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As threats mount, we must start taking defence seriously

As threats mount, we must start taking defence seriously

Australia cannot defend itself against any big, militarily capable adversary. Though we spend nearly $40 billion a year on defence, we have no serious capability to resist, or impose a substantial cost, on any big, powerful nation that means us harm.

In any conflict with a big power, any threatened conflict or even a scenario of sustained coercion, we are dependent on the Americans to fight for us.

The announcement that Defence Minister Christopher Pyne and Defence Industry Minister Steven Ciobo will leave politics at the next election demonstrates the chaotic dysfunction, churn, instability and deeply unserious way as a nation we approach our own defence.

Assuming an election in May, in the six years to June 2019 we will have had six defence ministers — Stephen Smith, David Johnston, Kevin Andrews, Marise Payne, Christopher Pyne and whoever Scott Morrison or Bill Shorten then appoints. Six defence ministers in six years.

Scratch under the surface of the serious people in our strategic community and you find deep concern bordering on alarm at our national strategic nakedness.

Michael Thawley, a former ambassador to Washington and a giant of the public service, came back to Australia in 2014 to head the Prime Minister’s Department. He has never before revealed that on his return he asked Defence whether it had undertaken a proper due-diligence study of whether it would be possible to lease nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines from the US.

He was appalled to find that no serious work had ever been done on this. Yet Thawley believes it is the only way Canberra could have acquired strategically significant submarines in a useful time frame.

We have designed our forces not to have any strategic effect independently, but to act as a supplement to US forces. We purchase American goodwill and hope they’ll defend us.

Nobody could support the US alliance more than I do but failing to provide for the growing likelihood we could face an emergency on our own is a historic, national dereliction.

The 2016 defence white paper pointed to our worsening strategic environment. Since then it has got calamitously worse, with China occupying and militarising the South China Sea. Beijing could now threaten any part of Australia with missiles and could probably get its aircraft into our airspace, though our small air force would contest that fiercely.

After Labor took our defence spending to its lowest percentage of GDP since the 1930s, the Coalition, after six chaotic years, has barely got it back to 1.9 per cent, still below the NATO minimum. And NATO countries, unlike us, are surrounded by allies.

We could easily pack a much greater punch, and likely deter any potential aggressor.

The submarine fiasco, under which we are committed to at least $50 billion for 12 French submarines which haven’t been designed yet and of which the first will not come into service until 2034 at the earliest, tells the whole sorry story of our national delinquency.

“I thought the Virginia-class was the only option with the known capability and a known level of expenditure which would have been available in a reasonable period of time,” says Thawley.

“Now we’re talking about the mid-2030s for the first of the new subs. Do people really think we’re going to be adequately covered in the meantime?”

Thawley accepts that it would have taken work to convince the Americans to lease us Virginia-class subs, and even harder getting bipartisan support in Australia.

Any maintenance on the reactors — though submarine reactors are small and generally don’t need routine maintenance — would have been done by the Americans. It would have required the involvement, at least in the early days, of US personnel. But, just quietly, that is often the case with some of our other capabilities anyway.

He also believes the Virginias would have enmeshed the Americans more closely with our security and gained the long-term attention of their leadership.

Thawley’s advice points up an exquisite paradox of our situation. To get any independent capacity to defend ourselves by ourselves in an emergency, and not just rely on the Americans, we need to get much closer to the Americans — in equipment, technology and doctrine.

But he makes a more profound point. The irresponsible neglect — my words, not Thawley’s — involved in the endless delay of the subs could confront Australia with much starker problems down the road: “There’s no question that if developments continue on their present trajectory, and if for example doubts are raised about the US commitment to extended nuclear deterrence, the choices that Australia will face to develop an effective defence force become more and more dramatic.”

As one senior figure put it to me, the Australian Defence Force resembles a stamp collection. There is one, or two, of everything and they are all beautiful. But you must never take them out of the album because they are all ir­replaceable.

With the French subs, Canberra has chosen the Rolls-Royce of conventional subs but been indifferent to when we get them. The subs are new, big, complex and an “orphan” class, so they will be late, over budget and have huge teething difficulties. The Collins is now an effective sub but it took at least 10 years after the first one was commissioned. Industry sources say we won’t get the first French sub before 2036. That means we don’t get the 12th until about 2050.

We are not, as defence planners sometimes do, preparing to fight the last war. We are preparing for the war after next, with no provision for anything nasty in the meantime. If no one causes us any bother until 2050 we may have a good defence force by then, if all the future generations of governments live up to today’s woolly promises.

This applies not only to the subs. For our new anti-submarine warfare frigates we chose a British ship which is not yet in the water. We don’t get the first one until 2027. But it is over the next 10 years that we could face the most serious threats to our national interests since World War II.

Our forces are too small and too diverse. As Stalin (paraphrased) said, in the contest between quality and quantity, quantity has a quality all of its own. Or as soldiers put it, 80 per cent on time is better than 100 per cent too late.

Senator Jim Molan, a former major general in the army, is scathing: “You must come to some sort of agreement about what war you’ll fight and when you’ll be ready to fight it. We have a defence policy but it’s not based on us doing anything. Our policy has always been that we’ll do good things with the Americans so they’ll come to our aid.” Molan thinks we would always be able to rely on getting US intelligence support, but logistics is less certain and combat commitment even less certain.

Putting the possible choices with characteristic bluntness, Molan says: “The Americans will only be able to fight with us if ours is the only war going on at the time. The Americans won’t be able to defeat the Chinese if all their F-22s are required in the Baltics, or if they need three-carrier battle groups to reopen the Persian Gulf. American power is no longer infinite.

“The Chinese could Finlandise (neutralise) Australia. They could do that in 22 days because we have no liquid fuel reserves. If we’ve got a combative Asia we must increase our defence expenditure. We lack a realisation in government that we might have to fight.

“Defence in this country is a joke. The Australian Defence Force is optimised to provide very good forces in very small quantities to the Americans around the world.”

Molan’s analysis is shared by many others. We are planning to get, eventually, 72 Joint Strike Fighter F-35s. Despite the nonsense campaign against them, these are state-of-the-art, globally superior fifth-generation fighters. But, given we don’t get our new subs until all our grandchildren are approaching retirement, is 72 enough?

Says Molan: “If you wanted to establish four planes continuously over a group of ships travelling along the coast, it would take 16 planes and 20 or 30 pilots. And if we’ve got more than 60 fighter pilots in this country I’ll bare my bum in Bourke Street.”

Most of our military capabilities are high quality but held in much too tiny numbers to have an effect. Remedying this would not take a huge extra effort. It would need more money and more discipline in spending and force structure. Kim Beazley, before he became governor of Western Australia, pointed out that when he was defence minister Australia spent 2.3 per cent of GDP on defence rather than the 1.9 per cent it spends now. An increase even to the effort we made in the much more secure days of the 1980s would yield an extra $10 billion, give or take, for defence.

It is the most foolish, crippling fiction to think we cannot defend ourselves.

Defending ourselves does not mean complete physical security in every circumstance. It means imposing hurt on an aggressor greater than the advantage they get by aggression towards us.

We need to rethink the force structure. We have Abrams tanks. These are useful for helping the Americans in Iraq. They offer no assistance in coping with China.

We currently have two Air Warfare Destroyers. These could slot into a US taskforce. It’s hard to see what independent strategic purpose they serve, isolated as they are.

By the way, Bill Shorten gets full marks for insisting on a 90-day national fuel reserve. The Liberals are insane to criticise him on this. They contradict their national security brand.

Both the Coalition and Labor leadership have fallen into the same strategic trap. They have fought and won the battle to sustain the US alliance. This is a critical battle and well won. But they have neglected to socialise their supporters into the idea that ADF capabilities are a significant independent factor in our national security.

You need a committed prime minister and a senior national security minister to make the case. Bob Hawke and Beazley were one such combination, John Howard and Alexander Downer another. Pyne is a good Defence Minister, energetic, impatient and demanding. But his tenure has been a nanosecond.

Howard, who is completely supportive of the Morrison government, nonetheless comments: “Part of the deal with the American alliance is that we have a certain capacity in self-defence as well as a capacity to act with effect in our own region. We’re a bit inclined to see the alliance as a comfortable catch-all.”

Though making no criticism of the government, Howard is surprised at the lack of urgency in the defence debate.

Peter Jennings, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, believes China’s occupation of the South China Sea has gravely worsened Australia’s strategic outlook: “It’s every bit as audacious and game-changing as what the Russians have done in Ukraine. The sea space (the Chinese have occupied) is about 80 per cent the size of the Mediterranean and they now have there fully functioning air force bases as sophisticated as ours, with protected hangars, missile batteries, radar sites. It changes our outlook dramatically.”

Jennings says we need to raise defence spending to 2.5 to 3 per cent of GDP. He favours buying French nuclear-powered submarines. He also thinks we need them much more quickly. The best way of achieving this is to increase the order from 12 to 14 and get the first two built in France, and the next 12 in South Australia.

Jennings laments our lack of strategic strike and reach. He would like us to invest in the US next-generation strategic bomber, which would be our first real replacement for the F-111. He also favours more stand-off attack and missile capacity.

Ross Babbage, a great figure in strategic policy whom Kevin Rudd tapped to be his chief adviser on the 2009 defence white paper, reckons there is a range of capabilities Australia should acquire: “We need lots of stuff and we need it soon, really soon.”

He has long argued we adopt an asymmetric force structure, as the Chinese have done towards the Americans, so we could “rip the arm off” even a big aggressor.

He wants accelerated work on unmanned underwater vehicles. He wants offensive missiles. The Americans soon will be deploying hypersonic missiles. He wants better missile defence for our deployed forces and eventually high-energy laser weapons. He wants a much bigger effort in cyber, creating a civilian cyber reserve from people in private companies with the requisite skills. He wants the long-range bombers the Americans are developing. He wants a bigger air force. Like Thawley and Jennings he favours nuclear-powered submarines.

Likewise, Malcolm Davis of ASPI nominates a string of priorities, including new submarines delivered much more quickly.

We know what to do if we want to defend ourselves. We could easily afford it. We have decided not to do it. We are a land of lotus eaters, loitering in paradise, unaware of everything that is happening around us.


Written by: Greg Sheridan, The Australian’s foreign editor, is one of the nation’s most influential national security commentators, who is active across television and radio and also writes extensively on culture. He has written seven books. His latest, God is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times, is a passionate defence of religious belief in a secular age. Before that, When We Were Young and Foolish was an entertaining memoir of culture, politics and journalism. As foreign editor, he specialises in Asia. He has interviewed Presidents and Prime Ministers across the world.


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