Author of the 1986 Dibb report, Paul Dibb, has called on Australia to consider the introduction of a credible long-range strike capability to be developed and stationed in the Top End as the nation further responds to a deteriorating geo-strategic environment.
Growing concerns about the capacity of the US to act as a strategic balancer in the Indo-Pacific region have prompted emerging and established allies to scramble for continued certainty.
In doing so, this has paved the way for Australia to work collaboratively with regional partners and independently to establish a strategic umbrella to secure the nation’s strategic priorities.
Global history has been defined by the competing economic, political and strategic ambitions and the ensuing conflagrations of “great powers” as these interests bring them into direct, kinetic confrontation with one another.
These nations typically combine a range of characteristics that set them apart from lower-tier middle and minor powers, including a complementary balance of hard and soft power dynamics, such as military and economic strength and diplomatic and cultural influence on the global geo-strategic order.
Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flash points of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century.
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.
Despite this, the nation has at times exercised a degree of tactical and strategic independence within the confines of this umbrella, which 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 as part of the "Forward Defence" policy.
However, growing domestic political changes following Vietnam saw a dramatic shift in the nation’s defence policy and the rise of the “Defence of Australia” doctrine, which was formalised with the introduction of the Dibb report in the mid-1980s.
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, 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.
Now, in light of the rapidly deteriorating geo-strategic situation, Paul Dibb has joined the likes of Retired Air Marshal Leo Davies and his immediate predecessor, Air Marshal (Ret’d) Geoff Brown, in calling for the Australian government to rapidly overhaul the nation's long-range strike capabilities.
Speaking to Ben Packham of The Australian, Professor Dibb has responded to the government's commitment of $1.1 billion to modernise and upgrade RAAF Base Tindal to call for a renewed conversation and consideration about the acquisition of long-range, land-based missiles.
"We need strike, with significant range. Not short-range. The days of just sitting offshore are gone," Professor Dibb stated.
The Dibb report and a declining warning time
These comments come following recent statements made by Professor Dibb regarding the shrinking warning time available to Australia's political and military leaders, particularly given the proliferation of advanced, long-range strike aircraft, aircraft carriers and precision guided missile systems.
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 Kim 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."
It is envisaged that the $1.1 billion upgrade of the Tindal will position the facility and infrastructure as what Prime Minister Scott Morrison calls the "sharp end of the spear" for the joint US-Australia tactical and strategic rebalancing in the Indo-Pacific to counter an increasingly assertive China.
Leveraging the Australia-US relationship
Dibb argues that in order for Australia to fully capitalise on the broader $200 billion military modernisation and sovereign industry development plans currently underway, the nation should acquire its own intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) to serve as a potent deterrent against potential adversaries – leveraging the nation's 'special' relationship with the US.
"Modern missiles are highly precise but only when you have access to the most advanced targeting information in the world, which we do, through the Americans, Pine Gap and our Geospatial Intelligence Organisation," Professor Dibb articulated.
However, the rapidly evolving period of peer and near-peer competitor contest, largely driven by the US and China's clash of ideas has prompted many within Australia's strategic policy and defence communities to lobby government to seriously invest in the long-range strike and strategic deterrence capabilities of the Australian Defence Force.
Enter retired Air Marshals Davies and Brown speaking to Catherine McGregor in The Australian, who articulate the changing balance of power Australia finds itself neck deep in: "The force that we used to carry out nation-building in the Middle East cannot defend our sea lines of communication or prevent the lodgement of hostile power in the Indo-Pacific region.
"Everyone thought conventional wars were almost a thing of the past. That judgment now looks rather optimistic. We need to ensure that our air, space and naval assets can impose transaction costs on those who would infringe on our vital trading interests. That must entail investment in air power."
This seemingly global race, particularly the pursuit of 'optionally-manned' long-range strike systems, like the B-21 Raider, and Australia's long-range aerial strike gap presents unique opportunities for Australia.
The precedent already established by the collaboration between Defence Science and Technology and Boeing on the development of the 'loyal wingman' concept provides avenues for Australia to partner with defence industry primes and global allies to develop a long-range, unmanned, low observable strike platform with a payload capacity similar to, or indeed greater than, the approximately 15-tonne payload of the retired F-111.
The options – stand-off munitions
Meanwhile, the increasingly long-arm of stand-off munitions, ranging from systems like the Naval Strike Missile, the Raytheon AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon, advanced variants of the Tomahawk cruise missile all serve as viable alternatives for integration on Australian naval and air platforms to enhance the long-range strike capabilities of the broader, 'joint force' ADF.
This is articulated by McGregor, who added, "The former chiefs have added their voices to growing disquiet within the strategic defence community over Australia’s capability. Both say Australia may need to invest in a strategic bomber and drones to enhance the air force’s range and impact, along with land-based ballistic missiles."
None of this is capable without increases to the ADF budget, which is highlighted by ASPI senior analyst Malcolm Davis, who explained the need for renewed focus on the budget allocation for Defence to Defence Connect at the Avalon Airshow earlier this year:
"The government aspiration of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence is simply not enough any more. We need to look at planning our force structure, our capability requirements and spending on a number of factors, including allied strengths and potential adversarial capabilities, not arbitrary figures.
"It is time for us to throw open the debate about our force structure. It is time to ask what more do we need to do and what do we need to be capable of doing."
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.
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 air 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 to serve as a critical component 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 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.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will yield unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
Rear Admiral 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.