MICHAEL McKINLEY. Due diligence in the time of chaos and on the way to hell.

At the present time – when analysts, commentators and relevant government agencies are emphasising the dangerous trajectories of world politics, Australian defence is jeopardised undermined by profound strategic mismanagement and a lack of capability; worse, military Keynesianism is obvious and rampant. Capping it off, the recommendations of a government funded think tank to address this, are based on cherry-picked intelligence reports and consist in no more than resorting to a failed conventional wisdom, and stealth nuclearism. 

May 2017 has highlighted the winter of discontent in Australian Defence. Over less than a week, starting on the 19th, it was announced the propulsion problems on two new amphibious assault ships (LHDs) which cost $3 billion could be the consequence of fundamental design flaw; the following day, reports of exceptionally serious policy and strategic shortcomings in the commitment to Afghanistan and Iraq were aired by a gathering of (mainly) former senior military planners and relevant ministers; then, two days later, a former CDF, retired Admiral Chris Barrie, warned that a “complacent” Australia was “sleepwalking into war.”

On the 25th the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a very interesting document, The Cost of Defence: ASPI Defence Budget Brief 2017-2018. For an organisation beholden to the Department of Defence funding at the rate of over $9,485 per day, it is almost conversational in style and should appeal to an engaged democratic citizenry; moreover, it is critical and, seemingly, refreshingly honest in its assessments. Among them: 

“There’s a lot of debate going on about Defence, but none of it addressing the issue of Australia’s security.”

Politicians are taking up time squabbling about which electorate gets the most Defence-related jobs while the world is “going to hell.”

Many of the major weapons systems on order for the ADF will not be delivered until quite some time into the future – thus creating a window of insecurity.

Fundamental upheavals are occurring in many parts of the world simultaneously and to such an extent that it is appropriate to describe it as a state of “chaos.”

The various recent shocks to the global system – such as the Global Financial Crisis and the widespread rise of anti-establishment politics – reveal how fragile previous achievements have been and underscore deep shifts in the global landscape that portend a dark and difficult near future.

As one example of just how dangerous the situation is, mentions is made of comparisons between US President Donald Trump and Kaiser Wilhelm II in the context of the latter’s culpability for starting World War I.

Regardless of the precision in these claims they are all within an arguable area of accuracy, but only under certain restrictive conditions. Even then, the problem is that the inclusions in The Cost of Defence are radically incomplete, perhaps even to the point of being disingenuous and thus a deceptive and dangerous basis on which to critique and reform defence policy. In the first instance, the appeals to argumentum ad authoritarium: “chaos” is attributed to the geopolitical fantast, Henry Kissinger, while Trump’s odious identity is refracted through the judgements of historian and putative psychologist, Sir Max Hastings, and  François Heisbourg, former Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Francis Fukuyama (generously described as a political philosopher), and Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, are also cited in the support team.

These authorities and such reliance are almost invariably to be expected: they are, or have been touched by power or the company of power and strategist manqués tend to be excited by their very utterances. The resort might even be excusable if it were not for what this ASPI briefing paper recommends in the face of the identified challenges and gaps in capability resulting from delivery times well into the future: a policy to “double down on the US alliance,” and preferably, having “a squadron of US Virginia-class nuclear submarines operating from an Australian port . . . the boats being dual-crewed by RAN sailors.”

Given that the French Shortfin Barracuda diesel-electric design which will replace the current Collins Class submarines is itself a variant on an existing nuclear attack submarine, this effectively is a prescription for easing Australia into a nuclear navy and the eventual and logical acquisition of a national nuclear submarine force but this extension, and its extraordinarily significant implications for national, regional and global security are not considered.

Unfortunately the disingenuousness of its “double down” prescription goes further. The Cost of Defence, where it is not relying on the authorities already cited for its portrait of the world, falls back on Global Trends: Paradox of Progress, a 226-page report, released in January 2017. In context it is, therefore, a document worth referring to. In summary form, it is a comprehensive document compiled after two years of extensive research by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) – “the Intelligence Community’s center for long-term strategic analysis.”

It followed closely upon the 2016 “foresight report” undertaken by the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) – The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World – which pessimistically concluded that future attempts by the United States and its allies to shape the global order in the fashion of the past would be increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Global Trends: Paradox of Progress offers essentially the same conclusion.

It is scandalous therefore, that, given its ambition – which is to “present “senior policymakers with coordinated views of the entire Intelligence Community, including National Intelligence Estimates” – to note, inter alia: all pessimistic findings in relation to the existing and near-term future are, by the criterion of available evidence, offset by optimistic predictions (circa 2028) based on faith and hope rather than solid evidence. It refuses even to acknowledge the permanent wars in which the US has been situated for the last 15 years, the lack of victory therein, and the well-documented role of the US itself in causing the wars that it, and its allies, end up fighting.

The true paradox for Global Trends is to be discerned from the fact that such a resource-intensive report is bereft of comprehensive analysis and reasonable imagination, and thus strategically bankrupt. That it is speciously cited in The Cost of Defence indicates the lack of due diligence that a reasonable strategic analyst would undertake in the name of integrity and professional responsibility. Quite simply, either insufficient research was done in the first place before those responsible for the various prescriptions announced them; or they selected passages that suited short-term objectives despite the dangers attending such myopia. Either way, the question is raised: who in government is performing due diligence on ASPI’s daily subvention from the Defence Department of $9,485.

Michael McKinley taught International Relations at University of Western Australia and at ANU; he is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty of the Australian National University. 


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3 Responses to MICHAEL McKINLEY. Due diligence in the time of chaos and on the way to hell.

  1. Michael McKinley says:

    Correction and apology by Michael McKinley: The author of the ASPI Report cited in the above, Dr. Mark Thomson, has contacted Pearls and Irritations to point out that I have misattributed a sentence to his Report – namely: “There’s a lot of debate going on about Defence, but none of it addressing the issue of Australia’s security.” In this he is correct; this sentence does not appear in The Cost of Defence: ASPI Defence Budget Brief 2017-2018, and for my error I apologise to him for the misattribution. That said, this representation of Dr. Thomson’s views is correct and the correct attribution for the is the following article by Alexandra Beech “Government lags on Defence security as world ‘goes to hell’, US ties should be strengthened: report,” which is available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-05-25/government-criticised-for-slow-defence-progress:-report/8556408
    The citation of this article was omitted when I reduced the length of my own piece and removed the hyperlink.

  2. Dennis Argall says:

    In puzzling over why strategic thought gets stuck in compartments, I am reminded of Peter Godfrey-Smith’s wonderful book “Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life” (2016) where he notes that pigeons, if given a task with one eye masked, do not know how to perform it when the mask is swapped to the other eye [p1048 of 3690, electronic version]. In other words, their eyes have separate brain systems. Moreover [p1070 of 3690] there are red and yellow portions of each eye’s vision (in pigeons) that look to the front and the side… and the two different parts of one eye don’t talk to each other.

    Pigeons may reluctant to admit it, but we may be at least as evolved as they are.

  3. Dennis Argall says:

    I understand your rage.

    The ASPI document is a bizarre combination of a tone that Year 11 students might find ridiculous or patronising and chucked-in assertions that one might hear over a poor quality port in a poor quality service mess. There is no vision beyond brushing up the same.

    In the ‘Sandpit’ exercise to which you provide a link, no one seemed to mention the possibilities of staying out of Afghanistan or Iraq. If we can’t look back critically, how can we sensibly plan a future? If those soldiers are allowed to question operational judgement and directive, why not question overall strategic judgement? It smells of the current US situation with strategic policy in the hands of generals similarly of the view that if they’d been given the tools and freedom to use them they would have won.

    The Global Trends document has an interesting section ‘The Future Summarised” which actually summarises things that aren’t happening and won’t happen but should. It has the flaw of seeing the world, not least Vietnam, as proxy wars and is faithful to the perspective of US assessments of starting from a premise of persistent supremacy, no challenge to the manifest destiny.
    Nonetheless this sentence is telling, if unheard here:
    “It will be tempting to impose order on this apparent chaos, but that ultimately would be too costly in the short run and would fail in the long.”

    The JOE, with a gift of prophecy surely matching that of the Australian Defence White Paper which spoke of the same year, says that: “Warfare in 2035 will be defined by six contexts of future conflict.”
    http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/concepts/joe/joe_2035_july16.pdf page 4 of 57.
    My reading of the text that follows is that it’s more like the imagined roles of imagined US service branches in 2035, something of a rerun of the invasion of Grenada where all service branches had to have a go.

    My expectation is of continued failures in Australian strategic vision and incapacity to acknowledge or cope with change and defeat, beginning with those issues on the table now as well as those that will come from losing (more) sovereignty in the lock-step with the US. In the past, pre-Whitlam, we sometimes voted in the UN on hard issues with the US, South Africa, Israel and Haiti. We moved on… but the advance was apparently illusory. Why is everything new a threat?

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