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.
This perfect storm of factors, swirling like a maelstrom across Australia’s northern borders, has largely gone unnoticed by the Australian public, beyond the odd port visit by American or, as recently happened, Chinese naval vessels that seem to cause momentary flurries of concern.
Meanwhile, Australia’s strategic and political leaders appear to be caught in an increasingly dangerous paradigm of thinking, one of continuing US-led dominance and Australia maintaining its position as a supplementary power.
Prior to establishing a new paradigm and priorities, it is critical to understand the nation’s history of strategic policy making and the key priorities that have defined Australia's position in the Indo-Pacific since federation – traditionally, Australia’s strategic and defence planning has been intrinsically defined and impacted by a number of different yet interconnected and increasingly complex factors, namely:
- Guaranteeing the enduring benevolence and continuing stability of its primary strategic partner – via continued support of their strategic ambitions;
- The geographic isolation of the continent, highlighted by the 'tyranny of distance';
- A relatively small population in comparison with its neighbours; and
- Increasingly, the geopolitical, economic and strategic ambition and capabilities of Australia’s Indo-Pacific Asian neighbours.
This state of 'strategic dependence' has placed Australia at a disadvantage and entrenched a belief that the nation is both incapable of greater independent tactical and strategic action and must consistently support the designs and ambitions of great powers, with little concern for the broader impact on Australia and its national interests as a form of insurance.
This growing need for a 'reset' in the nation's strategic and defence planning has gained increasing traction in recent months, with opposition defence spokesperson Richard Marles using the election to commit the ALP to conducting a new Defence Force Posture Review – the first such review since 2012.
Further to this, Air Marshal (Ret'd) Leo Davies and Catherine McGregor have called for a 'reset' of Australia's defence posture – with Davies telling McGregor: "Our existing naval and air assets may not be able to defend the country’s sea lines of communication — the primary maritime routes used by military and trade vessels — or fight a hostile foreign power."
"Without a reset we will keep developing it against an outdated set of strategic circumstances," Davies explained further.
Recognising great power limitations
It is important to recognise that for the first time America has a true competitor in China – a nation with immense industrial potential, growing wealth and prosperity, a driving national purpose and a growing series of alliances with re-emerging, resource rich great powers in Russia, and supported by a growing network of economic hubs and indebted pseudo-colonies throughout the Indo-Pacific and Asia.
Unlike the Soviet Union, China is a highly industrialised nation – with an industrial capacity comparable to, if not exceeding, that of the US, supported by a rapidly narrowing technological gap, supporting growing military capability and territorial ambitions, bringing the rising power into direct competition with the US and its now fraying alliance network of tired global allies.
Whether consciously recognising the potential of this challenge or not, the US President's direct, often confrontational approach towards allies belies domestic concerns about America's ability to maintain the post-Second World War global order. Dr Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) highlighted the importance of recognising the limitation of US power in a recent piece for ASPI, saying, "The assumption of continued US primacy that permeated DWP 2016 looked heroic at the time. It seems almost foolishly misplaced now."
Australia's need to do more
Dr Davies' comments have been further reinforced by Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who spoke to Defence Connect about the growing importance of resetting the nation's defence posture, saying:
"We need to burden share to a much greater degree than before, and accept that we can no longer base our defence planning on the assumption that in a major military crisis or a period leading up to a future war, the US will automatically be there for us. In fact, if we want to avoid that major military crisis, we have to do more than adopt a purely defensive/denial posture, and be postured well forward to counterbalance a rising China or to be able to assist the US and other key allies, notably Japan, to respond to challenges. We can’t be free-riders," Dr Davis explained.
Dr Davis went further, telling Defence Connect, "That means that our defence strategy, based around an emphasis on ‘air-sea gap’ needs urgent and comprehensive review, and the objective should be to consider how Australia can play a more forward and robust role in the Indo-Pacific region alongside the US and other key partners.
"That then has implications for a) ADF force posture; b) force structure and capability development beyond the 2016 IIP; and c) future levels of defence spending above the nominal 2 per cent GDP figure alluded to in DWP16. It also has huge implications for readiness, mobilisation and force sustainment. We must assume that we are going into a more dangerous and contested future that will have a higher operational tempo than in the past, with dramatically reduced warning times – and I think Dibb is correct – we are in ’strategic warning’. I’d go so far as to say it’s possibly a ‘pre-war period’," he said.
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 and suitably equipped to reliably execute the mission in a radically evolving geo-political and strategic order?
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.
Infamous strategic policy expert 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.
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.
Dr Davis poses an important question, telling Defence Connect, "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."
This is again reinforced by Davies, who presented a similar statement to Catherine McGregor in The Australian: "We must be proficient in integrated multi-domain operations. That means across the traditional physical domains of land, sea and air, but cyber and space as well.
"The environment is fluid and we need to urgently review where we stand. Not just in the air but in the joint domains."
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.