In How to Defend Australia, Hugh White has produced a work that removes much of the mystery surrounding Australian defence policy making. The historical experiences and institutional influences affecting Australia’s major past and present strategic policy positions are lucidly set out. His main objective though is to make the case for a significant boost to Australia’s defence spending based on his understanding of the strategic risks facing the nation. He would have us fighting a futile war in search of an illusory victory.
The reasoning White sets out that takes him from strategic risk to priorities for defence of Australia is accessible to the non-expert; an argument that is unveiled with erudition and persuasive logic that seduces and appeals. He doesn’t sound the tocsin of an aggressive China but poses questions to which Australia’s contingent circumstance give rise to before making his case for the answer. This is a more powerful and rational argument to support a set of force structure arguments than any I have encountered publicly or within the halls of Russell. It includes a cogent and forensic demolition of the flawed Defence White Papers that succeeded the 2000 version.
If a number of White’s assumptions, explicit or implied, are accepted it is difficult to deny White’s conclusions. He argues that were Australia to adopt the correct military strategy and fund the appropriate level of capability Australians would be able to ‘defend ourselves independently even from a major Asian power’. He frankly admits ‘this would cost us a lot of money, and perhaps require us to do things that we should be reluctant to do’. Among them, devote 3-4 percent of GDP to defence and consider acquiring nuclear weapons. This, however, is a narrow appreciation of the cost of a war with China.
In essence White concludes Australia needs ‘air and naval forces to independently achieve maritime denial for the defence of our continent, adjacent islands, and small near neighbours, and to contribute to coalition denial operations in maritime Southeast Asia and the wider Asian littoral’. White distinguishes clearly between forces for ‘maritime control’ and ‘maritime denial’, with the former beyond Australia’s ability to achieve and the latter, which demands far more submarines and air strike capabilities, the logical outcome of his military strategy.
He assumes, in order to make his military strategy workable, that Australian forces ‘would face only a portion of an adversary’s forces – probably a small portion’. A crucial assumption. This, he claims, would give Australia the advantage of ‘asymmetry of focus’. White makes clear in his text that China’s forces increasingly will its huge and growing margin in quality and quantity. It is not clear, why, if China had sufficient rational reason to assault Australian militarily it would not bring sufficient forces to the task to ensure it could prevail. Or, indeed, why China would adopt an operational approach that played to Australia’s strategy. Certainly bringing overwhelming force to the campaign and tactical manoeuvre remain key military principles.
White focuses effectively on one battle or one campaign. If China was to make the investment in resources and time to attack Australia it presumably would be planning on a war. China’s is more likely to be expecting to be victorious to the extent its strategic objectives were gained. Treating the adversary as predictable and lacking the imagination to develop its own operational response is a common failing in strategic thinking. Even were China, bizarrely, to play to the strengths of Australia’s military strategy, it would find replacing the losses of the first campaign possible whereas attrition could leave Australia highly vulnerable within a short period of time. It must be assumed China would be fighting a war not just a one-off campaign.
White wonders if it ‘could ever be possible politically to sell such an increase in defence spending to the Australian public’. But this in no way encapsulates the full costs of a war. Most concerning of all is the failure of the book to consider the impact war could have on civilian population and civil infrastructure. For the last century the most notable aspect of military conflict has been the exponential growth in civilian casualties and urban destruction from conventional weapons. White plays down the chances of the civilian population centres and economic infrastructure being attacked. This runs contrary to every recent major conflict. Massive internal displacement of people and refugees have accompanied every conflict.
The potentially devastating consequences for civilians if, or rather when, China were to prevail against Australia’s defences in a war the real costs would dwarf the investment in military capability.
White’s analysis of the international situation in East Asia is more intelligent, nuanced, and measured than we have come to expect from recent debates over national security in Australia. His clear exposition of the way the course of conflict has affected strategic thinking in Australia and the description of the changes taking place in Australia’s strategic environment today should be widely read inside and beyond government circles. Ministers should pay particular attention to his description of the reasons for poor decision making in Defence and the shaky strategic foundations underpinning many expensive capability acquisitions.
However, it is a moral failing in strategic policy making in general that defeat is rarely factored in. Australia can never defeat a determined China in the long run. And it beggars the mind to think China would not come with the intent and forces for victory. Either China will have a sufficiently important national interest that justifies attacking Australia or it won’t. If it does it will allocate the necessary forces, effort, and time to the task.
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.