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.