Over the next 10 years, Australia will dedicate $200 billion to rearmament. We are not only buying new hardware such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, we are also investing in defence industry, with the goal of developing our sovereign capabilities. These are much-needed steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done to shore up Australia’s defence in a changing world. Above all else, we need to develop a national security strategy.
Australia has had one previous attempt at putting a national security strategy in place under the Gillard government in 2013. Although it was a decent first attempt, it is has already been overtaken by events. Terrorism was the principal security challenge it focused on, and although the threat of terrorism has not disappeared, other changes in the world are demanding our focus.
The world has changed dramatically in the six years since the release of the last national security strategy. Of primary concern is the decline of American power. At the end of the Cold War, the US planned for the contingency of fighting, and winning, ‘two and a half wars’ simultaneously. This meant it could wage two large scale regional wars and a small scale conflict elsewhere and prevail in all of them.
Today, after pouring blood and treasure into drawn-out Middle Eastern wars and budget sequestration under President Obama, they are not even confident that they can prevail in one large war. They are starting to rebuild their capabilities, but doing so will take time.
And while American strength has been declining, their rivals are growing stronger and more assertive. Their officials speak of challenges from ‘four nations and an ideology’ – China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and radical Islam. Since 2013, we have seen no abatement in Islamist terror, while Iran and North Korea have continued to work on their nuclear capabilities.
Russia has grabbed the Crimea and fought a low-level conflict in the Eastern Ukraine, while its other neighbours watch anxiously. Closer to home, China has established artificial islands in the South China Sea, escalated its threatening behaviour towards Taiwan, and invested heavily in missile strike capabilities and a blue water navy. Recently, in a major address in January 2019, President Xi Jinping declared that China’s military must “prepare for a comprehensive military struggle”.
The relative decline of American power has huge implications for Australia. Since World War II we have relied on the US as the ‘centre pole’ of our defence strategy. Our approach has been to assist the Americans around the world, in the expectation that if a threat to our security were to arise they would come to our aid. The changes in our strategic environment mean that Australia cannot afford to keep doing this.
We need to take more responsibility for our own defence, while maintaining our close relationship with the US.
Developing a national security strategy would be an important step towards improving Australia’s ability to defend itself. We need to start with a sober assessment of the likely threats and scenarios the country could face in the future. At the moment, there is only limited consensus about what the principal future threats to Australia are.
They might not only be military threats, but also social or economic. We need to determine, in a realistic manner, what they are. Only then can we consider the requirements of the ADF and other arms of government with security functions. Without a national security strategy, and the clarity it would bring, we cannot know whether we are focusing on the right goals as we expand the ADF and the defence industry sector.
The uncertainty that comes from a lack of a national security strategy has major flow-on effects. One is that there is little agreement in relation to the best approaches to force structure and procurement.
We lack consistent assumptions about who we are likely to fight, where we are likely to fight, and when we will need to fight. As a consequence, we argue about what we need to buy and produce in order to win a fight. As an example of what I am talking about, I am often asked by the media whether 12 submarines is the right number for the RAN. The answer, of course, depends on what you need to do with them.
The ongoing debate around Australia’s future submarine fleet is symptomatic of the bigger problem. Defence discussion and debate often focuses on equipment without any reference to strategy. But without knowing what we need to use the equipment for, and the scenarios they would likely be deployed in, we cannot know whether we are buying the right equipment, and in sufficient quantities.
A national security strategy would provide a basis for answering important questions related to force size and structure. A national security strategy would also force us to consider important matters that go beyond hardware. I am thinking particularly of the logistical chains essential to maintaining operations in a time of crisis.
Since entering the Parliament I have invested a lot of time bringing attention to Australia’s fuel security; our lack of domestic reserves and refining capacity. But fuel is only one part of the equation. What use is it having 72 marvellous F-35s at Williamtown if we lack the essential fuel, missiles, spare parts, ammunition and other necessities to support their operations?
We have managed to get away with not having a national security strategy only because we have lived in a tranquil region since 1945. But our strategic environment is changing quickly, and we need to prepare for a turbulent future.
Developing a national security strategy would be a vital first step towards building the capacity we need to face the potential challenges that are coming.
Jim Molan is a senator for NSW. He retired as a Major General from the Australian Army in 2008.