Australia’s once insulating ‘tyranny of distance’ is rapidly being replaced by a dangerous ‘predicament of proximity’ to the fastest growing economies and militaries, each with competing interests and objectives in an increasingly volatile part of the world.
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.
Meanwhile, Australia’s strategic and defence planning has historically been defined by several different, yet interconnected and increasingly complex factors, namely:
- The benevolence and continuing stability of its primary strategic partner;
- The geographic isolation of the continent, highlighted by the ‘tyranny of distance’;
- A relatively small population in comparison with our neighbours; and
- Increasingly, the geo-political, economic and strategic ambition and capabilities of Australia’s Indo-Pacific Asian neighbours.
Australia's position in the international community as a 'middle power' committed to the maintenance of the post-Second World War geo-political, economic and strategic order places the nation in a precarious position as the strategic power projection capabilities of its primary security partner, the US, are challenged by the competing interests and near-peer capabilities of China.
In response, the focus of Australia's strategic policy and political leaders has shifted from the Army, Navy and Air Force operating as individual components of a larger whole – towards developing a 'joint force' tactical and strategic force capable of leveraging the individual strengths and complementing the weaknesses of the individual ADF branches.
However, much of this focus has been placed on developing 'network centric' force multipliers like the proposed AIR 6500 integrated command and control, air and missile defence and battlespace management systems, with minimal attention on the limited acquisition of individual, high-capability platforms at a like-for-like level, supported by inconsistent doctrine, with minimal focus on future tactical and strategic requirements.
Addressing these issues also requires a focus on understanding Australia's rapidly evolving position and responsibilities in the region – at the core of this is developing a 'conventional deterrence triad' with foundation in the 'joint force' concept and like-for-like acquisition programs.
Ruling out the development of a credible nuclear deterrent, Australia's focus on developing a strategic deterrence-focused 'joint force' concept requires a focus on developing 'great power' level capabilities. Key to developing these, 'joint force' strategic capabilities is developing a range of capabilities, including:
- Rapidly deployable expeditionary focused ground forces – combining amphibious units and traditional, high-intensity and manoeuvre warfare-focused ground combat elements;
- Comprehensive naval power projection forces including aircraft carrier strike groups, amphibious assault groups, and conventionally-focused 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.
Developing these individual forces requires an acceptance of Australia's position within this shifting regional environment, and an acceptance that Australia's precarious position and dependence on the Indo-Pacific will require increased investment and targeted policy development to maintain the nation's prosperity, security and way of life.
Guaranteeing this requires the nation to find a balance between the expeditionary and interventionist focused 'Forward Defence' and the continental defence focused 'Defence of Australia' doctrines to counter the high and low intensity threats to the nation's security and interests.
Force multiplier platforms and increased unit buy?
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.
A diverse range of land, sea, air, cyber and increasingly space capabilities knitted together as part of a multi-domain 'system-of-systems' form the basis of a nation's 'hard power' and power projection, that is the use of military and/or economic means to influence the behaviour and intentions of a competitor and reflect an important component of modern international geo-political and strategic relations.
To effectively respond to these growing strategic challenges and continue supporting the US, Australia needs to understand the nature of power projection, the role it plays in supporting national security, particularly for middle powers like Australia and the individual capabilities that form an integrated, multi-domain focused power projection force.
Australia's growing responsibility in the region and exposure to the 'predicament of proximity' requires a dramatic shift in the thinking for capability acquisition and raises the question – is the like-for-like platform acquisition suitable to support Australia's current and projected position, role and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific?
Australia's role as a 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.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy, limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the ADF.