Australia’s once insulating ‘tyranny of distance’ is rapidly being replaced by a dangerous ‘predicament of proximity’ to the fastest growing economies and militaries in an increasingly volatile part of the world.
Australia has long had a tough relationship with the ‘tyranny of distance’. On one hand, the nation’s populace has treated it with disdain and hostility, while Australia’s political and strategic leaders have recognised the importance of geographic isolation.
The rise of Indo-Pacific Asia means the ‘tyranny of distance’ has been replaced by a ‘predicament of proximity’.
China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and several other regional nations are reshaping the economic and strategic paradigms with an unprecedented period of economic and arms build-up, competing interests and rising animosity towards the post-World War II order Australia is a pivotal part of in the region.
The growing proliferation of key force projection capabilities, ranging from aircraft carriers, fifth-generation combat aircraft, advanced conventional and nuclear-powered submarines to area-access denial systems and advanced ground forces, high-speed, precision munitions, space and cyber capabilities, is at the core of this paradigm shifting reality.
Additionally, the increasing instability of the US administration and its apparent apprehension to intervene or at least maintain the global rules-based order following the radical shift in US politics, also forces Australia to reassess the strategic calculus.
For Australia, these radically shifting sands spell trouble. No longer able to hide behind the tyranny of distance and the long-celebrated sea/air gap, as identified by Professor Paul Dibb, responsible for producing the Dibb report of the 1980s, the nation requires a radically different approach to these mounting challenges.
Both Michael Wesley and John Birmingham in the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, titled Defending Australia, provide an analysis of Australia's diminishing geo-strategic depth and technological advantages in the Indo-Pacific Asian century.
Wesley, in a piece titled ‘Dangerous Proximity: The collapse of Australia’s defences in a contested Asia’, goes to great lengths not only to identify and detail the rapidly changing geo-strategic reality, but also the increasingly risky strategic thinking that has governed Australian strategic policy making since the earliest days of European settlement.
"We have always felt we are too small a population to defend such a vast landmass and such a long coastline. In the two centuries since the last invasion, Australians have never felt insecure for long enough to change that equation."
National strategic anxiety
In contrast, Wesley is quick to highlight the nation’s willingness to engage in conflict abroad: "Yet for a nation that doubts its ability to defend its territory, Australia has been remarkably willing to send its soldiers overseas to fight. It is because Australia can’t protect itself that it has always extended its security interests far beyond its coastlines."
These two conflicting ideas contradict the nation’s insecurity and the way in which it responds to the emerging challenges, raising important questions about Australia’s response to this ‘predicament of proximity’.
Wesley articulates these challenges well, saying "the certainties that have underpinned Australia's defence outlook have shifted further and faster than its planning or procurement processes have been able to factor in."
In his response to these challenges, Wesley echoes some of the calls made by leading Australian strategic policy makers including Peter Jennings, Professor Dibb and Malcolm Davis.
Of particular concern for Wesley is the rise of ‘coercive statecraft’ supported by the proliferation of advanced weapons systems being fielded by potential adversaries. Particularly long-range, precision guided missiles, anti-ship weapons and electronic warfare.
Plugging the gaps
Both Jennings and Davis directly recognise the need to respond to these developments, with Jennings telling Defence Connect, "We need to be placing more effort into developing the long-range strike capability, this includes things like cruise missiles which can launched by platforms across the ADF.
"We also need to place greater emphasis on upgrading the capability provided by Collins, not just as a stop-gap, but as an imperative, as these submarines will continue to form the point of our deterrence spear for some time yet."
This is further supported by Davis, sought to redefine the nation’s long-range strike capabilities, saying, "The capability provided by the future submarines will be delivered too late, that means we need to work with the US on developing a potent air-based long-range strike capability."
Wesley’s concerns about a contested Asia, particularly strategic choke points like the Strait of Malacca, are echoed by the calls made by Professor Dibb in his recent speech at ANU.
He said: "First, we need to focus more on our own region of primary strategic concern, which includes south-east Asia (including the South China Sea), the eastern Indian Ocean, the south Pacific and the Southern Ocean."
Expanding on this, Wesley identifies, as Davis does, the declining presence of the US and the need for Australia to enact a more assertive, independent defence posture and key regional alliances playing a pivotal role in the nation’s ‘defence of the indefensible’.
"The consequence of these challenges is that Australia’s two dominant approaches to defence planning are inadequate. For significant periods, Australia has structured its armed forces primarily for the task of protecting its territory and maritime approaches," Wesley said.
"Where it has drawn its defensive perimeters has varied, often stretching outwards to the boundary between continental and maritime Asia. At other times, Australia has tooled up to fight alongside its allies, in the Middle East, Europe and Africa, and sometimes in Asia," Wesley further correctly identifies the increasingly complex environment Australia finds itself in.
A return to 'Forward Defence'?
Wesley’s prominent point, that Australia is no longer a strategic backwater, meaning the traditional, often reserved approach to defence planning, strategy, planning and procurement requires radical shifts in thinking and feeds directly into the thesis of John Birmingham in ‘Weapons of Choice: Rearming Australia for its offshore ambitions’.
Birmingham begins his thesis by recounting the role technology, multi-domain dominance and what has been defined as the ‘violence of action’ continues to play in modern combat operations, albeit in an asymmetric field of combat: Afghanistan.
However, this launching point leads to a catalogue of Australia’s largest defence procurement projects, across the three major domains of air, land and sea, and the role these platforms, and the new doctrines of Plan Bersheeba and Plan Jericho for example, will play in ensuring that Australia has a credible sovereign capability in event of peer conflict.
"Australia, alarmed by China’s growing might and the reshaping of the regional power balance, is building a capability that extends beyond its traditional focus of on protecting and controlling the continent and its surrounds. It is an ambitious change, fraught with the potential for failure," Birmingham said, laying the foundation for a proactive and confronting conversation regarding the future structure, organisation, doctrine and capability requirements of the ADF.
At the core of Birmingham’s argument is a growing focus on uniting the ADF to provide what amounts to a not only a return to the ‘Forward Defence’ policy of the early Cold War years, but also an assertive increase in the expeditionary and conventional deterrence capabilities of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Key force multiplying platforms, like the Army’s new armoured vehicles under LAND 400 Phases 2 and 3, Hobart Class destroyers and Hunter Class future frigates, and fifth-generation air combat capabilities in the F-35, P-8A Poseidon and EA-18G Growler electronic attack fighters, form the basis of this renewed focus.
While each of these platforms provides a leap in the capability and offensive hitting power of the ADF, Birmingham identifies key capability gaps, including:
- The hardening and networking of the Army with key new platforms and the shifting focus toward amphibious combat operations;
- Provide indigenous, fixed wing air support as a central component for establishing a layered defence for key naval platforms in the Canberra Class LHDs and associated escort vessels when conducting expeditionary roles;
- Increasing the technological edge of the Air Force, through investment in key capabilities like the F-35, F/A-18F Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, E-7A Wedgetails and P-8A Poseidon as part of an integrated, long-range strike force; and
- The development of robust, offensive and defensive cyber, AI and unmanned aerial and sea combat capabilities to enhance traditional platforms.
These calls are further supported and expanded upon by both Professor Dibb, who calls for increased self-reliance in order to "maintain a margin of military advantage over our region" with specific focus on key long-range strategic deterrent forces.
"The two most obvious delivery options are ballistic missiles launched from a nuclear-powered submarine, or a long-range nuclear cruise missile carried by a strategic bomber," Professor Dibb wrote in his recent ASPI piece, ‘Should Australia develop its own nuclear deterrent?’
Australia’s position and role in the region is rapidly evolving, while the geo-strategic situation appears to be degrading, our nation’s material, strategic and doctrine response to the challenges needs to evolve as well.