It’s time to strip ‘national security’ of its sacred cow status. Part 1

The Prime Minister has just announced the most hawkish turn in Australia’s defence policy since the end of the Cold War.  All in the name of national security, the mantra of governments intent on justifying sprawling, costly and often unaccountable security establishments.

With China emerging as the grand villain, national security has now acquired quasi religious status. Since September 2001, the Australian security apparatus has grown into an omnipresent multi-headed hydra that intrudes into virtually all policy areas and encompasses all federal, state and territory jurisdictions.

The security establishment has substantially grown in size, as have the resources at its disposal, its reach across all segments of society, and importantly its political influence. It is doubtful, however, whether this growth has achieved its stated purposes.

This is not to call into question the diligence or commitment of those employed in security roles of one kind or another. What is open to question is the intellectual and ideological framework within which they work.

Morrison’s launch of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update is just another sign of a deeply flawed vision of Australia’s place in the world. In all likelihood it will make us a less secure and more anxious nation.

A sprawling and costly enterprise

A large and complex security edifice has been in the making for some time. Security functions are now spread across multiple government departments, agencies and statutory bodies. Apart from the Department of Defence and the three armed services that make up the Australian Defence Force (ADF), other long established players include the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS).

To this list must be added the vastly expanded Home Affairs Portfolio which now has responsibility for national security and law enforcement, counter-terrorism, cyber security, countering foreign interference, critical infrastructure protection, countering ‘violent extremism’, and transport security. Organisationally, the Portfolio includes the Department of Home affairs and several powerful agencies, including ASIO. A coordinating role of sorts is performed by the generously resourced Office of National Intelligence. The states and territories also perform important security and law enforcement functions, mainly through their respective police forces and cyber security agencies.

Two defining characteristics of this ever-rising edifice are its reach and cost. The single largest budget allocation is to the defence portfolio. In 2019-20, spending on defence stood at $38.7 billion, up from $21.7 billion in 2009-2010. The 2016 Defence White Paper expected the defence budget to rise to $58.7 billion in 2025‐26, which would mean that in the space of twenty years (2005-2025), it will have doubled in real terms.

These projected increases are meant to fund an ambitious 10-year military modernisation program that was expected to cost some $195 billion. The new capabilities include: a major naval shipbuilding program comprising 9 frigates, 12 submarines and 12 offshore patrol vessels; an enhanced strike and air combat capability, notably the F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter; and enhanced capabilities in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, space, and cyberwarfare.

In 2018, well before these purchases were consummated, Australia had already become the world’s largest importer of arms, second only to Saudi Arabia.

And now Prime Minister Morrison has announced that a further investment of $70 billion over the next six years. The aim is to acquire more lethal capabilities, including sophisticated maritime long-range missiles, air-launched strike and anti-ship weapons, as well as additional land-based weapons and offensive cyber capabilities.

What is the justification for this vastly expanding military arsenal? In Scott Morrison’s words, we are responding to ‘a new dynamic of strategic competition’, to rising ‘tensions over territorial claims’ across the Indo-Pacific region, and to ‘regional military modernisation’ that ‘is occurring at an unprecedented rate’.

The Prime Minister did not go on to explain how Australia’s increasingly provocative defence posture will ease regional tensions, slow down the regional arms build-up, or defuse the strategic competition.

The reason is not hard to discover. These are not the fundamental objectives of our security policies. Revealingly, the Prime Minister described the Indo-Pacific as ‘the focus of the dominant global contest of our age’. This is code for the unfolding US-China confrontation. Australia’s security establishment is troubled by China’s rise, and not reconciled to a less dominant role for the United States.

The upshot is that Australia’s defence posture is still intent on preserving a regional order, in which the United States retains military supremacy. In practice, this means aligning ourselves with US strategic plans and priorities, and ensuring the highest possible levels of interoperability with US military forces.

In this sense, the 2020 strategic update reinforces a well established trend. We are dealing with the China threat as we have done with the terrorist threat. Once the United States invaded Afghanistan on 7 October 2001 in response to the September 11 attacks, Australia quickly followed suit. John Howard justified the decision by invoking Article VI of the ANZUS Treaty – the only time the Treaty has been invoked. Nineteen years later we are still there, making it the longest military engagement in Australian history.

At the height of Operation Slipper (2001-14), Australia committed 1,550 personnel. Over the course of the war, it has despatched well over 25,000 personnel and spent close to $10 billion. Between 2001 and 2016 more than 40,000 ADF personnel served in or directly supported Australia’s military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And we still have well over 2,000 ADF personnel deployed overseas, including naval patrols in the Persian Gulf, Air Force Units serving in the Middle East, and troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Australia finally departs from these long suffering conflict zones, it will have little to show for its costly efforts.

In addition, we have recently seen the escalation of joint military exercises in our region, which reinforce the connection with the United States and sow further distrust in the relationship with China.

The most ambitious of these is Talisman Sabre, a biennial joint military exercise with the United States, designed to improve the combat readiness and interoperability of the two forces. Talisman Sabre 2019 was the largest bilateral exercise to date, with some 34,000 troops taking part in high-end war games. The clear aim was to signal to China that US strategic dominance in the West Pacific is here to stay.

This year, a joint task force of the US and Australian navies commenced a series of freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. Australian warship HMAS Parramatta sailed with guided missile-cruiser USS Bunker Hill and then with amphibious assault ship USS America and guided missile destroyer USS Barry. These military forays are in keeping with the new twists and turns of our defence posture, as outlined in the 2020 Strategic Defence Update.

A militarist mindset is taking hold

To sustain public support for these varied military ventures, Australian governments have consistently placed the spotlight on the sacrifices of Australia’s soldiers.

The glorification of the role of the military on the battlefield has become critical to the task of justifying our participation in distant conflicts. The loss of life in the world’s war zones, we are told, is the price paid to protect ‘our liberties’ and ‘our way of life’.

Against this backdrop the immense effort devoted to nurturing the Anzac legend acquires its full significance. This is an exercise which leaders of both major parties, government departments and agencies, ably assisted by media outlets, have consciously pursued over the last twenty years. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Australian War Memorial have been especially active in this regard.

That many Australian soldiers exhibited in the Gallipoli campaign great bravery and inspiring selflessness there can be no doubt. Similarly with many of the military engagements of the last two decades. It is equally clear, however, that the Gallipoli campaign was a disaster, as is the case with so many of our recent expeditions conducted in the main to please our ‘great and powerful friend’.

The Anzac legend is now overlaid by a politically motivated quasi religious narrative, and like all religious creeds the narrative is accompanied by pomp and ceremony, eloquent speeches, and moving commemorations that dominate the nation’s airwaves.

The recent decision of the Australian Government to commit $500 million to the redevelopment of the War Memorial is designed to feed into this on-going narrative. Significantly, the nine-year development envisages an underground exhibition hall that will house an array of weapon systems, including helicopters and jet fighters.

These plans are in line with the War memorial’s recent willingness to have its commemorative functions funded by arms manufacturers. David Stephens has aptly labelled the process ‘the military-industrial-commemorative complex’, in which ‘the arms maker provides, the ADF disposes, the Memorial commemorates, in a continuous cycle.’

It is time to subject the official narrative about nation and security to intense public scrutiny. Does Australia’s future security depend on arming ourselves to the teeth and continuing to shed blood in military operations near and far?

And, as we shall see in Part 2, two other questions are equally deserving of attention. In the emerging strategic competition between China and the United States, are we obliged to support one and oppose the other? And is it the case that our security tomorrow depends on sacrificing our freedoms today?

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Joseph Camilleri is managing director of Alexandria Agenda, Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences.

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