“Australia is now a confident, wealthy nation that has the right to expect its leaders to rise above the second rate.”
In the first of these pieces, I suggested that the quality of political leadership in Australia has reverted to the second rate level identified by Donald Horne in 1963. I also proposed two major areas – the impact of climate change and a substantial deterioration in our strategic circumstances – where Australia’s luck is running out. In this post, I address the second issue, with a particular focus on Australia’s defence strategy and a deeply concerning lack of leadership.
Australia has never really had an independent defence policy. We have always relied for our security on an alliance with a great and powerful friend, first Britain and then the United States. In recent years, our Ministers have regularly boasted that we have fought alongside the US in every conflict in which America has been engaged. Australian leaders seem to believe that this is the premium we must pay for the insurance provided under the ANZUS treaty. Yet ANZUS is a complex insurance policy where our leaders never seem willing to examine the fine print. ANZUS is different from NATO. Unlike the old imperial arrangement with the British, ANZUS does not provide any cast-iron guarantee that America would provide military assistance to Australia were we to be attacked or, indeed, extended nuclear deterrence. This is of particular importance in an era where America increasingly seems to place less importance on its relationships with alliance partners. Even in this globalised world, it is not inconceivable that America, like Britain, when it was the modern world’s first superpower in the nineteenth century, may retreat into ‘splendid isolation’.
Just this month Sir Max Hastings, an eminent military historian not noted for peacenik views, sounded a warning note in The Times about British reliance on the US. In this extract, we could readily substitute “Australian prime ministers” for British:
The 2003 Iraq war reminds us to stay on good terms with our US allies but to resist joining in their reckless adventures. … The US never does favours in return for services rendered. At every turn of world affairs its behaviour is driven by self-interest. There is nothing wrong with this but it remains a truth from which successive British prime ministers flinch. Again and again, they acquiesce in rash US policies through fear of offending the White House or hopes of advantage, which are unfulfilled. … Attaching ourselves to American adventures that we do not believe in gains us no influence and generates only grief.
As the Kurds can testify, these uncertainties about the reliability of an alliance with the US have been magnified under the idiosyncratic leadership of President Donald Trump.
Yet while other countries are starting to see the wisdom of hedging their bets on an alliance with the United States, Australian prime ministers still roll over like puppy dogs when patted on the head by the POTUS. How good is America? Although this approach is consistent with a long, rich country tradition of cynical diplomacy, it is only acceptable if at the same time our leaders are making a hard headed assessment of our strategic realities and their implications for Australia’s national security. But there is little evidence to suggest that they are.
The rise of China and its drive to challenge the US for hegemony in the Indo Pacific means that Australian leaders need to face up to a dangerous new strategic reality. Already, the PLA Navy has more fighting ships than the US Navy, although still well behind in its overall level of capability. In certain critical military technologies, however, China is probably ahead, particularly in anti-ship ballistic and hypersonic cruise missiles. To the extent that this significantly increases the vulnerability of the American aircraft carrier battle groups – the heart of US naval power projection – it suggests that even now America cannot be 100 per cent confident in prevailing in a naval conflict in the South China Sea. And investment in military power in China is growing at a much faster rate than in the US.
Although most of Australia’s strategic experts in universities and think tanks have been warning of the dangers for the last few years, the arrival in our region of a new superpower ready and able to challenge America is a game changer for Australia. For example, Paul Dibb in 2018:
Above all else, we must recognise that we now face the prospect—for the first time since the Second World War—of a potential major power adversary, with whom we do not share fundamental values, operating in our neighbourhood and capable of threatening us with high intensity conflict. To counter this eventuality, we must develop a stronger defence force capable of denying our approaches to a well-armed adversary.”
Hugh White, one of Australia’s foremost strategic experts, has proposed that in the medium term the United States may well give up contesting hegemony with China in the Indo Pacific and retreat to Fortress America so as to maintain its global dominance. As White says, drawing on the lessons from the fall of Singapore in 1942, “Today, relative to its Asian rivals, America is weaker economically, diplomatically and militarily than it has been since World War Two, and yet we rely on it more. The parallels with the years before Singapore are all too obvious.”
Indeed, they are. In the lead up to World War II, the Australian government knew perfectly well that Britain could not fight a war in Europe and still mount an effective defence of Australia against a major power like Japan. But this was all too difficult and our leaders did nothing about it. In a striking parallel, a major threat to Australia’s future security is that the Coalition government has moved away from making any attempt at military self-reliance, which has been the cornerstone of Australia’s defence strategy ever since the 1976 Defence White Paper. Hugh White has noted that the last Defence White Paper, published in 2016, was the first in 40 years not to place self-reliance at the centre of our defence strategy.
In a strategic sense, the Australian government has risen to meet the China challenge by increasing defence expenditure to the equivalent of two per cent of GDP – the NATO standard – from the level bequeathed by the Rudd/Gillard government, which was the lowest in percentage terms since the 1930s. But – pace Treasury and Finance – that is the easy part. The much more difficult challenge is to work out what to do with the money so as to develop a force structure for the ADF that makes Australia more self reliant in its own defence within an acceptable cost envelope. It’s not worth increasing the defence budget if you waste the additional money on assets that cost two and three times the world price, or, by replacing like with like, provide a capability that is no longer appropriate for Australia’s evolving strategic requirements.
The inconvenient truth is that at a time when the ongoing presence in the region of our main ally cannot be guaranteed, Australia’s massive military acquisition program is directed first and foremost to delivering assets primarily designed for coalition operations with United States forces. The three major acquisition projects – AIR 6000 ($17 billion for 72 F-35 joint strike fighters); SEA 5000 (nine Hunter class frigates for $35 billion); and SEA 1000 (12 Attack class submarines for $80 billion) have all been specified with the prime objective of fulfilling this role.
The F-35, for example, may perform well in future coalition operations in the Middle East and, at a pinch, could operate alongside the USAF out of Guam in the event of a great power conflict in our region. But it would not be of any great value in the event that we needed to defend Australia unilaterally against incursions by a great power. Unlike the F-111, its range is insufficient to operate effectively in the air-sea gap to our north or to attack an adversary’s forward base. Because of stealth requirements, it has a limited internal weapons fit and cannot mount external drop tanks. It could be refuelled in flight by tanker aircraft, but it would be expected that at the very beginning of any conflict an adversary would take the tankers out. Perhaps this is why two former RAAF chiefs have suggested recently that Australia needs to look at acquiring a long-range bomber aircraft.
Turning to the major warship program, almost all the British weapons and electronics will be stripped out of Australia’s version of the Royal Navy’s Type 26 frigates, the Hunter class, and be replaced by US systems such as Aegis and the Standard missile. There is no inherent problem with this as American defence equipment is generally of the very highest quality. But it could explain why we are paying over twice as much as the British for the same platform. It may also explain why some RAN greybeards shake their heads at the prospect of successfully and cost-effectively integrating American systems on a British platform not designed for them. Attempting to mix and match the best platforms with the best systems is an area where the ADF has a lot of form, most of it with unfortunate consequences.
There is also a view among many of the greybeards that we should have acquired the Spanish frigate. This is not necessarily because it was the best design on paper but because, after great tribulations and at a very high cost, we had just worked out how to build what was essentially the same platform (the three Navantia air warfare destroyers). The other great advantage would have been that American equipment, particularly Aegis, is already an integral part of the Spanish design. An effective Minister would have pursued this point.
But when they are eventually delivered at an unexplained excessive cost, what will these ships do? The main role for powerful frigates such as these in the American and British navies is to be part of a carrier battlegroup and provide anti-air, anti-missile and anti-submarine defence for the aircraft carrier. Australia does not have any carrier battlegroups or, indeed, an aircraft carrier to defend. But our frigates will no doubt perform well as part of an American battlegroup that does. And with about a quarter of Australia’s surface ship resources dedicated to the ongoing requirement to provide one frigate on station in the Middle East at all times, they will no doubt do well there as well. Particularly if the US goes home, however, these capabilities are not fundamental to the defence of Australia.
In terms of the unilateral defence of Australia against a great power adversary it is very difficult to see how the Hunter class would provide an efficient and cost-effective capability. Without air cover in the waters to our north and with no nuclear-powered submarines capable of operating as part of a naval task force, in any conflict they would have a high level of vulnerability to anti-ship missiles and torpedoes without necessarily providing a viable offensive capability.
Australia has not had a strong, proactive, savvy and capable Defence Minister since Kim Beazley moved on thirty years ago. Although they are spending an immense amount on defence, Prime Ministers and Defence Ministers seem unable to face up to the new strategic realities and to consider whether they are spending the money effectively. Fundamentally, they lack curiosity, particularly about alternative scenarios, strategic vision and any real understanding of the Defence portfolio, as well as having an inability to drive a major investment program. Like their forbears eighty years ago, Ministers are content to place their full trust in Australia’s major ally. It’s simple, it won’t upset Rupert Murdoch and, hopefully, Ministers won’t be found out during their term in office. But, it’s weak. It is a long way from providing leadership for the nation and developing an effective level of security for the Australian community in the longer term. In time, as with climate change policy, the chickens seem likely to come home to roost.
The most important chicken is the future submarine project, which has all the characteristics of a slow train wreck. This will be examined in detail in the third and final article in this series.
In a former life, Jon Stanford was a Division Head in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Currently, as a Director of Insight Economics, he is undertaking significant research on Australia’s future submarine project, generously supported by Gary Johnston, owner of the Submarines for Australia website.