The strategic buttress of congested waterways and densely populated archipelagos of the ‘sea-air gap’ has formed the backbone of Australia’s defence and national security policy since the late-1980s – however, as the region continues to evolve it is critical to understand the role the ‘sea-air gap’ will continue to play in strategic calculations.
Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict at the behest of the US signalled a major shift in the direction of the nation’s strategic policy that continues to influence Australia’s doctrine to this day.
Domestic political backlash and a changing geo-strategic environment would see Australia adopt an arguably more isolationist policy, focusing almost entirely on the 'Defence of Australia'.
While Australia's alliance with the US further enhanced the nation's position as an integral US ally – mounting domestic political dissatisfaction, the new Whitlam government and the mounting cost of Australia's involvement in the conflict, combined with rapidly declining US support for the conflict, saw the nation's post-Second World War strategic reality and doctrine begin to shift away from regional intervention and towards a policy favouring the defence of the Australian mainland and outlying territories.
This shifting domestic and regional environment saw the formalisation of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy in the 1986 Dibb report and the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers, which established the 'sea-air gap' as a strategic 'buffer zone' for Australia, enabling the reorientation of Australia's strategic and broader defence industry posture, shifting away from what Dibb identifies:
"Until the late 1960s, Australian defence planning and policy assumed that our forces would normally operate in conjunction with allies, and well forward of the continent. We saw our security inextricably linked with the security of others."
Dibb's report leveraged the 1973 Strategic Basis paper's focus on the nation's isolation to reinforce the concept of the 'tyranny of distance' as justification for reducing Australia's interventionist role and capabilities in the region:
"Australia is remote from the principal centres of strategic interest of the major powers, namely western Europe and east Asia, and even those of secondary interest, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the north-west Pacific."
The 'sea-air gap' encompasses what has long been defined as Australia's 'sphere of primary strategic interests' – the narrow maritime sea-lines-of-communication and air approaches to the north of the Australian landmass throughout south-east Asia that served as the nation's strategic, economic and political links to the broader region, through what would eventually become known as the Indo-Pacific.
This dependence on the 'tyranny of distance' and Australia's 'sea-air gap' directly influenced the nation's defence posture and focus on what beyond certain specialised elements amounts to a regional constabulary defence force, not fit for the high-tempo and peer or near-peer competitor competition on the horizon.
Cheaper weapons and maintaining the status quo
Professor Alan Dupont, nonresident fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and a professor of international security at the University of New South Wales, has rebuffed calls made by likes of retired Air Marshals Leo Davies and Geoff Brown who have called for a renewed focus on high-end long range strike capabilities for the ADF.
Professor Dupont believes that the ADF, as it stands, is suitably sized, structured and equipped to meet the myriad roles and responsibilities the nation may require of it in the Indo-Pacific, ranging from traditional stabilisation, counter-terrorism, humanitarian and disaster relief, with a small contingent focused on high-tempo, high-end peer or near-peer conflict capabilities.
"Giving higher priority to great power conflicts doesn’t mean restructuring our defence force to take on a great power or policing vast stretches of the Pacific. This would be prohibitively expensive and militarily self-defeating for a country of 25 million," Professor Dupont states.
He expands on this belief, stating: "The point is the ADF was sufficiently flexible and multi-skilled to carry out a wide range of operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Indian Ocean to counter insurgents, terrorists, pirates, narcotics traffickers and sanction-busters. Even with a renewed emphasis on conventional warfighting there still will be a requirement to do all these tasks in support of our wider interests, alliance obligations and the liberal democratic order. Proximity should not be the only determinant of where we deploy.
"The ADF needs more land and maritime-strike assets as well as greater protection against missile and cyber threats to recalibrate for the challenges ahead. But the choices made must be appropriate, affordable and not be at the expense of other necessary capabilities."
Professor Dupont's focus on the status quo for the ADF's force structure echoes the claims made by the likes of Hugh White and Paul Dibb, both of whom have long advocated for the nation to focus solely on defending the Australian landmass and its immediate maritime and aerial approaches – negating the increasingly symbiotic relationship between Australia and its regional and global trading partners and the security of said approaches.
He believes shifting the conversation from large, 'big-ticket' items like the B-21 bomber toward the acquisition of smaller, cheaper and more accessible technologies, leveraging the force multiplying effects of unmanned, semi-autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence should form the backbone of Australia's future defence acquisition programs.
"There are better ways to enhance the strike power of the ADF than acquiring expensive manned bombers such as the B-21 from the US at more than $800 million each. We need to move away from big, expensive, drawn-out equipment purchases to cheaper, quicker defence solutions. It’s time to get serious about using unmanned strike aircraft in tandem with smaller, dispensable drones, land-based, long-range precision guided munitions and ballistic missiles all of which can be turbocharged by artificial intelligence," Professor Dupont said.
The long-range tactical and strategic deterrence capabilities of such platforms, combined with the qualitative edge of Australian personnel and technological advantages of these platforms, ensured Australia unrestricted air dominance against all but the largest peer competitors.
The rapidly evolving regional environment requires a renewed focus on developing a credible, future-proofed long-range strike capability for the RAAF to serve as a critical component in the development of a truly 'joint force' Australian Defence Force capable of supporting and enhancing the nation's strategic engagement and relationships in the region.
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 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 yield unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
Rear Admiral (Ret'd) Kevin Scarce also issued a challenge for Australia's political and strategic policy leaders, saying: "If we observe that the level of debate among our leaders is characterised by mud-slinging, obfuscation and the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of others, why would the community behave differently ... Our failure to do so will leave a very damaging legacy for future generations."
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.