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Strategist fleshes out how Australia can ‘deter China’

Paul Dibb has provided interesting insight and detail into how he believes Australia can leverage key relationships with the US and other allies, combined with the acquisition of next-generation platforms to adequately deter China should it become necessary.

Paul Dibb has provided interesting insight and detail into how he believes Australia can leverage key relationships with the US and other allies, combined with the acquisition of next-generation platforms to adequately deter China should it become necessary.

Deterrence theory is as old as warfare and international relations. While the methods have changed throughout history, the concept and doctrine remains constant, albeit, significantly more lethal.  

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Contemporary deterrence is best broken down into two distinct concepts as identified by US academic Paul Huth in his journal article 'Deterrence and International Conflict: Empirical Findings and Theoretical Debates', which states that a policy of deterrence can fit into two, distinct categories, namely:

  1. Direct deterrence: Preventing an armed attack against a state's own territory; and
  2. Extended deterrence: Preventing an armed attack against another state. 

The advent of nuclear weapons and strategic force multiplier platforms like aircraft carriers, ballistic missile and attack submarines, and long-range strategic bomber aircraft, supported by air-to-air refuelling capabilities, fundamentally rewrote the rules of deterrence capabilities. 

Australia has enjoyed the benefits of extended deterrence provided by the global reach and capability of the US since the end of the Second World War and, in particular, following the end of Vietnam and the nation's shift towards a policy of continental defence. 

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For Australia in particular, the introduction of the 'Defence of Australia' doctrine directly impacted the force structure and platform acquisition of the Australian Defence Force, as defending the nation's northern approaches and the vaunted 'sea-air gap' became paramount in the minds of strategic and political leaders alike. 

"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," author of the 1986 Dibb report, Paul Dibb, explains. 

This 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 effectively limited the nation's capacity to act as an offshore balancer. 

Recently, Dibb sought to expand on the ongoing conversation about how Australia can actively and decisively deter increasing Chinese assertiveness against Australia and its interests in a piece for ASPI, titled 'How Australia can deter China', with a few examples of recent Australian progress providing an important clue moving forward. 

"Two important military developments recently should give China pause for thought. The first one is the announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison of a $1.1 billion upgrade to the Royal Australian Air Force base at Tindal, which is about 300 kilometres south of Darwin, to lengthen the runway so that US B-52 strategic bombers, as well as our own KC-30 air-to-air refuelling aircraft, can operate from there," Dibb states, setting the scene. 

"The second development is the announcement by the US State Department that Australia has been cleared, at a cost of about $1.4 billion, to purchase 200 AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missiles (LRASM), which can be fired from our F/A-18 Super Hornets and the F-35s when they are delivered."

These two developments form the basis for Dibb's designs for Australia's response to the rising power and influence of China, leveraging key relationships, high-technology acquisitions and Australia's geographic isolation to maximise its capabilities. 

Out of range, for the time being

Dibb remains consistent with his thesis that Australia's distance and isolation from "direct" challenges should serve as an insurance measure for Australia's strategic planning and long-term acquisition program. 

"The significance of these two developments [LRASM acquisition and RAAF Tindal upgrades] occurring at the same time should not be underestimated and certainly not in Beijing. Morrison described the upgrades to Tindal as being ‘the sharp end of the spear’ for Australian and US air operations in the Indo-Pacific. As ASPI’s Peter Jennings observed, the decision to expand the Tindal airbase is a giant strategic step forward and could be the basis for a greater leadership role for Australia in the region," he says.

"When the upgrade, including major runway extensions, fuel stockpiles and engineering support, is completed, Tindal will be the most potent military base south of Guam. And – for the time being at least it is beyond the reach of Chinese conventional ballistic missiles."

"The LRASMs will give Australia a highly capable stand-off anti-ship strike capability with much longer range than we’ve had before. Unclassified sources state that this missile has a range of at least 500-600 kilometres. It can conduct autonomous targeting, relying on on-board targeting systems to acquire the target without the presence of prior, precision intelligence or supporting data services like GPS," Dibb explains, however, recent Chinese expeditions in the south Pacific, in particular, has raised concerns about the encroaching presence of China. 

China's encroaching presence and the need for a new Aussie strike deterrent?

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. 

Dibb recognises that the LRASM acquisition is based largely on the growing concern about the decline in Australia's strike capability since the retirement of the F-111 and the travel times required of Australia's Collins Class submarines.

"This is a major new strike-deterrent acquisition for Australia. It reflects the concerns of the Defence Force about Australia’s strike capabilities since the retirement of the F-111 in 2010 and the fact that it takes time for the Navy’s Collins Class submarines to transit to south-east Asian or south Pacific waters," Dibb states. 

Recognising this, Marcus Hellyer, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's (ASPI) senior analyst for defence economics and capability, has launched a series of analysis articles, beginning with 'Deterrence and long-range strike capability for Australia', in which he begins to debate the options available to Australia. 

Hellyer's core driving force behind the radical shift in thinking is the fact that "we could no longer take American military primacy for granted".

This has been echoed by colleagues like Hugh White, who has called for Australia to plan for the worst, stating: "We cannot use such allies as a basis for our strategic posture and force planning. That is why I argue that we should plan to defend Australia alone. This might come as a surprise in view of the much-hyped network of defence partnerships we have built up over the past few decades."

Much of the debate surrounding the development of a credible long-range strategic strike capability, as formally operated by the Australian Defence Force in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, has been dominated by sceptics and pessimists, who albeit rightly point out that any such capability would expose Australia to unprecedented reprisal, should the capability be used in an offensive manner. 

"To paraphrase the sceptics, having a strike capability is pointless, and in fact self-destructive, because any conventional strike on a major-power adversary’s homeland would inflict minimal damage and be repaid 10 times over," Hellyer explained. 

"It’s a fair point, and one that I considered so obvious I hadn’t discussed it. I’m not saying we should get a long-range strike capability to bomb a major-power adversary’s homeland."

In recognising this, Hellyer seeks to dodge the reductionist, defeatist dialogue that has long dominated much of Australia's strategic debate since the introduction of the Dibb report to frame the conversation and capabilities up for consideration. 

Hellyer also seeks to expand upon the definition of contemporary deterrence theory as explained by Paul Huth to explain two forms of deterrence, stating: 

"The two primary forms of deterrence are deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment. The former seeks to deter by increasing the difficulty of the adversary’s achieving their goals to the point that they regard the risk and investment of resources necessary to not be worth the cost. The latter seeks to deter by imposing penalties. Those penalties could be nuclear, but they could take other forms, such as economic reprisals."

These points are reinforced by Dibb, who adds further options for Australian consideration, stating, "In the coming years we will need to consider acquiring weapons systems with even longer range. The US is developing a ground-launched version of the latest Tomahawk maritime strike missile, a boost glide anti-ship missile, a hypersonic cruise missile and potentially a Pershing III anti-ship intermediate-range ballistic missile.

"These could have ranges of around 1,000 kilometres to more than 3,000 kilometres. These sorts of weapons would enable Australia to strike at targets well into the South China Sea and the south Pacific.

"Some previous RAAF chiefs have been strong proponents of acquiring Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider long-range strategic stealth bomber. The project is still in the development stage, but the planes have an estimated cost of around US$550 million each and their maintenance costs will be huge. It would probably be cheaper and more cost-effective if Australia focused on long-range, land-based anti-ship missiles," Dibb explains.

Your thoughts

In the years following the end of the Second World War, long-range air power in the form of the Canberra and later the F-111 bombers served as critical components in the nation's air power arsenal.

Australia's fleet of Oberon, followed by Collins Class, submarines have also served as a powerful strategic deterrence capability while Australia has been able to ensure qualitative edges over potential adversaries, however, the economic growth and commitment by Australia's neighbours means that the nation's qualitative edge is diminishing. 

Additionally, the increasing power of cyber warfare and asymmetric capabilities will play an important role in evaluating, defining and developing a robust, multi-domain strategic deterrence capability for Australia. 

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 regional 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 and RAN to serve as critical components 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 Australias capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australias sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. 

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.

We would also like to hear your thoughts on the avenues Australia should pursue to support long-term economic growth and development in support of national security in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Strategist fleshes out how Australia can ‘deter China’
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