Submarine sideshow: Does Australia even need a military?

Nov 21, 2021
Australian Collins-class submarine HMAS Rankin
Image: US National Archives

There are many potential benefits to Australia not having any submarines — it should even consider it needs a military at all. 

In the controversy over the cancellation of French-built submarines and ordering of US-built nuclear subs, there is an unspoken assumption: it’s better for Australia to have subs, any subs, than no subs. Why not examine a no-subs option?

In his recent book Ethics, Security, and the War MachineNed Dobos points to an even deeper unspoken assumption: that military establishments have more benefits than harms.

Dobos notes that nearly all war-related ethical arguments are about whether to go to war and, if so, how to wage it.

In this preoccupation with the morality of war-making, the possibility of not having a military at all is ignored.

Of countries around the world, Australia is one of the least likely to be invaded. True, there is a small risk. But just because there is a risk of invasion isn’t a sufficient justification for having military forces.

Dobos makes an analogy. Many people would accept that there are some occasions, perhaps very rare, in which torture could be justified, for example to extract information to prevent a ticking time bomb from going off.

But this remote possibility does not justify training people in torture techniques, being on constant alert for opportunities to carry out torture, and building a torture-industrial complex.

Just as there are downsides to preparing to use torture, there are downsides to preparing to go to war. One obvious one is the vast expense involved in human and material resources that could be used for other purposes.

Another downside is that having a military makes Australia a target for aggression.

If Australia had no military, it would pose no threat to other countries, and this would reduce the pressure for an arms race. The irony is that the solution to the danger of being invaded, namely military defence, actually increases the risk.

This is most obvious in relation to nuclear attack.

The US military bases dotted across the country, especially Pine Gap that is part of US nuclear war-fighting capability, make Australia a nuclear target. This risk would not exist without the bases and would be even smaller without a military establishment. Those who think nuclear deterrence makes sense should read David Barash’s book Threats.

Dobos gives special attention to downsides of the military that seldom receive attention. One of them is an increased risk of a military coup. In Australia, this risk is extremely low, but it is not zero. Dobos points to attempted coups in several countries that seemed at very low risk.

Another disadvantage of having a military is skewing the values of the society towards aggression and antagonism, undermining democratic values.

This is not via conscious processes but through the subtle influences of martial values in education and business. Dobos gives the example of Costa Rica which abolished its military in 1948 and has become highly prosperous, with great longevity, while its neighbours have gone through horrific experiences.

Without a military, it would be natural to prioritise building productive relationships with other governments and with other populations.

It would be possible to spend more on fostering human rights and balanced economic development in other countries, creating goodwill and reducing dangers to all.

Without a military, there would still be some danger of invasion.

One option is to develop the capacity for unarmed resistance, a policy that has been called social defence or civilian-based defence. Over the past several decades, people-power movements have toppled numerous authoritarian regimes, for example in the Philippines, Iran, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, Serbia and Tunisia.

The techniques used in such so-called non-violent revolutions can also be used to defend against aggression. This alternative has been studied for decades, but so far no country has adopted it. Australia is in as good a position to explore this option as any place in the world.

The subs are a sideshow. The bigger issue is whether it is worthwhile considering a transition to a society without a military.

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