The need to think more seriously about war

Aug 9, 2018

Government justifications for major investments in ADF new capability and assertions by defence experts that Australia should substantially expand its defence spending rarely address two important issues. The prospect for military success in a war in East Asia and the expectations around Australian casualties—military and civilian. Thinking about the first issue helps shed some light on the second.

Paul Dibb suggests Australia should be prepared to join the US ‘in military contingencies such as the South China Sea, Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific’. Moreover, Australia should acquire military capabilities  ‘sufficient to sustain a credible deterrence posture in a deteriorating strategic environment.’ Peter Jennings also wants to ensure the ‘existing Defence Force is as at high levels of readiness’ and to dramatically increase defence spending.

Would Australia be any more secure if government followed the recommendations of these and other experts urging a military response to China? The RAND Corporation has undertaken a number of studies and exercises in order to gain some insight into how a US-China conflict might playout.

The main conclusion from The U.S.-China military scorecard : forces, geography, and the evolving balance of power, 1996-2017, which focussed on scenarios involving South China Sea and Taiwan, was that ‘advantages conferred by proximity severely complicate U.S. military tasks while providing major advantages to the PLA’.

The report judged that, the PLA ‘is not close to catching up to the U.S. military in terms of aggregate capabilities, but it does not need to catch up to the United States to dominate its immediate periphery.’ For conflicts on China’s periphery and in contiguous seas ‘the mainland provides large and relatively secure staging areas for operations.’

Significantly for Australia, as it is maritime assets that would be its contribution to a conflict, the  report’s assessment of China’s anti-surface warfare capability concluded ‘China can now hold the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet at risk at significant ranges from the mainland.’ It anticipated a further narrowing in capability as China further develops its long-range maritime surveillance system, sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles (with a ranges up to 2,000 km), strike aircraft and surface ships, and cruise missile armed submarines.

After looking in great detail at a range capabilities in the two scenarios the report projected that over the next 15 years, ‘Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of U.S. dominance.’  Just as Australia’s new Hunter Class frigates begin come into service the US is less likely to be able to conduct the sort of joint operations to which they could contribute. Hunter Class frigates operating independently in the South China Sea, or anywhere in the region, against the Chinese would likely face an unacceptably high risk. By the time the Collins class submarine replacement begins deploying in the 2030s China’s military dominance of the East Asian region is likely to be at least as great as that of the US in the 1990s.

In War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable, the authors warn that in the US and China the ‘systematic analysis of war has been the province of war planners.’ The same could be said of Australia. The problem is that ‘war planners are concerned mainly with how to gain military advantage, not how to avoid economic and political damage. Yet the consequences of war could go far beyond military success and failure.’  The more China grows the less likely any conflict would see a clear victory, and the report judges that by 2025 the balances of forces would mean a long and destructive war.

The failure to address the probable future strategic situation by the advocates of a simplistic, aggressive, militaristic posture toward China, and of dramatic hikes in defence spending, is difficult to explain. There is a clear failure on their part to address the immediate consequences of conflict with China. There would be significant loss of ADF lives and assets and possibly attacks on Australian population centres, infrastructure, and national institutions with civilian casualties. With the damage to the Chinese economy, disruption of Asian shipping routes, regional political turmoil, and the impact on global financial and trading systems, the long terms consequences for Australia would be dire.

This lapse might be partly explained by Australia’s recent experiences with war. These have mainly been fought in company with the world’s greatest military power and in far off places—Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan—and against adversaries with low tech capabilities. The Korean and Vietnam wars resulted in the deaths of a total of 903 Australian service personnel. In contrast, since the Gulf War (1991-1993) there have been only 43 Australian combat fatalities. Moreover, not one Australian civilian death is attributable to combat since the end of World War 2.

Missing from the demands for an aggressive and provocative Australian policy directed at China is a realistic assessment of the chances for success and the scale of the costs in lives and national resources if it fails. They lack any projections of how a war in East Asia might develop or any evaluation of the post-war costs the Australian (and world) economy would bear.

The appalling prospect of two large, well-matched, high-tech military forces engaged in a major war across a wide area is by-passed.

The debate over how to respond to the changing relativities between China and the US in East Asia is immature. It must move beyond defence experts and begin to incorporate other policy domains. The debate needs to move into the centre of public discourse and become a transparent political issue. If a military response is all Australian governments are left with it will be disastrous for the nation.

Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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