MIKE SCRAFTON. The real cost in How to Defend Australia.

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.


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6 Responses to MIKE SCRAFTON. The real cost in How to Defend Australia.

  1. Chris McCarthy says:

    By all means make the defence strategy realistic, wise and based on genuine sovereignty. It could include the best of modern missile defence, asymmetric and guerilla warfare elements. It should be built on a genuine defence posture and not involve any aggressive intention – ie armed neutrality. Better would be to actively invest in peace as well.
    Imagine what the funds spent on a doubled defence budget could do if channelled into peace: into domestic and foreign civil defence, emergency response, community aid, development aid, wise diplomacy and relationship building. All these are more constructive approaches to the increased frequency of events and heightened risks of climate change and disruption and suffering of war. Investment in peace strategies could contribute to refugees being peacefully repatriated and more people being prosperous and content in their own homelands, and be more likely to contribute to more secure sovereign peace for Australia.
    The Global Peace Index shows the tremendous cost of war and violence not just in social terms but economic. War and violence is a huge waste:
    http://visionofhumanity.org/ and

  2. I agree with Hugh but I will read his book first before making further comment.

  3. Michael Flynn says:

    This article and the comments are persuasive on what we should do to make a war with China that we will lose less likely. Our non military cultural exchanges are changing informed opinion that could eventually influence the defence/ policy “thinkers”. Last week we visited Melbourne and there is a welcome to China feel about eg NGV. Mr White may please others who see 3% of GDP as progress and like the spend for nuclear weapons with uranium sales and power generation for bomb materiel. The risk of the mass extinction of all life on the planet should be the focus of all defence activity.The experts report to Kurt Waldheim at the UN said we must disarm all nukes.Progress ..?

  4. Kien Choong says:

    Hi, there is an idea in economics that policy makers must take account of endogenous variables and expect that firms, workers, consumers, investors, etc will react to – and even anticipate – whatever policy the government implements. I would argue this endogeneity applies equally in international relations. Any country that wants to adopt a stronger defence policy must anticipate how this policy will change the calculation of its neighbours. I haven’t read Mr White’s arguments closely, but if he is advocating a higher defence spending, I hope he has anticipated the effect this has on Australia’s neighbours, not just China, but Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, etc.

    I feel Australia’s vast geography and relative remoteness already gives Australia considerable advantages in terms of defence, and the world as a whole would be better if countries collectively agree to limit their defence spending, give up nuclear weapons (or at least commit to a no first strike policy), and instead spend our energies on fostering economic development, assisting refugees, addressing climate change, etc.

    With respect to a US-China conflict, I would make it clear to the US that Australia will not participate, and will not permit any facilities in Australia to be used (directly or indirectly) in any conflict with China. Say that as loudly as possible, so there is no doubt about Australia’s position. How about that as a “defence strategy”?!

    Anyway, just an “independent thought” from someone outside the security-intelligence community. Democracy works best with public reasoning.

  5. James O'Neill says:

    Mr Scrafton’s conclusion is the key. China has no discernible interest in attacking Australia unless Australia is foolish enough to join the Americans in an attack on China. Both Mr Scrafton and Mr White seem unaware of the realities of modern Chinese nuclear technology. The intercontinental version of the Dong Feng nuclear weapon system has 8-10 independently targetable nuclear warheads. There would be no need for any Chinese forces to come within several thousand kilometres of the Australian territory. Their speed of travel means that their Australian targets would be destroyed in less than an hour. Australia has no defence against this system other than a quaint hope that the Americans would come to our aid. That (illusory) aid would not protect Australian targets from complete destruction.
    Given the realities of modern intercontinental warfare (something our defence “planners” singularly fail to grasp) is not a friendly and productive relationship with China the better option? Check the current export figures for an insight into the economic reality.

  6. Evan Hadkins says:

    The government and analysts keep saying: Australia is unlikely to be invaded. Please give us more money for defense.

    I don’t see how this makes sense. I think there should be a deep exploration of could we get more security by spending the money on things other than killing machines.

    I don’t expect this to attract serious consideration. I think that’s a problem.

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