Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flash points of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century. Blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and industrial potential, the nation has been able to embrace vastly different approaches to the nation’s strategic role and responsibilities.
However, the growing conventional and hybrid capabilities of peer and near-peer competitors – namely Russia and China – combined with the growing modernisation, capability enhancements and reorganisation of force structures in the armies of nations, including India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, all contribute to the changing nature of contemporary warfare.
Modern warfare has rapidly evolved over the last three decades, from high-tempo, manoeuvre-based operations that leveraged the combined capabilities of air, sea, land and space forces to direct troops, equipment and firepower around the battlefield during the first Gulf War, to low-intensity humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in southern Europe and the south Pacific, and the eventual rise of asymmetrical, guerilla conflicts in the mountains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq.
In responding to these challenges, the Australian government has initiated the largest peacetime modernisation recapitalisation of the Australian Defence Force with a record $200 billion expected to be invested into developing next-generation military and industry capability. However, the rapidly evolving nature of the Indo-Pacific balance of power has prompted many within Australia’s strategic policy community to begin planning for the next Defence White Paper.
However, prior to the development stage of the Defence White Paper, a much needed review of Australia’s force posture is needed – this was identified by opposition defence spokesperson Richard Marles during the course of the recent federal election campaign: “The world looks different from when Australia’s last Force Posture Review was undertaken by the former Labor government in 2011-12. We now face the most challenging set of strategic circumstances since the Second World War.”
The lay of the land
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. It is also important to recognise that while Australia’s defence expenditure looks set to increase to $38.7 billion in 2019-20, the rapidly evolving strategic realities of the Indo-Pacific region will necessitate greater investment in the nation’s strategic capabilities.
As it stands, the personnel budget for the Australian Defence Force for 2018-19 is $11,776 million, supporting 14,689 for the Royal Australian Navy; 14,295 for the Royal Australian Air Force; and 30,810 for the Australian Army – for a total ADF strength of 59,794 personnel. Additionally, the budget supports 16,393 within the Australian Public Service and 19,850 reservists.
In light of the relatively small numbers fielded by the ADF, the question about personnel numbers becomes an increasingly important one – with the key question becoming: as the Indo-Pacific becomes increasingly contested and Australia’s interests are challenged, is the ADF large enough to reliably execute the mission in a radically evolving geo-political and strategic order?
Dr Malcolm Davis of ASPI reinforced this, telling Defence Connect at the Avalon Airshow in late February, “The government aspiration of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence is simply not enough any more. We need to look at planning our force structure, our capability requirements and spending on a number of factors, including allied strengths and potential adversarial capabilities, not arbitrary figures.
“It is time for us to throw open the debate about our force structure. It is time to ask what more do we need to do and what do we need to be capable of doing.”
Focusing on Australia’s need for strategic independence
As Australia’s traditional strategic benefactors continue to face decline and comparatively capable peer competitors, the nation’s economic, political and strategic capability are intrinsically linked to the enduring security, stability and prosperity in an increasingly unpredictable region.
Hugh White’s focus on and underlying belief that Australia seriously committing to a sustained and focused effort to develop a true regional power is too difficult continues to perpetuate a black and white approach to developing strategic policy, thus limiting Australia’s capacity to assertively and proactively intervene to defend its own national interests should the nation’s larger allies become increasingly distracted and limited in their ability to do so.
White’s approach, like many others within the Australian strategic policy community, fails to adequately and appropriately articulate the very real geo-political, economic and strategic challenges facing the country – what they do focus on is ensuring that Australia’s strategic capability fits within the neat confines of agreed-upon force structure, capability development, manpower and acquisition models first developed during the mid-to-late 1980s.
This doctrine focuses largely on isolating Australia from any form of direct responsibility or role within the Indo-Pacific, entrenching further dependence on larger great powers for key capabilities and support despite their own unique tactical and strategic responsibilities. It is important to recognise that while Australia does comparatively “punch above its weight”, the nation has since the end of the 1990s continued to reduce its capability to actively and assertively project sustainable, tactical and strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific, thus limiting Australia’s capacity to act independently.
Former SASR officer turned government MP and chair of the influential parliamentary intelligence and security committee Andrew Hastie has in recent days reinforced the nation’s need to focus on dictating its long-term future, developing and implementing a cohesive plan outlining direction and an end goal of reinventing itself, and its position within the rapidly evolving regional and global order, lest potential adversaries begin dictating those terms of engagement for us:
“Right now our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure but in our thinking. That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak. If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities – our little platoons – then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished.”
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 chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.