As a former soldier who was recruited into the inaugural intake of the Australian Army Ready Reserve in 1992, the “Defence of Australia” theme in Professor Hugh White’s How to Defend Australia sounds very familiar.
White’s work appears to rehash the DOA theme that was articulated in the 1987 “Defence of Australia” (DOA) white paper, prepared for White’s former boss, former Labor defence minister Kim Beazley. This is my view of the lessons that recent history has for us on DOA as a Defence strategy for Australia.
The Ready Reserves were largely recruited into Brisbane’s 6 Brigade in 1992 to replace mainly regular and some general reserve soldiers. The Ready Reserve part of the DOA reforms, which had the central tenant of defence self-reliance and focused on denying an enemy the ability to cross the “air-sea gap” to the north of Australia.
This entailed prioritising long-range surveillance capabilities, fighter aircraft and submarines, which would serve this purpose over the sorts of heavy ground forces, naval surface units and transports that would enable Australia to join its allies on operations abroad.
The Ready Reserve training was full-time for a year and then for 50 days a year part time for the next four. The theory was that most of a soldier’s learning was done in the first year of training, so after a year the Army would effectively get a regular soldier who they could pay as a reservist.
My observation was that this theory came up short, particularly with respect to training Ready Reserves as competent officers and NCOs, as well as maintaining military skills once we moved to part-time service. In reality, the scheme cut costs at the expense of capability, rather than being a way to increase efficiency.
It was lucky that the Ready Reserve never had to be relied on to go on operations before it was disbanded by the Howard Liberal government in 1996. Howard’s subsequent raising of an extra regular battalion and restructuring of the Defence Force to emphasise overseas deployments was timely, because the subsequent 30 years of military operations undertaken by the ADF have proven the assumptions underpinning DOA wrong.
The only significant operations in the air-sea gap has been to counter people smugglers, with the ADF mostly operating in a variety of overseas localities. The most important operations have included Australian-led peace keeping and enforcement missions in places like East Timor, Bougainville and the Solomon Islands. A stable region is clearly in our national interest and has become even more important with China’s increasing efforts to gain traction there.
China is central to the renovation of DOA by White, who argues that that Australia now faces a credible threat of an attack on the Australian mainland by China and cannot rely on the US or regional allies to help us defend ourselves in that instance. China is undeniably growing in wealth and power, and has used the threat of force pursue its interests.
However, China is surrounded by states that have an interest in it not being allowed hegemony over east Asia. Russia, India, Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan have all had wars with China in the last century, so it is almost inconceivable that all of these nations would allow an expansionist Chinese superpower to control all the resources in east Asia unopposed.
In doing so, they would be betting on China agreeing to limit its influence to that region, not an acceptable risk. Even in the unlikely instance that US washed its hands of influence in the world’s fastest growing economic region, China is spread too thin to pose a serious risk to Australia with conventional military force.
However, China’s ability and willingness to engage in asymmetric conflict against Australia should be taken seriously. The most practical way that China could take military action against Australia is by proxy war in the developing island nations that surround us. Think of an intervention like East Timor in 1999 where the militia had been armed with modern portable anti-tank weapons and landmines. It would be cheap and easy for China to arm and train local groups with weapons like this and they would pose a great challenge to Australian forces.
Combat experience has proven that armour heavy enough to resist man-portable anti-tank weapons and mines is often the best way to counter well-armed light infantry. Australian forces demonstrated this with Centurion tanks in the overwhelmingly successful Battle of Binh Ba during the Vietnam War and foreign operations in recent wars have reinforced the lesson.
Against a greater thereat, Australia must also be able to secure entry into the island nations in our region in the instance of conflict and the best way to do that is large, amphibious warships, like Australia’s Canberra Class. Using these types of ships in amphibious warfare is not a new idea, the Royal Navy and US Navy have used these types of ships for decades.
Yet these capabilities are exactly what White wants to deprive the Army and Navy of. His view is that Australia should only operate small amphibious ships and a lightly armed Army and simply avoid anything but the lowest of intensity land operations in our region. Essentially, White claims to be extremely worried about a Chinese attack on Australia, but proposes a policy that could allow them to change a regional government and obtain a base close to Australia, for the price of a couple of hundred rocket propelled grenades.
With White’s proposed ADF capabilities being dominated by fighter jets and submarines, all Australia would be able to do in response would be to bomb and blockade one of our developing neighbours into submission. This would most likely inflict even more suffering on the local population than they would experience from the internal conflict, which we would have abandoned them to.
I think that most Australians would be rightly appalled at White’s bad policy ideas if they were fully aware of the implications and I think they should be strenuously refuted before they gut the ADF’s vital regional deployment capabilities, like they did the last time.
Reece Anthony is an ex-Ready Reserve Non-Commissioned Officer and has subsequently worked as a public policy analyst across a variety of sectors. Reece has tertiary qualifications in economics, finance, project management and journalism