Acclaimed defence policy expert Paul Dibb, author of the 1986 Dibb report, has applauded the Prime Minister’s $270 billion plan to enhance Australia’s defence capability, but is tweaking Dibb’s Cold War-era strategy and applying new technology enough to ensure Australia’s national security?
Since the 1960s, Australia's defence policy and long-term planning has been based on the fallout following Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict at the behest of our "great and powerful" friend, the US.
Tactical and strategic realities, largely this 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 Australian 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.
It was this domestic political backlash and a changing geo-strategic environment that would see Australia adopt an arguably more isolationist policy, focusing almost entirely on the "Defence of Australia" and what many describe as "self reliance", which placed less emphasis on the ANZUS alliance.
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.
Despite the intentions of implementing the Defence of Australia strategy, in particular, the focus on establishing and maintaining a warning time, maximised by directing potential threats through the vaunted 'sea-air gap' and reducing Australia's dependence upon the US, it failed to deliver and only entrenched Australia's dependence upon the US.
Shape, deter, respond
The Dibb review has formed the foundation for subsequent Australian Defence White Papers, Force Structure Plans and acquisition programs since its inception, including the recently announced 2020 Defence Strategy Update and Force Structure Plan, which have subsequently identified three core principles for Australia's relationship with the Indo-Pacific:
- To shape Australia’s strategic environment;
- Deter actions against Australia’s interests; and
- Respond with credible military force, when required.
On the back of these factors, author of the original Dibb review, celebrated Australian strategic policy expert Paul Dibb, has entered the debate supporting the government's strategic reorientation, expanding on the three strategic priorities: "The 2020 Defence Strategic Update defines three strategic priorities for the Australian Defence Force. The first priority is to shape Australia’s strategic environment to ensure that we have a stable, secure and sovereign region.
"The Indo-Pacific is where Australia has the greatest influence and it requires intensified commitment, including with major regional powers such as Japan, India and Indonesia.
"The second priority is to deter military activities in the nearer region that are against our interests. The ADF needs stronger deterrent capabilities, including long-range strike, cyber-attack, and area-denial weapons.
"The third priority is to respond with credible military force when required. This requires improving the ADF’s logistics, stockholding, fuel supplies and military bases, and acquiring strike weapons, including possibly hypersonic missiles in the future."
While the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan correctly identify the key geo-strategic challenges serving to shake the bedrock of the post-Second World War order, what they both fail to do is to directly question and challenge the principles of the force structure established by Dibb, which continue to shape Australia's force posture.
This failure has a dramatic impact on the capability available to the government should Defence be required to conduct multiple, concurrent high-intensity combat or combined high-intensity combat and humanitarian, disaster relief and/or regional stabilisation operations – this is particularly relevant as both of the recently released documents state that the ADF will only see a personnel growth of 800.
Dibb explains the government's dramatic shift in policy and doctrine, yet fails to ask that critical question: "Philosophically, this new policy has been chiselled from the steel of geopolitical realism.
"It is a quite remarkable departure from the 2016 defence white paper, which lauded the rules-based order when that order was being challenged — in different ways — by China and the US. Geopolitical realism demands that we have the military capability to defend ourselves and to prevent any predatory power from dominating our military approaches, establishing military bases in our proximate region or directly threatening us.
"That is the central mission of Morrison’s new defence policy: his doctrine is that — if necessary — we can hold an adversary’s forces and infrastructure at risk further from Australia. This means we will have the capability to attack not only its military forces but also its infrastructure and logistic supply lines at considerable distance from Australia. It would make no sense to just wait for such an adversary by simply defending the continent."
Getting the balance right – the manpower v platform equation
While this shift is a step in the right direction, as previously mentioned it fails to directly account for the myriad challenges that may face the ADF and the force structure that has remained largely unchanged since the 1987 Defence White Paper despite these now well documented and articulated challenges.
What this means is that Australia's defence response to the rapidly deteriorating geo-strategic, economic and political reality is only half-complete, particularly as we seek to limit critical capabilities to an ever dwindling number of platforms that are replaced based on arbitrary assessments of the minimum capability needed to enforce the now defunct Defence of Australia policy.
A perfect example of this is the one-for-one replacement of Australia's classic Hornet fleet with an equal number of fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters or the replacement of six Adelaide Class guided missile frigates with three Hobart Class air warfare destroyers, which significantly impacts the ADF's capacity to reliably and safely conduct multiple concurrent operations.
Recognising these factors, does what the government outlined meet what it has set as the primary missions for the ADF? Namely: "The range of capabilities that Defence will maintain, develop, enhance and acquire under the 2020 Force Structure Plan will provide the government with a flexible range of options to deliver the government’s objectives to shape Australia’s strategic environment; deter actions against Australia’s interests; and respond with credible military force."
While many pundits will highlight the important and growing capacity of unmanned and autonomous systems as key force multipliers for the future ADF, the simple matter is that basing the force structure and platform recapitalisation upon arbitrary requirements and a now non-existent warning time is incredibly dangerous, particularly if government expects more of the ADF and the existing and planned platforms.
It is critical to identify, articulate and understand that powerful force multiplying assets, autonomous and unmanned systems cannot replace the key crewed platforms and the both hard and soft power implications of deploying these platforms.
So, with the $270 billion announced, are the capabilities and the manpower identified enough as Australia seeks to not only navigate, but shape a period of growing geo-political, economic, political and strategic competition?
Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
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.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever-present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.