RICHARD BROINOWSKI. Can Australia Defend Itself?

Since the advent of Donald Trump as United States president, the certainties that are said to underpin Australia’s defence doctrine are less than ever convincing. Trump’s cynicism about alliances underlines the fact that ANZUS is no longer (if it ever was) a guarantee of American military assistance. Neither Prime Minister Morrison posing on the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan during the latest Exercise Talisman Sabre in July 2019, nor the promise of a state dinner in Washington dispel the uncertainty, although they do increase pressure on Morrison to commit the ADF to join the US in a war against Iran or take a more robust stand against Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, if asked, as he is likely to be.

Hugh White’s latest book How to Defend Australia is timely. It is an honest attempt by a former senior defence bureaucrat to assess whether Australia can and should defend itself with its own resources. He recalls a succession of past Defence White Papers that have toyed with the possibility of Australian self-sufficiency, but invariably concluded that we have no defence against a determined big power and must fundamentally rely on the United States and the ANZUS Treaty.

Not only is such reliance now suspect, but the strategic situation has moved against us. Where once we could rely on the presence of the United States in the region to ‘keep the peace’ (a very contentious assertion), we now see a diminution of US power. Where once we enjoyed technical superiority in weaponry over our neighbours, we now see technical parity. Where once we needed to consider the possibility of conventional war against other states, we now have to consider assymetrical conflict with non-state antagonists, and cyber as well as kinetic warfare.

In such a deteriorating situation, White asks: can Australia realistically defend itself? He gives a qualified ‘yes’, depending on who is going to attack us. But, he says, we must plan carefully, deliver what we need efficiently, and spend at least double the $36 billion we allocate each year to defence.

For a start, we must stop wastefully indulging in foreign adventures on behalf of the United States in return for security it may or may not provide. We should have learned the lesson in World War Two when Churchill promised Australia naval protection against Japan in exchange for three infantry divisions to fight Rommel at El Alamein. Post-war, driven by an equally dubious hope that the United States will defend us against an attacker, we have supported US military adventures in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Instead, says White, we must follow a hard-headed approach, the first two stages of which are to deny our immediate maritime and air approaches to potential enemies, and cultivate support for our strategic interests among the governments of the island countries to our immediate north.

In realising these aims, our acquisition of giant C-17 long-range transport aircraft and Canberra-class amphibious ships for force projection has been a waste of money. So has the acquisition of expensive and ever-larger surface vessels like air warfare destroyers of which we could only afford a few, and which are vulnerable to submarines and missiles. Inter-operability with United States forces would become irrelevant.

Instead, says White, we would have to concentrate on defending our own backyard. To deny our air approaches to an enemy we must be equipped with large numbers of fighter aircraft linked to drones, satellites and missiles. Seventy five fifth-generation F-35 fighter aircraft is a start, but many more are needed. And we need also to deny our sea approaches with many modern submarines than we have at present. Six aging Collins class boats, to be replaced around the 2030s by twelve French Shortfin Barracudas, will not be enough. We need a fleet of around 24 state-of-the-art submarines, and we need them quickly.

White admits that even such weaponry will not defend us from an attack from a major power determined to invade us, such as China. To do that, he asserts, Australia would have to at least consider acquiring a nuclear deterrent. But what he does not say is that to do so would mean abandoning our non-proliferation credentials, which would create an immediate regional backlash. Some neighbours, like Indonesia, would actively consider acquiring nukes of their own. The region would become a more dangerous place. Nor does he consider in detail how we could acquire the technology. Even if we could expand existing enrichment technology at Lucas heights to produce highly enriched uranium 235 and construct our own nuclear warheads, White calculates that we would need at least four nuclear-powered submarines carrying sea-launched ballistic missiles to deliver them. The cost would be enormous and neither the United States nor other nuclear weapons states would be likely to sell us such sensitive technology.

Above all, we would become a compelling target for a nuclear strike from existing nuclear weapon states. Not that we are not one already. With its missile and drone guidance technology, Pine Gap must already be an inviting contingency target for Chinese or Russian nuclear missiles in the event of nuclear war with the United States.

Leaving aside the nuclear option, could Australia do all that we need for credible independent defence? White says we could. We have the technology, the wealth and the population, although a bigger economy would help. But it would all cost. To acquire the 200 fighter aircraft and 24 submarines necessary for credible air and sea denial, we would have to increase our annual defence expenditure from just under 2% to around 3.5 % of GDP. Nor should we try to make weapons ourselves. We can never become a major weapons-exporting countries as former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull notoriously claimed we could, and buying proven technology off-the-shelf from other countries would be far more timely and cost-effective.

Hugh White should be praised for getting Australians to think the unthinkable and take a realistic look at our defence situation. Much of the landscape is unpalatable, and his arguments will no doubt be picked apart by those politicians and conservative think-tanks leaders who cling to the American security blanket as an excuse for not spending more on defence. But in my view, it is a wake-up call for Australians to be aware of our deteriorating strategic situation, the increasingly unreliability of US security assistance, and the need to take a greater effort to get on better with our neighbours through diplomatic means.

Richard Broinowski is a former senior Australian diplomat


Richard Broinowski is a former diplomat. He was also manager of Radio Australia. After retirement he was an adjunct professor at University of Sydney in media studies. He has written four books, and is bringing a fifth out this year (2020), on the life and times of Melbourne book seller Edward William Cole.

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11 Responses to RICHARD BROINOWSKI. Can Australia Defend Itself?

  1. Avatar Anthony Taylor says:

    If America cannot gaurantee our securtiy then maybe we should close Pine Gap. That is the only reason it should be allowed to exist here

  2. Avatar Alberto Paludetto says:

    Mr Broinowski, Thank you for summarising and reviewing Prof White’s latest defence doctrine. At the basis of the denial is a wish by conservatives & their think tanks (which are not correctly named as they propose no solution), that Australia be somewhere in the mid Atlantic, shouldered by bigger boys on the playground, for protection. The reality is otherwise and the failure of the American protection umbrella is no different to the British failure.

    The updating armaments proposal is no different to Russia placing missiles on Cuba, objected by the Americans. Turn the table, Australia arms itself with Western nukes, do we think the CHINESE or other enemies, will sits there do nothing? Quid pro Quo. Equally, as Aus chose to lose missile technology development knowhow in the 60s because it was told to by Britain & the US, it would take 70 years of autochthonous development to develop Aus technology, as it did China, Russia, US, UK, Iran, India, Nth Korea etc, otherwise buying it and setting it up, would set off an arms race. Is there a pattern we are denying ?

    Instead, White & his colleagues take us no closer to the reality created by Oppenheimer & Trinity, in 1945. The possible ‘failure’ of American power is simply an example of what Oppenheimer forced the world to confront. That is, to think differently, to think technology should be applied to benefit all, to make decisions for the benefit of all because it is the human beings who will apply the technology White talks about, from which no one will arise therafter

  3. Avatar Alberto Paludetto says:

    Dear Mr Broinowski, I thank you for summarising Prf Hugh White’s thesis about Australian self defence realities in a changing Asia.
    I have long wondered when Aus governments would accept the continent is in Asia, not an island in the mid- Atlantic, shouldered between people they like. It remains a foreign concept.

    As real as White’s argument is, I would you to consider that America failing its world policeman role is no different to other hegemonic governments. Robert Oppenheimer proposed the need to govern differently, after Trinity. We are no closer to heading in that direction, as we can longer operate with separate nuclear weapons to use and deny mutual impacts. White is also not, taking us in that direction, rather repeating an existing model, hoping it would be different. A thought.

  4. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    It is not the first time that the “yellow peril” scare has been raised in hisitory.
    The real enemies of humankind and life on Earth are the nuclear weapons themselves and the climate calamity.
    Yet no one seems to be doing too much about this, while the military-industrial complex is rubbing its hands with glee.

    • Thank you for your few excellent lines, Andrew.
      Seriously, does anyone truly believe that “war” is anything but a massive failure of human decency, and the most fundamental abuse of human rights: the right to live, to live in peace??
      No one can truly “win” a war. But we know, or can about guess, that “war readiness” is the most profitable “industry” on our wounded, weeping planet. We also know that cheery “so amusing” Christopher Pyne was unabashed in his urgings to his Party and business colleagues that Australia could become a Top 10 “defence industries” producer. (Not just Top 10 climate science silencers and global polluters….).
      Please read James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War. Please protest every “normalisation” of the obscenity that war is. It is a gross offence caused by delusional thinking that we can meet social problems or inequities or the “shunning” of whoever is currently identified as “not us”…by destroying cities and slaughtering men, women and children.
      There are some reading and writing for “Pearls & Irritations” who can take us further forward with knowing how we can stand against even the idea of war. Now is the time – now is the time – to speak.

  5. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    If we are going to spend billions buying security are killing machines sensible expenditure.

    Especially since they won’t work against a major power.

    So who are we defending against exactly? We should be told shouldn’t we?

  6. Avatar David Allison says:

    Maybe its time the writer reread the ‘Art of War’. The Chinese have had several centuries to reflect on the inefficiency of using weaponry that make loud bangs invading foreign lands. I’m sure they have noted that the consequent difficulties and expense in maintaining an effective dominance has contributed to much of Britain’s and now America’s decline. Invasion is a pointless exercise; it’s so much easier to order the goods on line and trot off down to the wharf in Shanghai and collect. And if the quality isn’t up to scratch, well, they have ways and means of quietly dealing with that event. Regards

  7. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    Once the nuclear and climate insanity have taken over the world, it is unlikely that Australia (fast becoming the 51st state if the US), will not be involved.

  8. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    The only “winners” of this deadly global game are the weapons manufacturers of the military- industrial complex, if not their children …

  9. Avatar Bruce Cameron says:


    “But in my view, it is a wake-up call for Australians to be aware of our deteriorating strategic situation, the increasingly unreliability of US security assistance, and the need to take a greater effort to get on better with our neighbours through diplomatic means.”
    I don’t know enough about the ADF’s current contingency plans (which are at the heart of our defence preparedness) nor the reliability of US security assistance, to comment on those aspects. I do know that Defence measures are only needed when diplomatic means fail.
    Where does that leave us?
    The current debate seems fragmented and disjointed. Why….? It seems to me that there is a failure to focus on logical appreciation. Following on from …. an analysis of our national interest, the ‘threat’, and associated warning and lead times, one would think that the next consideration would be our comparative advantages. The first of these would have to be our geographical location in terms of distance from possible enemies. Of course, this is both an advantage and disadvantage.
    It is a disadvantage if we can’t effectively monitor the sea and air gap under all circumstances and safeguard our lines of supply if we are reliant on them. It is an advantage if a potential enemy’s preparation to mount an attack would increase the warning time available and any such force would be vulnerable when attempting to cross the gap.
    The maxim: guard against your weakness and capitalise on your strength, would seem to be applicable. If you are the aggressor, the opposite would apply, ie, capitalise on your opponent’s weakness. Are our surveillance systems adequate and safe against cyber-attack? If the answer is ‘yes’, then we can move on.
    Can Australia become sufficiently self-reliant not to be dependent on maritime supply lines? If the answer is ‘yes’, then the solution is obvious. If the answer is ‘no’, then a priority for defence needs becomes apparent.
    Why should Australia focus its primary defence resources on defending the sea and air gap, when a potential enemy could simply interdict our supply lines and achieve the same result?
    Of course, all the above is stated without any knowledge of the assessed threat and associated warning times … and the ADF contingency plans in place. The debate, however, is one which is long overdue and which must be had.

  10. Avatar Michael Hart says:

    Richard Broinowski’s very last sentence encapsulates the very essence of a proper defence policy – “.. effort to get on better with our neighbours through diplomatic means”. We can do that with little effort and very little expenditure. We can trade, live harmoniously and securely with a mature and pragmatic view that all people want the same thing – peace, security and comfort. However to do that we would have to abandon some very poor ideas and concepts we currently hold dear, our misplaced anxieties and insecurities about Asia, Asians and others.

    We would also need to face up to the misplaced expenditure on capital equipment to have a ‘Defence Force’ that is not equipped, capable or intended to defend Australia but to fit as part of a wider flora of offensive and predatory global politics. James O’Neill’s article of March makes clear the reasons why.

    We would have to accept and admit that we have not fought a war against a ‘peer’ adversary since 1940. We would have to admit and accept that we have been engaged in repeated ‘Great Power’ excursions interfering in the politics and processes of small underdeveloped nations and were in all but name – Civil Wars, either we helped to create them or merely compounded and exacerbated these conflicts. We would also have to admit that in each we have been sent packing having been completely unsuccessful in either regime change games or convincing local populaces of the inherent benefits of our ‘western world view’. In short each conflict has been effectively a demonstration of yet another failure to understand that in country civil wars predicated on the use of guerrilla style warfare and supportive populations for those ‘enemies’ the use of conventional military force and armaments has been folly. We have merely used our so called Defence forces to spread misery and unnecessary destruction.

    White and others posit a Capital Class view of what defence capability should be and appear to be completely ignorant of the developments of simple and complex missile technology that now allows for defence and offence in depth for those who adopt them against which the traditional armaments of ships and planes are irrelevant and useless, they are destroyed or combated cheaply and quickly. A $100,000 missile disposes of $100 million drone is the equation. It is the reason why Russia, China, Iran and others have developed extremely effective missile systems and have covered their borders and territory at the periphery and in depth with such systems.

    Australia will never be invaded there is no rational or reason to do so – why would any country seek to mount an offensive campaign requiring whole fleets of ships and myriads of aircraft to transport and support a major land campaign in an empty northern desert continent? Nobody has, nobody will, not even the Japanese in WW2 contemplated such an action.

    All we need is an effective ground based mobile missile system capable of covering the major approaches to the North and our coastal capital cities, that’s it, cheap and simple. We need fast capable frigate class warships for the coast and a handful of submarines to cover the depths and distance. More importantly we need the industrial capacity to make or replace stuff should we need to. The rest we can leave to diplomacy and good relations and the rest will require national psychotherapy to overcome our irrational anxieties about invasion and non white races.

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