The Defence Strategic Review and Australia’s ‘Alliance’ obsession

Feb 16, 2023
Ludwig Wittgenstein | Drawing pastal

How might the renown mid-20th century linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein have addressed the current defence strategic review?

As the perceptive mid-20th century Cambridge based English/Austrian linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein explained, the answer you get to a question depends on how the question is formed. The same wisdom could have been conveyed to military planners in the past when they set out to plan force structures for twenty or more years ahead. Wrong question. Wrong answers.

Looking back, think of all the military expenditure over the past twenty years and more that has been wasted as being unusable or irrelevant to purpose. Think of the lost opportunities for sound force development and the money saved that might have been available for under-resourced schools, hospitals and welfare assistance falling short of need.

After World War Two planning remained where it had left off, with established formations around divisions, battalions and platoons, essentially ground forces and an expensive aircraft carrier unsuitable for serious combat. After much debate a viable carrier fleet was seen as unattainable and unaffordable with the loss of the existing fleet air arm. Upgrades on traditional lines were undertaken following the Korean War but thereafter with Vietnam becoming the main preoccupation (misconceived), and keeping faith with the US on military commitments, the conventional wisdom in military circles was that future conflict would involve containing insurgents in Asian jungles and the protection of naval approaches around continental Australia and its resources of a conventional nature.

Nonetheless a parallel objective was the search for a silver bullet that would provide cover for all contingencies whether existing or not. Hence the embrace by government of the F111 fighter/bomber not withstanding the tribulations of its procurement and eventual deployment (the latter being relatively little as it happened). After that Australian forces, or rather their equipment, was aligned to a newer kind of threat from irregular or insurgent forces in Western Asia, conflicts in which Australia had little or no direct interest but was engaged there to keep the US on-side – being our insurance in case of larger dangers closer to home.

Peacekeeping in such places as East Timor, patrolling the islands in south west Pacific and our own coastal regions and offshore infrastructure, with contingencies for low level conflict, more or less prescribed their own relatively modest force structures. Though for East Timor the then existing force structure was found wanting and external assistance (US) brought in,

Recalling the fate of Darwin in 1942, a lesson that has taken a long time to dawn in the modern era, governments now don’t wish to be unprepared if something serious turns up as it did then from Japan. The thinking was that to be prepared we must dramatise an emerging threat in order to get the funds for force structure development beyond what in more routine times would be available. In effect we are looking for enemies – or an enemy – to frighten more than just horses in conjunction with a powerful friend which may have an ulterior (largely domestic) purpose in stirring the possum. The real threat to America today is largely internal given rising levels of rioting and disaffection (racial and otherwise). But concern over America’s decline vis a vis China, whether real or not, is now front and centre on force structure issues.

Not surprisingly Australian governments have seized on these trends to question the adequacy of its own force structures, as much because extraordinary scientific and technical developments in recent years have rendered many previous acquisitions relatively obsolescent. This is legitimate and necessary as long as new acquisitions are relevant to foreseeable need and circumstances. As before we have looked for a magic pudding that would enhance our profile and please our once great and powerful friends. Hence as was the case with the F111s, and more recently the F-35s we have become fixated with nuclear powered submarines, having decided they are needed for long range deployment.

There is much that is unreal about this move. Firstly long range deployment implies that China is the potential or envisaged enemy requiring Australian engagement at that level. While China might be seen as flexing its muscles lately it has done nothing in this regard that is different from the United States. Both seek to protect and advance their relative status. But for neither side would this be advanced by military conflict. China still has millions of materially unsatisfied citizens and the US is overdue for a major upgrade of its cities and suburbs where living and civic standards have noticeably deteriorated in recent years. Both China and the US have serious distribution of wealth issues. But the contest for global supremacy is beyond either’s reach. However expressed this is not an existential issue for them. There are other players in the field who are not indifferent to what the two major powers pursue in their national interests. European economic growth collectively is advancing towards that of the US and China. Additionally there are the BRIC countries (including Brazil, India, South Africa, possibly in time Indonesia) which collectively compare to Europe. Africa too is advancing towards significant economic status and will be a power in a generation or two. This wider world has a vested interest in the avoidance of counter-productive warfare and a deep felt need for viable multilateralism.

(See Jeffrey Sachs, “The new geopolitics”.)

While Australia is comparable to some of the BRICS it does not identify with them as a group. It is an outlier to some of them (though not to Indonesia) whose national interests would be endangered by conflict between the top powers. We and they have a common interest in avoiding such conflict and not stirring the pot as we have been and still are doing. Our obsession with the ‘alliance’ lacks a geo-political appreciation of our objective circumstances. Our fear is that the US may not come to our aid if we were threatened by a superior power. The probability is that in the event of a major conflict – region-wide and potentially beyond – the US would be at hand giving full support. It will not be a submarine here or some aircraft there from us that will make the difference. It will be strategic Australian territory and resources that will. It is apt to recall General Douglas MacArthur’s response after the Pacific War when being thanked for saving Australia he retorted by saying that he hadn’t come here to save Australia but to save America.

The proposed long term acquisition of nuclear submarines has completely upended our diplomatic and strategic positioning, as revealed (perhaps unintentionally) by Defence Minister Richard Marles when he told a gathering in London this month that the AUKUS goal is to create “a more seamless defence industrial space” between the three countries, affirming that Australia is more tied at the hip to the US than previously admitted. Because we would not have national control over the submarines in relation to their location and deployment, thereby severely compromising our national sovereignty. That would be a high price to pay even if we were engaged in a major war as was the case in 1942; but it is not and should not be the price we pay on speculation over assumed threats that are anything but imminent. The submarines would have little purpose for independent defence if ranged against China which can deploy a growing number of nuclear powered and armed submarines together with some 50 conventional powered ones (bearing in mind too that North Korea could deploy just as many given that the Korean War remains unresolved).

The Strategic Review currently underway will certainly strengthen our capacity to protect our immediate off-shore regions and coastline with new technologies including drones for enhanced surveillance, medium range missiles and sea mines, and survivable platforms to support them – while appreciating at the same time that in a high conflict situation the Chinese or any other militarily powerful nation could lob missiles on our vulnerable locations with disconcerting accuracy (including cities, Pine Gap and North West Cape). That point could well be the end of us sooner than we would like to think.

So why buy into this unless doing so would make a difference when we know it would not. There is a lot more to this issue for the government to consider than when Prime Minister Menzies and his Cabinet decided on Australian forces being deployed in Vietnam or when Prime Minister Howard and his kitchen cabinet decided similarly in the case of Iraq – both gigantic mistakes.

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