If I were Minister for Defence in the incoming government

May 19, 2022
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If Australia were ever to come under attack, there is no guarantee that the USA would ‘protect’ it. Image: Flickr / Trump White House

The primary requirement is the courage to tell the nation that it it can and should stand up on its own two feet and shed its ‘fear of abandonment’, once and for all.

“Australia has always been a follower in foreign and defence policy. When the British Lion lost its teeth we turned to the American Eagle which is currently losing its feathers.” So began a recent article by Cavan Hogue under the title ‘If I were Foreign Minister… The connection between foreign policy and defence is, and should always be, strong. There are, however, aspects of defence that stand on their own, regardless of the particular details of international affairs.

The Defence White Paper of 1976 sought to establish self-reliance as the primary focus of Australia’s defence policy. This was because both the UK and the USA, at that time, were perceived to be taking less interest in our corner of the world (the ‘South West Pacific Region’).

That situation has changed, as the AUKUS agreement confirms. Since at least 2011 (when its ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific was announced) the USA, in particular, has become increasingly interested in the region. One consequence of this has been official emphasis of the alliance between Australia and the USA in more recent Defence White Papers. Indeed, within the Defence Establishment, the alliance is often described as the ‘cornerstone’ of Australia’s defence, especially by organisations like ASPI (“Since 1951, when the ANZUS Treaty between Australia, New Zealand and the US was signed, the alliance with the US has been the cornerstone of Australian defence policy.”)

The real reason for this renewed interest in our region is less because the USA is eager to protect its Australian friends, more because the USA is intent on challenging its perceived rival, China. In this scenario, Australia might be a useful ally to the USA – but if Australia were ever to come under attack, there is no guarantee that the USA would ‘protect’ it. The ANZUS Treaty does not provide one.

The 1976 White Paper took a more realistic approach to defending the nation, by basing it on the realisation that in extremis the nation has to look after itself. Such is the true nature of nationhood.

Accordingly, if I were Minister for Defence in the new government, I would begin by looking as objectively as possible at the realistic, military threats to Australia, the nation’s natural, defence assets and then move to identifying the best ways to providing territorial defence.

I anticipate concluding that, because of its geography, there are no realistic military threats to Australia. We are a nation with no land borders. Serious military action against us involves crossing water. Of course there are multiple ways of doing that – but every one would involve over-stretched supply-lines and consequent vulnerability for the forces of the would-be attacker. During WW2, despite the propaganda messaging of the time, Japanese high command absolutely ruled out the idea of invading the Australian continent. It was considered a logistical impossibility.

As Minister, I would consider it my job to re-assure Australians that we live in an exceptionally safe location, and that the likelihood of any meaningful attack (i.e. a full scale invasion) is vanishingly small. We should remember that the population has increased significantly since 1942; internal communications have improved enormously; food production exceeds the needs of the population, and that in an emergency all the resources of the continent can be put at the disposal of our single, central government.

Current warfare styles are dependent on extravagant use of oil-based fuels and sophisticated machines. As things stand, these considerations could make Australia vulnerable to blockade. (But, given the length of the coastline, blockading the entire continent would be a monumental task…) In this regard, our reliance on overseas sources of petroleum products and our severely depleted manufacturing sector might be weaknesses. As Minister, I would have to address myself to those aspects.

Finally, when it comes to actual defence, I would be guided by the thoughts of Dr Albert Palazzo. Palazzo argues that defence is the strongest military stance for the present era, because of the enormous increase in the depth of the ‘No Man’s Land’ between combatting nations that long-range weapons create. Palazzo’s philosophy is of ‘porcupine’-style defence, under which a small animal (or nation) is capable of inflicting so much pain on any would-be aggressor that it can operate without fear of being attacked. With our ‘over the horizon’ radar capability to warn of any impending attack, and with long-range, precision missiles with which to destroy approaching ships or aircraft, we are capable of ensuring the nation’s safety – without any need for tanks, let alone nuclear-power submarines.

The incoming Minister for Defence could guarantee the safety of the Australian population – without resorting to any alliance or the protection of any superior military force. The primary requirement is the courage to tell the nation that it it can and should stand up on its own two feet and shed its ‘fear of abandonment’, once and for all.

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