Both the Defence of Australia doctrine and the sea-air gap stress the importance of “warning time” forming the basis of Australia’s response to regional hostilities. For former defence minister Kim Beazley and strategic policy analyst Paul Dibb, the rise of China means this is changing.
Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flashpoints 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 since the end of World War Two.
Tactical and strategic realities, largely the nation’s dependence on a “great power” benefactor, have ensured that Australia and its regional neighbours have enjoyed the stability afforded to them by the strategic umbrella of the UK prior to the Second World War and the US in the aftermath.
A central part of this balance between tactical independence and strategic dependence on a great power benefactor served as the underpinning of the nation’s strategic doctrine and policy since Federation, while the Forward Defence policy sought to establish Australia’s sphere of influence and some form of strategic umbrella in the aftermath of the Second World War.
This approach, combined with platforms and a public memory of the direct Japanese threat to the mainland, empowered Australia to directly engage in regional strategic and security affairs, actively deterring aggression and hostility in Malaya during the Konfrontasi and communist aggression in Korea and Vietnam.
However, the nation’s disastrous involvement in the Vietnam conflict at the behest of the US and the ensuing political backlash, combined with the changing geostrategic environment, signalled a major shift in the direction of the nation’s strategic policy that continues to influence Australia’s doctrine to this day.
The advent of the Defence of Australia doctrine advocated for the retreat of Australia’s forward military presence in the Indo-Pacific and a focus on the defence of the Australian continent and its direct approaches, known as the sea-air gap, effectively limiting the nation’s capacity to act as an offshore balancer.
Many would rightfully argue that following the relative decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of American hegemony throughout the world, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, this was a prudent step as Australia positioned itself as a key benefactor of the American peace, with minor constabulary responsibilities.
This shift towards focusing on the direct defence of the Australian mainland dramatically altered the nation’s approach to intervention in subsequent regional security matters. These included Australia’s intervention in East Timor and later, to a lesser extent, in the Solomon Islands and Fiji during the early to mid-2000s.
Each of these missions were further followed by subsequent humanitarian and disaster relief deployments throughout the region, each stretching the Australian Defence Force’s capacity to juggle multiple concurrent operations.
However, the rise of China as a peer or near-peer competitor, driven by an unprecedented economic miracle and corresponding military build-up and overt pursuit of its territorial ambitions, coupled with the relative decline of the US as a reliable tactical and strategic benefactor, has caught many Indo-Pacific nations off guard.
The changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, namely on the back of increasing Chinese assertiveness, has drawn extensive commentary from across Australia’s political and strategic policy-making community.
Now, former defence minister Kim Beazley and Paul Dibb, author of the Dibb Report, which oversaw the first major force structure, doctrine and acquisition plans for the Australian Defence Force since the Second World War, have discussed the new paradigm the nation finds itself in.
The Dibb report and a declining warning time
The formalisation of the Defence of Australia doctrine in the 1986 Dibb Report and the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers 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 identified:
“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 primary “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.
The very premise of the sea-air gap focuses on the tactical and strategic warning time Australia would enjoy should it find itself under direct attack; however, in a discussion for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, both Beazley and Dibb identified that this tactical and strategic advantage is rapidly eroding in the face of great power competition, led by China and Russia.
This is something Dibb articulated clearly in a supporting piece for ASPI, titled “Australia's management of strategic risk in the new era”, where both Dibb and colleague Richard Brabin-Smith articulated:
“China’s economic and political influence continues to grow, and its program of military modernisation and expansion is ambitious. The latter means that the comfortable judgements of previous years about the limited levels of capability within our region are no longer appropriate.
“The potential warning time is now shorter, because capability levels are higher and will increase yet further. This observation applies both to shorter-term contingencies and, increasingly, to more serious contingencies credible in the foreseeable future.”
Building on this, both Beazley and Dibb concur that Australia’s long-held belief that Australia’s isolation will provide a degree of protection is now little more than a pipe dream, particularly in an era of great power rivalry and technological and capability disruption.
Towards forward defence in depth?
As the nation embarks on its largest peace time modernisation and recapitalisation of the Australian Defence Force, the 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP) moved quickly to recognise the rapidly evolving nature of the economic, political and strategic status quo of the Indo-Pacific – the DWP correctly identified:
“Australia’s strategic outlook to 2035 also includes a number of challenges which we need to prepare for. While there is no more than a remote prospect of a military attack by another country on Australian territory in the foreseeable future, our strategic planning is not limited to defending our borders.
“Our planning recognises the regional and global nature of Australia’s strategic interests and the different sets of challenges created by the behaviours of countries and non-state actors such as terrorists.”
Both of these statements clearly identify a shift in the nation’s attitude towards the Indo-Pacific, while also recognising that the nation can no longer depend on buffer zones or strategic moats like the sea-air gap to serve as the basis for protecting the nation and its interests, particularly as the world and the Indo-Pacific continue to integrate.
The growing capability of China’s military, namely advances in long-range strike platforms, have long been identified by Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, as evidence for the nation to embrace a new doctrine of Forward Defence in Depth.
Dr Davis explained, “Given the risk a forward Chinese military presence would pose, Australia needs to consider updating its military strategy to one of ‘forward defence in depth’ throughout Indo-Pacific Asia, including into the south Pacific. Australia should not maintain a reactive military strategy that continues to rest on foundations established in the mid-1980s when our strategic outlook was far more benign.”
On the back of this, Dr Davis identified the core of the Forward Defence in Depth doctrine, with a focus on three strategic defence objectives, namely:
- Deter, deny and defeat attacks on or threats to Australia and its national interests, including incursions into its air, sea and northern approaches;
- Make effective military contributions to support the security of maritime south-east Asia and support the governments of Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Pacific island countries to build and strengthen their security; and
- Contribute military capabilities to global operations that support Australia’s interests in a rules-based international order.
“Forward Defence in Depth would integrate the first objective – essentially the ‘defence of Australia’ mission – with the second objective by giving the ADF a far more visible and regular role throughout maritime south-east Asia and the south Pacific. In doing so, we’d extend our defence in depth far forward rather than basing the defence of Australia task on being able to defend a comparatively narrow strategic moat that is the sea-air gap,” Dr Davis identified.
“The third objective – more far-flung operations in support of a global rules-based order – should be prioritised to contingencies across the Indo-Pacific region. The objective of forward defence in depth is to expand our regular military presence and meet any threats that emerge much further from Australia’s shores.”
Dr Davis summarised the predicament perfectly when he told Defence Connect: “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.”
Australia 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.
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”.