ASPI’s relentless push for ever greater defence spending gets another iteration in Malcolm Davis’s Forward defence in depth for Australia . As a breathless list of ‘key horizon technologies’, Davis’s paper makes entertaining and informative reading. As a justification for putting Australia on a permanent war footing it is wanting.
Davis argues ‘[T]he strategic environment has evolved at such a pace that policies announced in 2016 have been overtaken by events’. Although he points to nothing radically different from the 2016 White Paper. Davis writes that Australian strategic planners should confront ‘the rise of an assertive Chinese state that’s directly challenging US strategic primacy in Asia’. Not a statement that would have found many dissenters for the last decade or more.
Where Davis does depart from previous strategic policy documents is in the priority accorded to directly shaping the ADF for a war with China. A war, if not imminent and unavoidable, then highly likely. His analysis is driven by the question, ‘[H]ow can the Australian Defence Force (ADF) be better prepared for the prospect of major-power war, which potentially could occur in the next decade?’
Australia, he says, ‘is very much now a state in the front line, geographically, strategically and politically’. US forces in Australia along with Pine Gap and North West Cape, ‘make it likely that in a broad future military conflict between the US and China such forces, along with Australian military and civilian infrastructure, would come under direct threat’. A highly questionable judgement that overstates the relative tactical value of these assets in an intensive conventional war in the air and maritime environment of China’s littoral.
Davis advocates a forward defence in depth strategy ‘to ensure that the ADF can rapidly project power deep into the maritime Indo-Pacific region to deny a potential adversary the initiative from the outset and prevent them from bringing long-range, high-speed military effects to bear’. This, he admits, would be costly, noting, ‘it’s time to revisit the key assumption that 2% of GDP will be enough’.
The strategy involves ‘long-range power projection, first and foremost’, in order ‘to deny a potential adversary the initiative from the outset and prevent them from bringing long-range, high-speed military effects to bear’. It’s not altogether clear, but Davis seems to anticipate, at least in some credible circumstances, that Australia might confront China alone.
He adds, the ADF must, ‘identify a threat at very long range, and strike quickly and decisively before an adversary is able to use its long-range firepower’. The assumption that Australian forces could pre-emptively negate the Chinese forces and overcome their force protection and countermeasure capabilities is not realistic. China is not a passive or blind player in the current strategic competition, and prevailing against the types of emerging capabilities Davis is contemplating is at the core of its China’s own responses to the orders of magnitude greater US military threat.
In the lead up to a potential conflict, Australia would forward-deploy RAAF assets ‘to forward bases beyond the Australian mainland through access agreements’, with Japan in particular. This proposal and others suggested by Davis, such as Tomahawk’s on submarines in the South China Sea and a ring of Ballistic missile defences around China maintained by the US, Japan, and Australia, not only seem fanciful, they would be blatantly aggressive acts.
Looking out from within the Canberra bubble, it might seem the region’s concerns with China are as paranoid as some would like Australia’s to be. However, seeing ‘Southeast Asian and South Pacific states as fully active participants, not merely as passive observers’ in this grand strategy against China ignores their particular strategic realities and substitutes Australia’s interests for theirs.
When contemplating a major war in the Asia Pacific the Southeast Asian nations will be cognisant of their proximity to China’s massive land forces. They might not be completely comfortable with China, however the prospect of them lining up with Australia or anyone else in a war against China are remote.
The real problem is putting Australia on a perpetual war footing aimed at China without thinking through the broader overall consequences for Australia and Australians. If Australia were to go to war with China, whether alone or in some form of alliance or coalition, the cost of upgrading the ADF would be a small expense.
Davis’s strategy is based on fighting without consideration of the national interests at stake and the cost to be incurred; in civilian and military deaths and casualties, in immediate economic destruction and dislocation, and post-conflict implications. Davis seems to imagine a conflict that would be resolved quickly, whereas the prospect of a whole-off nation war effort and a prolonged struggle cannot be dismissed.
Davis rolls out the tired old threat to ‘the established US-led rules-based order’, without identifying the Trump Administration as its main, but not only non-Chinese, antagonist. He asserts ‘it’s in our national interests to be able to function free of the less-than-benign sides of Chinese power’, with out explaining what this means in practice. Weak justifications for preparing for an expensive strategy to fight, or trigger, a potentially disastrous war.
Any contribution that engenders debate over Australia’s approach to China and especially the strategic aspects is to be welcomed. However, a regional Schlieffen Plan that leaves major war as the first and only option open to government must be quickly dismissed.
The place to start is not enthusing over the whizzbang means, but from a sophisticated assessment of the nations long term strategic objectives and its obligations to its citizens with respect to their security, welfare, wellbeing and life. Provoking a war won’t meet them.
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.