The government’s $270 billion investment in the nation’s defence capabilities has been described by many as a major step change towards the nation taking direct responsibility for its regional security interests but, is it really?
At the end of the Cold War, Australia, like much of the victorious US-led alliance, believed that the 'end of history' was upon us, that the era of great power competition had forever been relegated to the pages of antiquity, we now know that to be wishful thinking.
Australia embraced the potential and opportunity presented by this new future and the lessons learned during the Cold War, particularly the impact of interventionism and sought to capitalise upon its relationships with 'great and powerful' friends like the US to guarantee its security.
However, the rise of the Indo-Pacific, in particular the emergence and in some cases, reemergence of many potential great powers, each with their own conflicting ambitions, economic, political and strategic designs and often ancient enmities are serving to dramatically undermine the balance of power and stability.
The nation's approach to strategic policy continues to be heavily based upon the formalisation of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy as identified in the 1986 Dibb report and then enshrined in the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers in particular, with tweaks made in every Defence White Paper to date.
This largely isolationist policy focused entirely on securing the sea-air gap as a strategic "buffer zone" for Australia, enabling the reorientation of Australia’s strategic and broader defence industry posture, which now serves to leave the nation at a critical cross roads as the region continues to rise.
While successive Australian Government's have sought to evolve the Defence of Australia doctrine, the very premise of the doctrine continues to inform the foundation of Australia's strategic policy to this day.
Recognising this, Geoffrey Barker has penned an interesting piece titled 'Australia's new defence paradigm', in which he articulates a contradictory view of the nation's defence posture, at a time when more of the same thinking, based upon a benign regional outlook can be expected to resolve the current challenges.
Barker explains, "It is, as others have noted, a pivotal moment in modern Australian military history. The new policy marks an unambiguous return to the defence-of-Australia policy articulated by Paul Dibb in the 1986 defence review.
"It declares Australia’s intention to acquire major new offensive military capabilities and to use them to put the forces and infrastructure of potential adversaries ‘at risk from a greater distance and therefore influence their calculus of costs involved in threatening Australia’s interests’. That is an essential element of a sustainable defence policy."
This new geo-strategic reality, is best explained by Paul Dibb himself: "We are now in a period of unpredictable strategic transition in which the comfortable assumptions of the past are over. Australia’s strategic outlook has continued to deteriorate and, for the first time since World War II, we face an increased prospect of threat from high-level military capabilities being introduced into our region."
In recognising this now brutally apparent reality, is the Defence of Australia doctrine, which abdicated Australia's forward presence in the region, enough to ensure that Australia's diverse array of economic, political and strategic interests are protected during a period of mounting geo-strategic competition?
Credit where it is due
To its credit, the government's new $270 billion plan as identified in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the Force Structure Plan, unlike many others before it puts its money where its mouth is, it articulates what the Prime Minister describes as budgetary certainty and supports the ambitious, 'big-ticket' defence acquisition and modernisation programs identified in the 2016 Defence White Paper.
Building on this, the new strategic plans and the associated force structure identify some drastic departures from previous doctrine, something Barker explains, "Particularly impressive is the clear alignment and logical consistency between the revised strategic appreciation and the planned 10-year, $270 billion investment program, which includes long-range (possibly hypersonic) missiles, to improve the lethality of the Australian Defence Force.
"Too often in the past, bold strategy assessments haven’t been matched by appropriate spending and acquisition decisions. No longer: this force structure plan, which includes ‘offensive’ cyber space capabilities, and a boosted Jindalee over-the-horizon radar, will concentrate minds in Beijing and reassure allies."
It is also true to say that while the new policy identifies and responds to the "rapid deterioration in Australia's strategic environment" over the past decade or so, it fails to adequately adjust the size, shape and structure of the ADF accordingly – particularly as the US continues to flirt with isolationism and, the qualitative advantages traditionally enjoyed by the US and its allies dwindle.
Barker adds, "The new policy recognises and responds to the rapid deterioration in Australia’s strategic environment in recent years. It abandons the dated assumption of 10-year strategic warning time ahead of any major conflict and it calls out China’s so-called grey zone activities.
"Australia has now declared its willingness to confront and to deter Chinese militarisation of the South China Sea, its corrupt interference in Australian life, its disinformation campaigns and its economic coercion. Morrison deserves praise for his courageous stand.
"Of course, the new policy has evolved from earlier defence white papers and updates. But it just as clearly represents a new (or rediscovered) way of looking at the strategic order and finding policy and acquisition solutions that offer new ways of addressing China’s authoritarian arrogance."
Building on these points, Barker in line with Dibb raises an important question: "But the new policy does raise serious questions. Dibb has already noted that Australia’s new submarines and frigates will not be delivered until the 2030s while the strategic threat is current and real. Can we risk the wait, or do we need to consider some interim capability solutions?"
A basis for expanding the ADF and its capability?
While a contentious issue, expanding the scope and capability of the Australian Defence Force is becoming less a fanciful pipe dream and more a national imperative.
This is becoming particularly evident as the challenges to the nation's long-term regional and global national interests are challenged by totalitarian regimes and rising Indo-Pacific powers with their own geo-political, strategic and economic ambitions.
"The issue for the longer term is whether we’ve built a sound basis from which to expand the ADF, especially our strike, air combat and maritime capabilities," Dibb states.
"Having such an expanded force would significantly increase the military planning challenges for any potential adversary and the size and military capabilities of the force it would have to commit to attack us directly, or to coerce, intimidate or otherwise employ military power against us."
Expanding on this, Dibb highlights the need to clearly identify and articulate Australia's primary area's of strategic focus and long-term interests and designs for these regions: "It’s imperative that planning for the defence of Australia, and for operations in our region of primary strategic concern, resumes the highest priority. Re-establishing our foreign policy and defence presence in this part of the world is crucial."
Somewhat ironically, Dibb's statements from late 2019 seems to unpick the basis for the 'Defence of Australia' policy and its influence for Australia's enduring defence posture, force structure planning and long-term national security planning, saying: "We need to get rid of the 2016 Defence White Paper’s ill-advised proposition that the defence of Australia, a secure nearer region and our global defence commitments should be ‘three equally-weighted high-level Strategic Defence Objectives to guide the development of the future force’."
In light of this, can it be reasonably and legitimately argued that the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the Force Structure Plan represent a "new defence paradigm", or is it a case of more of the same?
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.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the long-standing strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
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.