US B-21 tempts the Australian security establishment

Dec 16, 2022
Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider rendering.

The United States does not need it. No air force does. But the lesson of the dazzle from the B-21 Raider Stealth Bomber is that what the US develops and acquires Australia must have. Such a lesson ought to be unlearned as quickly as possible, but there is little chance of it with individuals such as Richard Marles in the defence portfolio.

The fantasy of having a deterrent effect to be projected over thousands of miles is found in a few documents that deserve to gather dust, most notably the 2020 defence strategic update which proved alarmist about Australia having a ten-year threat “window”. Marles, adjusting to the furnishings of his office, claims that the Australian Defence Force “must augment its self-reliance to employ and deliver combat power through impactful material and enhanced strike capability – including over longer distances.”

Marles, in his speech to the Sydney Institute, provides some padding around the commissioned Defence Strategic Review, which will feature war drums, loud signals of threat and existential doom, along with much belligerent hollering. It will, as Marles promises, acknowledge the replacement of “post-Cold War optimism” with “the reality of renewed major power competition.”

This was hardly a bad thing for Marles and other members of the national security state. Such competition made Australia “more relevant now than at any time in our history.” Far better to be relevant to your adversaries in danger than safe and less conspicuous in prosperity and development.

Support is also forthcoming from Marles’ shadow counterpart, Andrew Hastie. In his words delivered at a Business News Breakfast, having such bombers would allow Australia “to hold an adversary at risk beyond the archipelago to our north”, thereby maintaining “a strong deterrent to any regional aggressor”. This would “show that there is a great cost for any unilateral military adventurism. It is simply responsible national security, and is what Australians expect.”

What a novel way of reading the sentiment of Australians, one matched only by Hastie’s own sense of paranoia, which warns of “Chinese influence” and its projection like canker “deep into the Pacific Island chain, ensnaring the heart of at least one national leader.”

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute parrots the strategic delusion: that Australia must employ “the concept of deterrence by denial that is, having sufficiently robust capabilities to convince an adversary that the cost of acting military against Australia isn’t worth any gains that might be made.” It laments the “ADF’s strike cupboard” as being “rather bare.”

To aid this well-funded nonsense, much of it from the US military-industrial complex, the usual psychic disturbances typical among national security types are revealed. “The worst-case scenario for Australia’s military strategy has always been the prospect of an adversary establishing a presence in our near region from which it can target Australia or isolate us from our partners and allies.”

The authors positively salivate at the qualities of an “extremely stealthy bomber”, and while admitting that there is little in terms of clarity about what the B-21 can actually do, extol its “gold standard in strike capability” which “could potentially be delivered by 2032-33.” Yet again, defence fantasists inhabit a future that, when arrived at, tends to be rather different to the astrological version.

In a lunatic turn, the report also suggests the purchase of 12 such bombers. (Yet again, the magic 12 appears, just as it did with the scotched Naval Group-Australian submarine contract.) The price will come in at a foolish, draining, AUD$28 billion (or possibly three million dollars less – but who’s counting?). We can at least be assured that it would be “significantly less than nuclear-powered submarines.”

The authors justify this flight of fancy by suggesting various advantages that “potentially offset” the cost. “A single B-21 can deliver the same effect as many F-35As. The stealth bombers would not require the overhead of supporting capabilities such as air-to-air refuellers when operating in our region.” And wait, another fabulous advantage: such bombers could “prosecute targets from secure bases in Australia’s south, where they would have access to workforce, fuel and munitions.”

Veteran strategist Hugh White, at the very least, offers a voice of balance, opining that thinking about the military, not as a practical tool “but as a symbol of strategic intent” is an “expensive habit”. White advocates, in place of such an overpriced, and essentially irrelevant acquisition, splashing out for “a larger fleet of cheaper aircraft” capable of delivering “more missiles against an enemy fleet than a smaller fleet of more expensive ones. It would be equally capable of launching long-range stand-off attacks on Chinese bases in the Southwest Pacific.”

Such behaviour and decision-making can only suggest how serious Australia’ defence planning should be taken, which is obviously not much. Such an inability to discern real threats, incapable of using delicate diplomacy, and slavishly embracing the latest souped-up trends from Washington, Beijing must surely see those in Canberra as less threatening than habitually foolish.

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