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What does it all mean, and what can Australia do?

Senator for NSW and retired Major General Jim Molan analyses the new AUKUS partnership, and makes the case for Australia to develop a comprehensive national security strategy in preparation for increased greyzone conflict and war.

Senator for NSW and retired Major General Jim Molan analyses the new AUKUS partnership, and makes the case for Australia to develop a comprehensive national security strategy in preparation for increased greyzone conflict and war.

The last two weeks have been significant indeed for the national security of Australia, but the China problem has not been solved. Recent announcements are so significant that I have delayed written comment to give me a chance to put them into perspective. Many Australians are so concerned over China that the reaction to the announcements seemed to be immense relief that the government has somehow solved our national security problem, particularly through nuclear submarines. Without downplaying the significance of all that is contained in these extraordinary announcements and the visits to the US, much more seemed to be publicly ascribed to them than the announcements actually contained. Wishful thinking plus media sensationalism and ignorance was most unfortunate, particularly in relation to the submarines, because it clouds really important achievements and issues. 

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What is real is the leadership of the Prime Minister and key national security ministers. The submarines have dominated the popular narrative but Coalition leadership has led and will continue to lead decisively. The submarines are more symbolic of a significant change of attitude than they are the answer to the China problem. The government never claimed that they were, and did not mention China in the announcements, but the media and the desperation of many Australians to seeing this as the holy grail produced that feeling.

The submarines, technology access and missile segments of the recent weeks does not change the balance of power in the region, and it is the balance of power that needs addressing. Eight Australian submarines of which perhaps four might be operationally deployed at one time in possibly 10 to 20 years, even with Tomahawk missiles, will be a drop in the ocean in the first and second island chains, if that is where the media and some commentators think they will deploy. Nuclear submarines are a perfect long-term objective, but the China problem is here now and how Australia handles that will be the test. 

Of most significance is the refreshing of ANZUS with the AUKUS agreement plus the refocusing of the Biden administration on Australia and the Quad coming together. The Australia/US technology agreements, potential missile production in Australia and the usefulness of Australia as a location for US troops, aircraft and ship/submarines are also important but not the same as the mighty signal to China that Australia and its allies are not for pushing around. 

We are even more locked into the US than we were under ANZUS, if that was possible. This is not something I am uncomfortable with as long as we realise the limitations of US power and we accept our responsibility to be self-reliant within that relationship. Even after the announcements last week I stand by my assessment that Australia as a nation is still dangerously vulnerable lacking self-reliance and resilience, and our military, my home and my passion for 40 years, in relation to a strategic environment confirmed by government now as very dangerous, remains a one-shot military that lacks lethality, sustainability and mass. I support a stronger alliance as our only option given that we did not begin military and national preparations for the China Problem two decades ago. However, if we are in an alliance with the US and are therefore likely to be militarily involved in a regional war, we must demand a say in alliance strategy, something we have failed effectively to do in the last three wars allied to the US. No one is better to do this than Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The recent announcements ironically increase both the likelihood that China can be deterred from taking military action in our region and increasing the likelihood of a war occurring even earlier if China sees a window of opportunity closing. The combined potential powers of the US and its allies must make China think twice about the balance of power both across the world and in the region. But it might also make them think that if they do not act now, they will not be able to act.

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Alliance power of course has to be marshalled and focused given that US military power since the end of the Cold War, according to the US National Security and Defence Strategies, has diminished by 30 to 50 per cent. At the moment there is serious doubt by the US that they could resolve a Taiwan scenario favourably. In other words, the US is likely to lose a war over Taiwan.

Many forget that for any kind of power to deter, it must be real. The US and its current allies plus the Quad cannot marshal sufficient military power in the likely area where it is relevant possibly for years. Australian power to encourage and form alliances (essentially political and diplomatic power) remains significant. This was seen recently when Japan asked Australia to lead in the region and it was our political and diplomatic advocacy that prompted the Quad and AUKUS agreements. Foreign Minister Marise Payne has been shown at her best over these issues. But Australia now needs years to develop any military and national power that makes us self-reliant within these alliances despite the significant steps that the Coalition government has taken since 2013. We may not have years, and recent actions may mean that we have less.

The source of the China problem is China’s overwhelming military capability, its aggression and the lessening of US military power. China’s military power is popularly thought to be focused on a Taiwan scenario which envisages some military clash around Taiwan, a desire to re-take Taiwan based on nationalism, regional power and leadership of the CCP. To assess the efficacy of these recent announcements, and what those in alliance with the US are capable of doing, we need to contrast Australia’s recent steps with China’s likely militarily options. I addressed this issue in some more detail here.

In summary, option one is that China can take the incremental step of blockading Taiwan with the intention of slowly bankrupting the island and achieving China’s aim of reunification without fighting, while being able to withdraw if the situation turns against them. As option two, China can go for the big prize, the reduction of US power in the western Pacific by a surprise attack on US bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam (and possibly wider), forcing the US out of the western Pacific and consolidating China’s power at least in the first and second island chain, then addressing Taiwan. Option three is to do both, blockade Taiwan and then depending on the reaction, a surprise attack. Once the US has been forced out of the region either by its unwillingness to act in support of Taiwan, or because it has lost its bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam, China will dominate our region, and most countries, even perhaps Taiwan, will recognise this.

What is critical is the timeline. The PM has acknowledged in his July 2020 speech that war could occur accidentally at any time, which is a real concern. I have consistently made the judgement the Taiwan scenario is likely to occur within three to five years. The retiring Commander US Indo-Pacific Command recently said that we should assume such a war will occur within 10 years, more likely in six years, while asking Congress for funds to prepare, which seem to be denied in current budget negotiations. 

Given the announcements last week and likely timelines, Australia is likely to fight the China war with Collins Class submarines and will probably have at most only two available in the short term, three or four over time in an absolute emergency. Also given published project timelines, we may have a direct buy of some more advanced missiles, which will be very good, but unless Peter Dutton can work his normal miracles, Australia will not be self-reliant in missile production for this war.

So, if the China problem is so threatening and if we are so vulnerable that we must lock ourselves into the US alliance and perhaps a war over Taiwan, and plan to get nuclear submarines in a decade or more, why would China wait until the alliances come together and military power opposing China might increase. This is why there is a real chance that our recent announcements might increase the probability that China will move early rather than late. China would be militarily irrational to concentrate its first move on Taiwan only, without removing US power in the western Pacific by a surprise attack on US bases. And removing US military power in the region must be at least as important to China as Taiwan, because once China gets the US out, Taiwan is theirs.

If the China war has not occurred by the time we get nuclear subs, in one or more decades, the balance of power may have changed so much from what it is now that China may no longer represent a threat to the region. Journalistic musings that Australia getting nuclear submarines in more than a decade might impact China strategically, is fanciful at best. 

At any one time it is estimated that the US has 11 attack nuclear submarines in the Pacific, which could be doubled to 22 as tension rises or following a surprise attack on US bases in the western Pacific. If the operational concept that lies behind our nuclear submarine buy is that we will fight beside the US in the China seas and the first and second island chain as well as protecting the Australian mainland, then the increase in deterrence or warfighting power of Australia’s contribution of perhaps two more submarines of our eight is marginal. 

However, if our operational concept for our part in the China war, not just for our submarines but the ADF as a whole, is to control sea and air access through the straits in the Indonesian archipelago and the south Pacific, and along some of our sea lines of communication while protecting the Australian mainland, this might be closer to a more manageable and achievable concept and contributes significantly to the alliance. If we are clever, lucky and we have enough time, we can achieve alignment of our national and defence strategies with how Australia fights the China war (the operational concept) with the tactics of what our military power can actually do. It may be possible to lease one or two older US nuclear submarines (the Los Angeles Class being replaced by the Virginia Class in the US) but that is likely to give us a training capability and much less an operational capability.

To best prepare the nation and the ADF for what the announcements this week are addressing, the government needs to continue to act decisively in four areas.

Continue addressing legacy national security problems

The government should continue to address legacy national security issues such as skills enhancement, naval shipbuilding, anti-terrorism, cyber, modern industry, liquid fuels, intelligence and policing, specific legislation on national security, biosecurity (pandemic), Australian industry, universities, foreign influence, health and the basis of national security – the economy. Regardless of what I might see as additional steps still to be taken by the government of which I am a member, the Coalition continues as the “government of national security”, far more effective than any non-Coalition government since the end of the Vietnam War, and far more competent a collection of ministers as a potential wartime government than the Labor/Greens opposition. The government should not stop projects or development for a long and detailed “White Paper” approach to national security.

Determine a comprehensive national security strategy

The government should determine a pro-active, medium/longer term, comprehensive national security strategy, covering both the nation’s resilience as a whole and its defence, engaging every minister with their national security responsibilities and accountabilities. The classified version must be brutally honest but there must be an unclassified version that does not just engage the Australian people but gives them confidence in a secure future. The objective of the strategy must be to maintain Australian sovereignty by making the nation self-reliant and resilient in extremis, and making the ADF more lethal, more sustainable and increase its mass. Each of the descriptors I use to describe the nation and the ADF (self-reliant, resilient, lethal, sustainable and mass) must be judged against the kind of war (the threat) that the nation and the ADF could face over the next five to 10 years, not against meaningless generalities. 

This strategy must strive to deter action directly against Australia by China, even unattributable ones, in an enhanced greyzone period as well as collateral attacks on Australia from within a war between China and the US. Australia can do this by minimising the impact on Australia from such attacks which might diminish the worth to China of conducting them. If deterrence is not possible as may be the case, then Australia will be in a better position to minimise the impact of such attacks if it prepares now. As well, the strategy must prepare Australia to survive a possible withdrawal of the US from the western Pacific in the worst case, and the temporary or permanent domination of the region by China.

A national security strategy should give broad guidance to functional groups/ministers and may require the preparation by every minister of nested national security strategies for approval by the NSCC. 

Prepare for enhanced greyzone conflict

Australia is handling the current level of China’s greyzone conflict well with measures that lessen our trade dependency on China, stop the theft of intellectual property, recognise the link between national security and the economy as well as the compromise of our political systems and our institutions. A national security strategy is likely to indicate that Australia must prepare for enhanced greyzone conflict that is still short of war. Enhanced greyzone conflict may require the government to: 

  • Prepare for more lethal and unattributable biological attack, cyber attack and denial of space capabilities; 
  • Examine further anti-trade measures that might be deployed against Australia – threats that discourage or stop shipping to and from Australia or make foreign shipping prohibitively expensive.
  • Increase Australia’s liquid energy resilience by increasing the production of crude, our domestic refining capability, storage of crude and product, and the ability to move crude by ship, rail or pipeline from source to refinery, which may involve the domestic ownership of some oil tankers and rail rolling stock, and the construction of storage facilities for product;
  • Encourage certain Australian companies by positive preference policies because they are domestic and important for national security, not just judging them on “value for money” and competitive advantage;
  • Create and protect systems and processes for the modern mobilisation of the nation and to take advantage of the multitude of industrial skills and capabilities that need to be co-ordinated and focused; 
  • Set up a manpower and resources control organisation that can, when necessary, institute direction of manpower, skills and resources across the nation to warlike needs; and 
  • Support regional neighbours and allies against attempt to woo them away from Australian influence or reduce the effectiveness of alliances.

The above measures, if they were applied over time to enhanced greyzone conflict, are also applicable to wartime, and will significantly increase the self-reliance and resilience of the nation. Government would also be very wise during this period to agree with all our allies various contingent strategies and operational concepts, plus strategic and military command arrangements in the case of war, in the nature of NATO arrangements during the Cold War. 

Fund defence according to the need

Australia should never forget that diplomacy and alliances are our first line of defence, and the government is moving effectively in that area. Australia has a fine diplomatic record and has built a network of alliances and is working to improve them. We now need to ensure that our hard economic and military power matches our diplomatic clout, which makes Australia a much more valuable alliance partner.

At the risk of pre-empting a strategy, there are certain steps that could be taken to generally increase not just the self-reliance and resilience of the nation, but also lethality, sustainability and mass of the ADF. Australia’s defence capability should not be defined by its materiel, the amount spent on defence, or by government or bureaucratic spin. Our strategic environment now demands that our national security be defined by what the nation and the ADF can actually do to deter or to win future conflicts and wars. The emphasis in defence and in government statements about defence must change from concentrating on dollars spent, the percentage of GDP, submarines, ships, planes and tanks primarily, to the kind of wars and conflicts that the defence force, backed by a resilient and self-reliant nation, can resolve in Australia’s favour. This involves aligning strategy, operational concepts and what military equipment the nation is buying, but always begins with a definition of the threat.

Stemming from this analysis, the following might be seen as government priorities:

  • Establish a ballistic missile defence;
  • Develop sooner Australia’s lethal longer range strike capability that covers at least the Indonesian archipelago and the south Pacific, as well as a deployable strike capability that can reach even further abroad over a sustained period;
  • Increase the ability to keep key Australian ports open against the threat of modern sea mines;
  • Be able to operate all existing weapon systems at maximum combat rates for extended periods, backed by adequate manpower and logistics, the essence of modern mobilisation and sustained warfighting;
  • Harden key air bases to increase their survivability against strikes by the full range of China’s weapons, and prepare for dispersion of vulnerable assets, especially if we are going to invite US aircraft to deploy to our bases; 
  • Be able to move a limited amount of shipping around the coast of Australia for key bulk commodities and justify inland railways on national security grounds;
  • Understand the detrimental implications for the continuance of Australia’s homeland defence when considering contributing significant naval and air units to any US led forces in the western Pacific as war tension develops, which could result in the loss of those assets and a threat to homeland security;
  • Ensure that the ADF can function logistically (liquid fuel, weapons, missiles, spare parts etc) at combat rates for a period of time (e.g. six months or a year) if Australia is denied access to commercial sea or air transport;
  • Institute planning to increase the size of the ADF (in the first instance aircraft, including drones, and warships) in accordance with the national security strategy by procurement or by retaining assets that would in the past have been retired when new materiel was introduced, to match the tasks the ADF must conduct concurrently, so that the ADF is not a ‘one shot’ defence force;
  • Significantly increase the voluntary reserve element in each service as an indication of resolve, to increase mass and sustainability and to recognise that the defence of the nation is the responsibility of the whole nation; and 
  • Recognise that the cost of defence of the nation should no longer be based on what a government thinks it can afford, but what the strategic environment now demands.

If not now, when?

What does it all mean, and what can Australia do?
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