immigration, demographic, environmental, indigenous and others. Working together, and with prioritised trade-offs, these policies enhance sovereignty to achieve national objectives that promote human security and the wellbeing of our citizens. In this way a National Security Strategy reflects a whole-of-government and whole-of-nation approach.

To be meaningful, national security objectives should be measurable and not rhetorical. Relevant measurable objectives could include, but are not limited to, our national capacity for resilience and our levels of prosperity, employment, infrastructure, compassion, equality, education, crime, corruption, human rights, reconciliation with First Nations people, research and development, and innovation. These measurable objectives mean far more to our national security than do vague Defence strategies of denial and deterrence that history has shown to be imprecise, highly expensive and even self-defeating. But more on Australia’s Defence Strategy later.

Unfortunately, and despite the many pronouncements on national security, Australia has not had a National Security Strategy since 2013 when Labor was last in power. A new National Security Strategy is now well overdue. I find it extremely disappointing that our current Labor Government has not made this a high priority, while, at the same time, accelerated the development of a Defence strategy that has as its prime objective the support of the United States and the containment of China.

In our efforts to maintain peace and security, it is sensible for us to advocate for and adhere to the rules-based international order. But in doing so we must not confuse the global rules-based order sanctioned by the United Nations, with that proclaimed and practised by the United States. These ‘rules-based orders’ are not always the same, and as a middle power we would be wise to champion and promote the former.

In order to develop and sustain a mature National Security Strategy the following actions should be initiated by Government:
the establishment of a joint standing parliamentary committee on national security; the appointment of a senior National Security Adviser in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, properly staffed to reflect a whole-of-government approach; and the establishment of a civil-society consultative advisory group.

Effective and ongoing consultation with civil society – including representatives from business, industry, academia, think tanks and First Nations people – is particularly important. This is because the consequences of a National Security Strategy are far too important to be determined by a handful of politicians, consultants, senior bureaucrats, spooks and military officers. Our Government needs to be held accountable for national security, including for poor decisions that result in severe consequences for future generations.

Q2: Averting or diminishing the likelihood of war with China?

How could we avert or diminish the likelihood of war with China? At present, Australia is locked on a collision course to war with China in support of our major ally the United States. We need urgently to rethink and change this approach. Because Australia is caught between our main ally and our major trading partner we have more credibility and agency than most other countries in reducing tensions between these super powers. Our national security will be enhanced by us NOT taking sides and by calling for restraint.

Australia should encourage the United States, as our most important ally, to de-escalate the current arms race in the Indo-Pacific and reduce the prospect of war, particularly over the future of Taiwan and China’s increased militarisation of the South China Sea.

Despite America’s ‘One China’ policy, the future independence of Taiwan and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea have become major national security issues for the United States. But neither of these are vital national security interests for Australia.

Accordingly, and as a good US ally, we should make it very clear to all parties that Australia has no intention of engaging in war in North Asia and we should withdraw our naval and military assets from this volatile region wherein our presence is not and will not be a determining factor and where we could inadvertently cause the escalation of conflict. By withdrawing our military forces from north Asian waters Australia will demonstrate its opposition to fuelling the current arms race and can then more actively campaign with regional partners to prevent conflict or at least reduce the risks of escalation.

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles, has repeatedly highlighted the deteriorating and dangerous security situation in the Indo-Pacific, noting in his preface in the DSR that “the risks of military escalation or miscalculation are rising”. Elsewhere he has referred to the Indo-Pacific as witnessing the largest conventional arms build-up since the Second World War. But this current global arms race is clearly being led by the United States. The United States is reportedly accounted for 39 per cent of global military expenditure in 2022 – US$877 billion – while China was second with 13 per cent – US$292 billion. The US outspent the next 10 countries combined.

And it is worth remembering the wry remark of my old friend of fifty years, the late Jim Molan: “If Australia were to go to war with China, we’d be lucky to last three days”. Only a fool could see that as a good outcome for our nation.

Over recent years there has been much scaremongering in Australia about China. Yet despite the reduction in warning time for major global conflict, Australia’s territory, our people and our vital national interests are not under foreseeable direct military threat from China or any other country.

The only possible exception to this statement would be the potential targeting of US military bases and/or weapons systems in Australia.

Overall it is fair to say that Australia’s commitment to a major conflict with the United States against China in distant locations is a matter of choice rather than necessity. Importantly, therefore, our Government needs urgently to have this conversation with the Australian people.

Defence analysts frequently highlight Australia’s vulnerability as a trading nation to interdiction at sea. This potential threat is often used to justify the acquisition of naval combatant platforms, long-range missiles and more recently a switch to nuclear-powered submarines. The truth is that Australia could never afford or man sufficient platforms to always guarantee freedom of navigation and safe passage for merchant shipping. It is noteworthy that two of the largest merchant marine nations in the world, Norway and Greece, do not even entertain such an option.

China’s naval expansion is also used as reason to better protect merchant shipping, but as a massive trading nation China itself is heavily dependent on trade and arguably would suffer most if sea lanes were blocked. This helps explain why China has not restricted merchant shipping in the South China Sea, only objecting to foreign naval and military forces operating within China’s declared area of interest.

The most sensible and cost-effective strategy for Australia in retaining its international trade routes is to be non-threatening to other countries.

There can be no doubt that Australia’s future prosperity rests in Asia and particularly with China as Asia’s superpower. This is the Asian century and we need to strengthen our relationship and reputation in this region. While the heritage of successive colonial, state and federal governments in Australia reflects the Anglosphere, we are now proudly multicultural and on the path to reconciliation with our First Nations people. Geography remains important and Australia must continue to live in and with Asia. More than 5 per cent of our population are of Chinese ethnicity, we have attracted significant Chinese investment, and we have established many ‘sister-city’ partnerships. China is and hopefully will remain our largest trading partner for many years, directly impacting the prosperity of both nations. The very worst outcome for Australia would be military conflict with China. We must do all we can to avoid this.

Avoidance will require us to show greater respect to China. This does not mean that our values will always align, much as our values differ with the United States regarding gun control, social welfare, health care, abortion, ready access to fentanyl which kills over 100,000 Americans each year, and tipping. Improving our current poor relationship with China will require a coordinated whole-of-government and people-to-people approach.

This does NOT mean condoning China’s (or any country’s) actions that threaten our security, breach the UN’s rules-based international order, or contravene human rights. But we must change the perception, held by many regional countries, that Australia is the USA’s lackey and ‘Deputy Sheriff’. In summary, we need to assert our agency and safeguard our sovereignty.

In terms of Defence capabilities Australia should not acquire weapons systems that are clearly intended as ‘plug-ins’ to US forces to contain and contest China. This means that we should not procure highly expensive nuclear-powered submarines and/or long-range missile systems intended for this purpose. The opportunity cost of procuring such weapons systems prevents us from having a more effective Defence Force capable of demonstrating support to regional neighbours and the United Nations while at the same time combatting threats closer to home.

Throughout the Southwest Pacific we should listen to the requirements of our neighbours and, wherever possible, seek to bring China into the tent rather than compete with them for influence and status. While we might prefer Australia to be the ‘partner of choice’ it is also true that China (and other countries) have much to offer Indonesia and smaller island states in the Southwest Pacific in helping them achieve their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to mitigate the impacts of poverty and climate change.

A major diplomatic effort will be required for us to encourage collaboration between the United States and China on disaster relief and climate change mitigation in the Southwest Pacific. The defence forces of all three countries and New Zealand can play a positive role in assisting Pacific nations in this endeavour. Training exercises for this could be brokered by Australia and New Zealand.

Q3: Reassessing and recalibrating our relationship with the United States?

Should Australia reassess and recalibrate its alliance with the United States? In addition to New Zealand, the United States is and should remain our closest defence partner. This relationship has grown and matured over time and is underpinned by mutual respect and trust. But the alliance is asymmetric in size, reach and capability and our respective vital national interests will not always align. From our past commitments to US conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria we have learned (or should have learned) that we have paid a heavy price in human capital for little or no strategic benefit to Australia’s national security.

Australia has proven more successful in managing smaller regional conflicts such as in Cambodia and Timor-Leste with the United Nations, and in Bougainville and the Solomon Islands with regional coalitions. In these instances, we have operated without direct US military support. We have been seen to operate as a sovereign country in partnership with, and for the better good of, the region.

Australia’s major contribution to the US alliance is, or should be, to help maintain peace and security in what I have called Australia’s Primary Region of Interest (APRI). Geographically, the APRI is Australia’s sovereign territory, our northern approaches comprising Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea and the nations of the Southwest Pacific, and New Zealand. This is a vast region requiring a massive whole-of-government approach. But this vastness pales into insignificance when compared with what the DSR decided was Australia’s primary area of strategic military interest, which encompasses the north-eastern Indian Ocean through maritime Southeast Asia into the Pacific and including our northern approaches. Clearly, this is strategic reach beyond our sustainable capacity and aimed at containment of China.

To operate effectively even in the APRI our Defence Force will require enhanced capabilities to maintain a continuous presence and to be able to conduct civil-military operations in partnership with neighbouring countries. By focusing on the APRI Australia can make substantial savings in defence procurement: we can forego the huge expense of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, long-range offensive missile systems and bombers, and heavy armoured vehicles and self-propelled artillery – all of which have limited utility throughout the APRI.

It is sensible for our military forces to have modern armaments of US origin where such acquisition is appropriate and supply lines guaranteed. And it is equally sensible that our Defence Force train and be interoperable with US forces should our security be directly threatened in the future. However, ‘interoperability’ does not mean ‘interchangeability’. We should avoid situations requiring us to provide our national flag and military ‘plug-ins’ in situations where we have no real impact on strategy or the conduct of military operations. Indeed, such commitments are more likely to jeopardise Australia’s national security, dilute our sovereignty, and affirm to other countries that Australia too readily seeks to follow the United States.

The United States is no longer the sole superpower in the Indo-Pacific. It has a choice, either learn to share power or go to war with China. Our former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd now sits in Washington as Australia’s Ambassador. He recently (2022) authored a timely book titled The Avoidable War in which he clearly explains that a war between China and the United States would be catastrophic, deadly, and destructive, highlighting that unfortunately, it is no longer unthinkable.

Rudd calls for carefully managed strategic competition to avert war. This will require adroit diplomacy, and I certainly hope that Australia is proactive in helping shape the best outcome possible. I am pleased that Rudd is representing our interests in Washington. Not only does he understand China and the United States, but also the United Nations.

As well, Canberra needs to remain mindful that the United States is a superpower in relative decline and that our major ally is a deeply divided country politically, most blatantly evidenced by the storming of Capital Hill on 6 January 2021 by pro-Trump supporters. In this venomous domestic political contest, the containment of China, if necessary through military means, has become a common mantra uniting Republicans and Democrats alike.

As the eminent Harvard Professor Graham Allison has noted from a historical analysis of major conflicts, when the interests of a rising power (China) and a power in relative decline (United States) clash, major conflict is the most usual outcome. Should this situation arise there can be no clear winners, and Australia will have negligible impact on the outcome.

Australia’s security and that of countries in our more immediate Pacific region and Southeast Asia, will be degraded if Canberra continues to guarantee unfettered military support to the United States against China. Simply put, to continue to do so is not in our long-term national strategic interest.

This does not mean that we should abandon our alliance with the United States, but rather that as a sovereign nation and close friend we should recalibrate the alliance to accord with our own national security priorities. This is exactly what the United States always does – puts its own national interests first. Echoing the words of Lord Acton, former US National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy noted honestly that ‘the American commitment anywhere is only as deep as the continued conviction of Americans that their own interest requires it’.

For the past 20 plus years since 9/11 in showing allegiance to the United States, the Australian public has been told that our national security is under threat, first from international terrorism and more latterly from our largest trading partner, China. The nature and extent of both these threats is highly contestable, but they have been used to justify significant expenditure in the name of national security, rather than resolving these challenges through adroit diplomacy and preserving our independence of action.

As a result of our unquestioned alliance with the United States, Australia’s international reputation has been sullied. We will need to work very hard to reclaim our former status. Australia’s misguided military forays into Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria, incredibly justified by Prime Minister John Howard invoking the ANZUS Treaty, ultimately proved unsuccessful and at considerable cost both financially and in human capital. In the process we inadvertently tarnished the reputation of our Special Forces, particularly our elite Special Air Service Regiment (SASR). The opportunity cost of these commitments prevented our small Defence Force from what should have been its primary role in the APRI. Some reputable analysts have concluded that our commitment to the War on Terror actually contributed to the persistence of terrorist acts against us at home and abroad.

Our more recent AUKUS alliance was negotiated in secret from the Australian public and Parliament and without consultation with our Pacific neighbours and New Zealand, or with France as the largest European power active in the Pacific. Recent US media reports also reveal that Australia’s decision on AUKUS was significantly influenced by former senior US naval officers and US Defence Department officials as paid consultants by the Australian Government.

A call for a Parliamentary Enquiry into the AUKUS decision has now been launched on which my name appears amongst far more notable Australians. It has also been revealed that the primary author of the DSR was simultaneously contracted with the US Government and US strategic think tanks. The DSR report identified the need for a major review of the Royal Australian Navy’s fleet requirements which is to be led or significantly advised by a retired US Admiral.

US influence over Australia’s defence and strategic thinking has become far too pervasive and influential, eroding Australia’s independent agency and our sovereignty. Together with reinvigoration of the QUAD, these security arrangements in servitude to the US’s mission to contain China have had two additional negative impacts on Australia’s national security:

  • our neighbours throughout the Indo-Pacific infer that Australia is primarily an appendage of the United States – the ‘Deputy Sheriff’ label – determined to contain and contest China’s rise at any cost, including by jeopardising Australia’s and the region’s future economic prosperity.
  • and through AUKUS and the QUAD Australia is actively contributing to a major arms race, including potential nuclear proliferation, in the very region that we and most other inhabitants would prefer remain a nuclear-free zone of peace.
    The lessons are clear: we need to review and recalibrate our current alliance arrangements with the United States. This includes the requirement for honest public consultation with the Australian people as to the benefits and potential dangers of US basing rights in Australia.

Q4: Reshaping our current Defence strategy?

My final question concerns the reshaping of Australia’s Defence strategy.

The mission and purpose of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the entire Defence Organisation is to defend Australia and its national interests in order to advance Australia’s security and prosperity. In a nutshell, Defence’s key requirement is (or should be) to ensure and safeguard Australia’s sovereignty and protect the wellbeing of our citizens.

The Chinese strategist Sun Tzu correctly observed that ‘invincibility lies in the defence’. Australia would be very wise to adhere to this tenet. How a nation postures itself largely influences the threats it attracts. The DSR charts a very different course, being offensive rather than defensive in nature and clearly choosing China as our adversary.

The DSR accepts the 2020 Defence Strategic Update which highlighted the need for the ADF and broader Defence capabilities to ‘shape Australia’s strategic environment, deter actions against Australia’s interests, and respond with credible military force when required’. Now in the DSR this ‘shape, deter and respond’ approach is over pinned by a strategy of denial.

This all sounds very noble but is impossible to measure. It is also unachievable and unrealistic for a middle power like Australia, failing to optimise our security and actually jeopardising it. This is because Australia has very limited ability to shape major conflicts and ecological disasters and historical evidence shows that conventional deterrence seldom works, more usually fuelling an arms race and the next conflict. Rather than being able to respond to more realistic threats should they eventuate, the Australian taxpayer will be paying a King’s ransom to respond to an unsubstantiated threat against China.

In my submission to the DSR I contended that our Defence strategy must be realistic and measurable. I suggested an alternative of ‘protect, assist and prepare’. The rationale for this is compelling because the Australian population primarily expects and pays for Defence capabilities that: protects our population and our close neighbours from realistic threats, assists our population and our close neighbours in responding effectively to security threats and ecological crises, and pay a high premium to prepare our Defence Force with the right equipment, training and rehearsed contingency plans.

While I disagree strongly with the central tenet of the DSR which is to contain China, the report includes sensible initiatives with which I agree. These include strengthening partnership with our immediate neighbours (noting that neither Indonesia nor Papua New Guinea rated specific mention), improving our logistics and supply chains, upgrading and hardening our defence bases, reforming the Army Reserve, upgrading and acquiring modern amphibious landing capabilities, and elevating the importance of space and cyber domains to join with land, air and sea domains. I was particularly pleased at the emphasis given to a more whole-of-government civil-military approach and the much-needed enhancement to our diplomatic capabilities.

But somewhat alarmingly the DSR also has worrying omissions. No mention is made of necessary counter-terrorism capabilities and it seems that expertise in peace operations and support to UN peacekeeping is no longer important. The impact of climate change is recognised, as is Defence’s historical contribution to disaster and humanitarian relief, but capabilities and training for these critical tasks are downplayed both domestically and abroad. What a pity! Particularly when climate change will continue to have greater impact on global security, including in Australia and our immediate neighbourhood.

The overall intent of the DSR is clear: with significantly reduced warning time for conflict in a deteriorating security environment we must regenerate the old mantra of ‘forward defence’ and acquire capabilities with greater range to fight with our US allies as far from our shores as possible. Does this sound familiar to those who remember the wars in Korea and Vietnam – the yellow peril, the domino theory, and keeping “the chinks” at bay?

I recommended adopting a strategy of ‘defence-in-depth’ – globally, regionally and domestically – highlighting priorities in these areas.

And those submarines…

The AUKUS decision to acquire nuclear-powered conventionally-armed submarines attracted most media attention and thereby deflected significant comment from the DSR. In my view this decision to procure nuclear-powered submarines will prove to be as useless, but even more costly, than was our flawed Singapore strategy before World War II.

Their acquisition is highly problematic, exorbitantly expensive, incurs significant opportunity costs for our Defence Force, and if ever realised will be well-outside the warning time not only of the DSR but of all previous Defence White Papers – by which time the capability will almost certainly be obsolete. For diplomatic reasons it is also a dumb decision that hardly forges trust and cooperation with our near neighbours, let alone China.

Our submarines have an important role to play throughout the Southwest Pacific and Australia’s littoral right now, particularly while we develop the next generation of remotely operated underwater vessels. Accordingly, urgent action is required to acquire high quality conventional submarines and/or ensure the upgrade and seaworthiness of our ageing Collins class boats.

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