Sam Roggeveen, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute, has made an argument for a more restrained development of strike capability in the face of the rise of China and Indonesia, calling for an “echidna strategy” in an article written for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist.
In short, Roggeveen argues against calls from fellow ASPI analyst Marcus Hellyer to develop long-range strike capability that includes the ability to strike land targets deep within the Asian continent.
"My counterargument is not absolute: Australia ought to have the ability to sink ships thousands of kilometres from our shores, but we should renounce the ability to hit land targets at long range," states Roggeveen in his opening paragraph.
Deterrence theory and China
Hellyer outlines two forms of detterence in his articles; by threatening to punish them or by making it too costly for them to achieve their military objective. Deterrence by punishment would probably require Australia to be able to strike targets on Chinese territory, which China would be unlikely to believe due to the lopsided nature of the force that they could respond with against Australia.
Roggeveen says Australia in theory could go even further than that: "The political symbolism of military strikes on Chinese territory would be so dramatic as to almost guarantee escalation of the conflict by China. In turn, that gives China an incentive to neutralise those forces pre-emptively to avoid escalation. And because Australia would be aware of those incentives, we in turn would have reason to pre-empt the pre-emption, based on the logic that we need to ‘use it or lose it’."
This spiral of call and response that Roggeveen suggests is a surefire way of escalating tensions and creating instability in the region, not only between Australia and China.
Hellyer suggests having a strike range of 4,000 kilometres to be truly effective at creating a notable deterence effect, allowing Australia to target naval targets, airbases, logistics lines and key defence locations on the mainland.
"The capability needs to be long range for two reasons. The first is that if we’re relying on capabilities that can operate over hundreds of kilometres against an adversary with capabilities that can operate over thousands of kilometres, we’re unlikely to be effective because our capabilities will be neutralised or destroyed without being able to respond and impose a cost on the adversary. The second is that if we can threaten the adversary’s forces 3,000 or 4,000 kilometres away, it greatly complicates their operations and raises the difficulty and cost for them to project force against us," writes Hellyer.
4,000km too far
Roggeveen argues the 4,000-kilometre range is problematic and would create direct competition with China's 'punishment' force.
"Even in pursuit of a deterrence-by-denial strategy, just having such capabilities creates ambiguity. Our declaratory policy could be one of deterrence by denial, but why would an adversary take Australia at its word? We could use our long-range strike forces to hit an airfield, but we could just as easily target a dam or a nuclear power station, or a leadership headquarters," says Roggeveen.
Roggeveen suggest that having a range of less than 4,000 kilometres would lessen this risk of a missunderstanding of purpose and remove the need for the Chinese to trust that Australia would not use this capability first or in an offensive manor.
While this would lessen the risk, he still identifies that it is not risk free. He sights the disputed islands in the South China Sea as an example as they are not part of mainland China, however China may still treat them as importantly as if they were due to their deemed strategic importance.
"So even if we restrict the range of strike forces to 4,000 kilometres, the credibility problem remains, as do the risks of pre-emption and crisis instability," Roggeveen adds.
Roggeveen argues that any additional strike capability gained to face any looming threat from China is sure to have the byproduct of unsettling Indonesia.
He continues to say that Australia has been able to maintain long-range strike capability in the past through the F-111s with the knowledge that smaller potential adversaries would be unable or unwilling to do anything about it due to the lopsided nature of power in the region.
Roggeveen argues that this time of a weaker Jakarta is ending, "Indonesia will be a great power by the middle of this century, big enough to contemplate long-range strike forces of its own.
"Our objective should be to never present a threat to Jakarta which would require such a response."
Roggeveen also says that there is a sense among some strategists that Australia could never come off as threatening compared with other powers in the region, but there has long been a feeling of distrust, uncertainty, and sometimes fear in relation to Indonesia's thoughts on Australian interests and military strategy in the region. He also argues that we should be wary f loosening ties with Indonesia by presenting as a threat to them.
"We may regard those fears as fanciful, but we clearly haven’t convinced Indonesians on that point. Our long-range amphibious capabilities don’t help matters; if we were able to hit land targets anywhere on the Indonesian archipelago, it would make things even worse," he says.
"Our defence strategy and force structure should signal benign intent towards Indonesia. But that’s the bare minimum. At best, we should try to achieve a relationship based on a shared strategic objective of ensuring that China never becomes the dominant maritime power in south-east Asia."
He expresses the need for implicit consent from Indonesia to develop these long range strike capabilites if they are to be used as a deterrent strategy towards China without upsetting the apple cart with Indonesia.
We’re nowhere near that point yet, and developing such capabilities before the diplomatic groundwork is laid could make things worse for Australia.
Do we need long range strike capability? Your thoughts
It is unclear whether long range strike capability would even be particularly important. Even if we had the ability to strike forward bases within the South China Sea, it is unlikely to do sufficient damage to prevent any actions occurring from air bases in this region without a heavy handed response from China.
Roggeveen states, "We would be better advised to improve our defence force’s resilience against strikes from such bases. The amount of military power that could be projected from such distances towards Australia would be limited anyway."
He also argues that Australia already has other options to degrade the effectiveness of these bases to inflict strikes against Australia:
"We also have other options to degrade such facilities that don’t rely on direct attack against land targets. All of these distant islands need to be resupplied by sea, and that makes them vulnerable to Australia’s submarines. This would take longer to have a strategic effect, because the facilities are probably self-sufficient for weeks, but it’s less destabilising because the adversary will know that our submarines are purely focused on anti-ship missions, with no capability to hit land targets (to make this signal credible, we would need to deny ourselves the option of arming our submarines with land-attack missiles)."
By suggesting the limitation of strike forces to sea-based targets, it would remove part of the tension surrounding Australia's intentions as offensive or defensive both for a China willing to strike Australian interests or a weary Indonesia.
Roggeveen suggests that due to Australia's geography we should adopt this defensive echidna strategy, "which is unthreatening to others but which can hurt them if they get too close. Our defence strategy should signal benign strength, an ability to hold off an adversary but otherwise with no ambitions — and no means — to use military power for coercion".
"If there is a compelling reason to do more than that, it should only be done with Jakarta’s consent, and preferably with its help," he concludes.