18 Nov 2017
Preparing for the war of 2020
Two of Australia’s most respected strategic thinkers, Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith, set out a powerful case in The Australian last week to re-think Defence policy.
They say so much has changed in global security since the February 2016 Defence White Paper that it’s time to scrap some long-held military assumptions. China is at the core of Dibb and Brabin-Smith’s concerns. We shouldn’t rush to assume Beijing will be ‘inevitably hostile to Australia’, but a more assertive China with rapidly growing military strength means a direct threat to Australian interests could develop with little notice.
That’s a serious problem, blowing out of the water a comfortable Defence planning hope long built into White Papers that we would have up to a decade in which to see if countries were preparing to attack Australia. As far as Chinese military power is concerned, Dibb and Brabin-Smith say we are well within that ‘warning time’ period.
But Beijing isn’t the only focus. The two strategists also point to Indonesia – not because of growing military power, but they worry a populist political Islamism could make Jakarta a much more difficult neighbour. Australians should do whatever we can to help keep Indonesia on the democratic path. But hope isn’t a strategy: Defence’s job is to prepare for the worst scenarios.
Dibb and Brabin-Smith contend the Australian Defence Force is simply not ready, nor designed to handle the worst short-notice threats that a riskier strategic environment could throw at us.
Broadly, I agree with that view and in light of the dramatic escalation of the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea which came years faster than the best intelligence forecasts, it’s necessary to look again at whether our Defence policy settings are right. Here, I suggest some changes that government should urgently consider.
For some strange reason Australians are never happier than when fantasising that our Defence planners are getting it all wrong, that our subs are ‘duds’ and the F-35 jet fighters are vulnerable to ancient Russian MiGs. None of that is true. Dibb and Brabin-Smith know, and I can absolutely confirm, that Defence planners are deeply worried about the rapid deterioration in regional security.
The key problem is that most of Canberra wants to avoid a difficult conversation about China, presumably in the hope that Australia will keep getting rich if we just pretend that nothing has changed. The endlessly repeated talking point is that Beijing must cleave to the ‘international rule of law’, but as China’s building of air bases in the South China Sea shows, this hope is a dead parrot if ever there was one. The rules based global order is hanging on the rather fragile assumption that the US will still foot the bill for global security. Does anyone see a flaw in this strategy?
For Australia, a defence policy built around 30-year plans to replace our ships and submarines by drip feeding local industry does little to prepare us for the dangers we may face in, say, 2020. The government doesn’t have to start publicly discussing China threat scenarios but it should be urgently telling Defence to get the forces to a higher level of military readiness over the next two to three years.
On top of that list should be a plan to increase fuel and complex ammunition stocks. We can’t rely on ‘just in time’ supply of this materiel. For example the vast bulk of Australia’s jet fuel comes from North Asia. A crisis on the Korean peninsula could stop that flow. Canberra’s untested assumption is that the international market for fuel will supply our needs through any conflict. Really? According to official figures, in September this year Australia had a total of 19 days of ‘consumption cover’ for aviation fuel in country. In a major crisis, civil and military flying will rapidly come to a halt.
A second priority should be to rapidly modernise the six Collins submarines because they will be our lead deterrent weapon for any maritime conflict for at least the next fifteen years. This is budgeted for in current Defence planning, but it’s worrying that the upgrade might be kept too limited so as to push more money to the new Shortfin Barracuda submarines. Unfortunately we won’t see these beauties until the late 2030s, by which time we’ll know if Xi Jinping’s ‘China dream’ has redesigned Asia.
Dibb and Brabin-Smith have joined the long list of strategic thinkers (me included) calling for a consideration of nuclear propulsion for the new submarines. Officialdom seems too scared to make the case for, or against, nuclear propulsion. This leaves the debate to gifted amateurs, with their certainties about the bargain pricing of American nuclear attack submarines or the supposed attractions of small diesel-powered European boats that, in reality, couldn’t make an underwater transit between Adelaide and Fremantle.
It’s grandly claimed that submarine construction will be a massive nation-building project, but the Government and Defence can’t or won’t make the strategic case for the investment; or explain how the boats will use new technology like underwater drones; or publicly discuss a host of issues about one of our most expensive military projects. Nation-building in secret won’t persuade the public that all’s going well.
What should Defence do that’s not already anticipated in the 2016 White Paper? First, start working on a new long-range strike weapon able to replace what was lost when the F-111 strike bomber was retired. In reality that means cruise missiles that could be carried on ships and aircraft. The aim is to raise the risk for would-be attackers at significant distances from our shores.
Second, to support research and development for better strike capability, we should persuade Washington to collaborate on their new strike bomber development. A new aircraft is years away, but the technology development is happening now.
Third, we need to get smart. Let’s hand some seed funding to young, lateral thinkers to develop low-cost drones, swarm technology, 3D-printed technology, offensive cyber strategies – in other words all the areas in which the Canberra establishment is too risk-averse to see the potential. Defence needs permission to think unconventionally.
Next, we should decide to get really serious about how we can project our Army with amphibious capability. Sydneysiders looking at the ‘Landing Helicopter Dock’ vessels at Garden Island might be disappointed to learn that these ships have very limited ability to operate in environments where an enemy might be shooting at them. Did we really buy these behemoths just to deliver aid parcels? We should be working with the US Marine Corps from the (Chinese leased) Port of Darwin on how to more effectively project military force into our region.
The core focus of the 2016 Defence White Paper was about how to defend Australia in what the policy calls ‘Maritime Southeast Asia’, but what the rest of the world calls the South China Sea. That makes perfect strategic sense because the region is our economic life line, and the battle for Australia will already be lost if we have to fight an enemy south of the Indonesian archipelago.
One wonders if the Government really knew what it was signing up to in the White Paper, because the South China Sea is the area where Beijing is asserting regional dominance. It’s fascinating that both Australia and China have separately come to the view that the best way to be secure from external attack is to project force into Southeast Asia.
About the only point of major difference I have with Dibb and Brabin-Smith is over their approach to the Army. The two strategists say there is no case to transform the Army from a modest size light infantry structure into a heavier force with more armour. I strongly disagree. Every conflict in the last twenty years shows that unprotected land forces will be wiped off the battlefield. We need an Army as heavy as our budget will allow and with more fire power than anything we might expect to face in our region south of Hainan Island.
Let’s not be too despairing: after 20 years of constant operations the current Defence Force is the best it has been in decades. The force planned for 20 years’ time will be much stronger again. But plans have a habit of being mugged by ugly strategic realities. Greg Sheridan is quite right, this isn’t the time to luxuriate in writing a new defence white paper. The need is for a rapid injection of realism into current planning with a focus on what we might ask the Defence Force to do in the short term if things rapidly get worse in our region.