Military forces perform many functions, but their unique role is to fight wars. Though obvious, this is rarely addressed by commentators on defence policy or by governments. Professor Dibb’s presentation to Royal Australian Navy’s Sea Power Conference avoided direct references war. At the same function the Defence Minister’s speech was quiet on the ultimate point of investing billions in the armed forces.
Dibb attributes the ‘profound strategic disruption’ taking place in Australia’s circumstances in part to the West being distracted ‘from wielding national power more effectively’ and to the increasing likelihood of a ‘threat from high-level military capabilities being introduced into our region’. Both now commonplace truisms. True to form, Dibb argues that Australia must respond through increased readiness and sustainability; ramping up training, building up stocks of munitions, spares, and fuel, and modernising the Northern bases.
Dibb believes enhanced anti-submarine warfare capability and building the ‘capacity for sustained strike operations’ in the approaches to Australia are necessary for a ‘anti-access/area-denial capability’. Critically, being able to expand Australia’s ‘strike, air combat and maritime capabilities’ would ‘significantly increase the military planning challenges for any potential adversary and the size and military capabilities of the force it would have to commit to attack [Australia] directly, or to coerce, intimidate or otherwise employ military power against [Australia]’.
Although Dibb suggests that the new circumstances require Australian defence planners to ‘make major changes’ to the way they previously have sought to ‘manage strategic risk’, his recommendations amount to same venerable and time-honoured thinking in Defence. The so-called radical change he suggests is that in future ‘judgements relating to warning time will need to rely less on evidence of capability and more on assessments of motive and intent’. Yet his prescription is based solidly on new capabilities of a potential adversary. The whole notion of warning time is now obsolete.
Wars are inextricably the outcome of motive and capability. An aggressor seeking to achieve some national strategic objective through the use of military force will always approach the choice with a calculus that involves the importance and urgency of the objective, the likely costs to the nation in pursuing conflict, and the prospects of succeeding. The costs would need to encompass the post-conflict situation. Dibb rightly points out that what has changed is the prospects of a regional power (if that includes the Indo-Pacific) now succeeding in attacking Australia.
A nation under assault needs to undertake a different assessment. The first factor is the cost of submitting to the aggressor. Would the post-war situation be an intolerable situation in terms of the welfare, well-being, prosperity, security, and autonomy of the state and its citizens? The second consideration would be the prospect of success if the aggressor was resisted militarily. Would a war present a possible existential threat or a serious deterioration in the long term security of the defending state?
The outcome of such deliberations are never knowable and will always be influenced by contingent circumstances and the confidence in the knowledge to hand about the adversary’s motives, capabilities and likely actions. Moreover, wars never just involve military forces. There will always be more or less serious consequences for civilians, infrastructure, urban areas, and the economy. Some wars will be fought for reasons or beliefs so strongly held that such considerations are lessened.
It would be exceedingly rare that a conflict between two nations didn’t have consequences for a third. Dibb stresses that ‘[A]ttacks on Australia of an intensity and duration sufficient to be a serious threat to our way of life would be possible only if an adversary’s forces had access to bases and facilities in our immediate neighbourhood’. That is, in a third country. This has long been a fundamental assumption of Australia’s strategic policy. This is also a dated judgement and one shaped by a period when the ranges of weapons and force projection capabilities were much less than today. The decision to strike bases in a third country would always carry the risk of broadening any conflict.
So curiously, it can be said that Dibb’s presentation addressed defence planning in the absence of consideration of the realities of war. If an adversarial great power came to make war on Australia, for example, they would not come without the military wherewithal to succeed. If an adversarial great power established bases in neighbouring states through a treaty, similar to the US presence in Australia, does Dibb anticipate attacking them pre-emptively before they have prepared their defences or have attacked Australia? Would attrition mean Australia could never do any more than participate in a first battle? Once the logic is taken into the domain of war many large questions emerge.
Unexceptionally, the Minister’s speech emphasised that Australia ‘will need a Navy that can do many things’. Ship visits and exercises got a strong endorsement. She emphasised force structuring and acquisition processes, defence industry, and defence administration. For sound political and policy reasons, governments need to downplay the prospect of war and point to the other benefits the huge investment in military capability might bring.
In addition, and importantly, she announced that Defence is undertaking ‘a re-assessment of the strategic underpinnings of the 2016 Defence White Paper’. For this task to be meaningful it will be necessary to jettison the legacy of previous White papers dating back decades. It needs to begin with a realistic consideration of war. This is not only the most important issue for the ADF, or only the most fateful decision a government will ever need to make, it is an existential question for the nation and the people. This exercise needs to involve more than Defence.
Treasured shibboleths and well-worn paths of past strategic thinking that took place in a relatively benign and uncomplicated environment need to be shed. Any rethink must deal with the political, economic, strategic, operational, and tactical issues of war.
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.