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Defence capability is an insurance policy, not a zero sum game

We can all agree that home and contents insurance is a necessary evil; it is one of those things that is better to have and not need, than need and not have. A nation’s armed forces, its capabilities and supporting strategic policy and sovereign industries all serve the same purpose. As Australias regional balance of power continues to evolve, is it time to begin a new discussion?

In his response to a piece by Peter Jennings, executive director of ASPI, and Paul Dibb, author of the 1986 Dibb review – the force posture and strategic policy paper responsible for the introduction of the 'Defence of Australia' doctrine – former defence executive Mike Scrafton has sought to re-orientate the nation's focus in ‘Planning Australia's Plan B: increasing defence spending will only provoke China'.

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As part of this broader reorientation, Scrafton identifies four key areas to counter the steps identified by Jennings and Dibb for Australia to develop a ‘Plan B’ in response to mounting US instability and the growing peer competitor capabilities of rising powers like China: 

  1. The rate of technological development means that any significant investment in capability will be sunk money affecting both tactical and strategic deterrent forces;
  2. Australia’s capabilities, no matter the level of development and investment will never be significant enough to threaten any potential major-power adversary, so don’t bother;
  3. Regional alliances and security frameworks will only serve to agitate China and will be of little benefit; and
  4. We might upset China in appropriately responding to their rapidly developing capabilities and overt willingness to use their economic, political and military power to coerce regional nations, including Australia.

Simply put, each of these individual arguments is based around an argument of appeasement and "it is all a little too hard". However, unlike previous decades, the potential for threat to both the nation directly and its economic, political and strategic interests in Indo-Pacific Asia is real. Does this mean Australia needs to embrace some of the more radical ideas, including the potential for the development of a nuclear deterrent, as suggested by Jennings or Dibb? Most certainly not, but it doesn’t mean we should hope that the crocodile fills its stomach on others by the time it gets to us, to paraphrase Churchill.

What it does mean, is that for the first time since the introduction of the 'Defence of Australia' policy and in support of the government’s Defence Industrial Capability Plan, Defence Export Plan and Sovereign Naval Shipbuilding Plan, Australia must actively broaden its capability acquisition, modernisation and policy agendas to enhance the nation’s focus on our primary area of responsibility.

This can be achieved through a number of initiatives that will enhance not only the operational and strategic capabilities of the ADF, but also enhance the expansion and competitiveness of Australia’s domestic defence industry, the nation’s ability to act both independently and as a valued ally with both the US and broader regional allies and, finally, the options available to policy makers in the face of growing regional instability.   

Accordingly, it is time to open the forum for discussion to shift the discourse from one of traditional 'black and white' thinking as it relates to Australia's strategic and defence policy areas. Strategic policy thinkers, academics, Australian politicians and the public all have a role to play in the discussion to change the nation's approach to defence policy. 

This discussion requires a focus on a number of critical areas, namely: 

Force structure: While Jennings is more direct in stating a need to increase the size of the ADF, Dibb is slightly more discreet, nevertheless, an expansion in the manpower available is necessary for the ADF to meet the requirements it will require to act as an individual benefactor and significant regional partner.

In the force structure domain, the major deciding point is to become a nuclear power or to remain a conventional power – with great power, multi-domain and integrated force projection capabilities, including rapidly deployable expeditionary focused ground forces, naval power projection forces including aircraft carrier strike groups, amphibious assault groups, at sea deterrence submarine forces and integrated, expeditionary capable air forces combining tactical fighter aircraft, tactical and strategic strike, air lift and tanker, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. 

This increased capability also provides an improved conventional deterrence capacity and enables Australia to credibly slow and through strategic depth, 'rip the arm' off any potential adversary, while heavy support arrives from allies.  

Industry: Capability expansion would see an expansion of industry development, particularly given increased procurement of locally built surface ships, vehicles and support services. Additionally, the renewed focus on the operational side of the ADF promotes focus on specialist training and maintenance services to be provided by certified private enterprise, supporting increased outcomes and reduced costs for capability development and acquisition. 

Furthermore, developing enhanced capabilities also drives the need for robust research and development organisations. Enhancing the funding and role of DST and CSIRO provides additional support. 

Alliance building: Alliances have been the bedrock that has secured peace and security since the end of World War Two. For Australia, developing and in some cases enhancing combined economic and strategic partnerships with key global and regional actors like the UK, France, Japan, Korea and India is a necessity to ensure collaboration and co-ordination of efforts in the face of increasing regional instability.    

Additionally, increased capability development enhances the role Australia plays in regional partnerships, enabling the nation to more effectively engage in key alliances, while also supporting multiple concurrent operations without overstretching or weakening the ADF and its capacity to meet the demands of national policy makers. 

Regional benefactor: Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as a complementary force to the role played by the US.  

Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.

To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst. As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geo-political, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.

It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.  

There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia's predicament and should serve as sage advice:'Si vis pacem, para bellum'  –  'If you want peace, prepare for war'. 

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Defence capability is an insurance policy, not a zero sum game
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