Cracks in Australian defence policy can’t be papered over

Author: Richard Brabin-Smith, ANU

How much did defence feature in Australia’s May 2019 general election? Not a lot. But if Australia is to have a solid defence posture in the Indo-Pacific, the Coalition government’s policies need to be brought up to date.

Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks during a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Australia's Defence Minister Linda Reynolds in Sydney, Australia, 4 August 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Pool).

The first challenge for the re-elected Morrison government is to recognise how much Australia’s strategic circumstances have changed — and that this is only the beginning. Gone is the comfortable strategic environment of previous decades, when it was sufficient for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to be a ‘core force and expansion base’, with much latent potential but only modest immediate capacity.

Previous defence policies rested heavily on the conclusion that no country in our broader region had the military capacity to do Australia any serious harm, and that it would take a decade or more for such capabilities to be developed. This would give Australia years of potential warning time for more intense levels of conflict, providing a reassuring strategic buffer, and allowing relatively modest levels of defence expenditure. In contrast, today Australia faces the growing economic and military strength of China.

The development of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) maritime and strike capabilities represents a significant deterioration in Australia’s strategic prospects. There is now a nation in the region with serious offensive strength that will only continue to grow.

In addition to assessing levels of capability, Australia’s approach to strategic risk management must now rest more heavily on assessments of motive and intent. The key point is that it is much more difficult to be confident about such judgements than about assessments of capability. Further and given an issue of sufficient weight, motive and intent can change quickly, making risk management more demanding and the consequences of inaccuracy more severe.

It is important not to take the easy way out and automatically to vilify China in assessments of strategic risk. But it would also be irresponsible to ignore China’s attitudes and actions in East Asia and the South China Sea. Beijing’s evident ambitions for expanding its influence within and beyond its immediate region — not least through the Belt and Road Initiative and its growing presence in the South Pacific — indicate a clear contrast between China’s and Australia’s social and political values.

Concern about China is complemented in the minds of many by uncertainties about the future commitment of the United States to its allies in the Asia Pacific, and the direction of its relationship with China. There is a wide spectrum of views on the durability of the US presence in the region and the consequences for Australia’s own security. Examples include Hugh White’s How to Defend Australia, the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre’s After American Primacy, and Charles Edel and John Lee’s The Future of the US-Australia Alliance in an Era of Great Power Competition. This diversity of opinion illustrates the difficulty of drawing convincing conclusions for Australian defence policy.

Still, some conclusions can already be drawn. Because of potentially shortened warning times, there is a clear need in the immediate term to increase the readiness and sustainability of the ADF and other security-related agencies. Example areas of concern include ADF training levels, stocks of missiles and torpedoes, holdings of maintenance spares, fuel stocks and the ability to sustain operations for weeks or months.

Beyond the immediate term, there is a need for serious study of how Australia will ensure the timely expansion of the ADF, particularly in a time of strategic ambiguity. The Department of Defence’s current study on mobilisation will be important here. Issues include whether current plans for the development of the ADF will prove timely and adequate, especially for strike and deterrence forces.

It is important to recognise the new Minister for Defence, Senator Linda Reynolds. She comes with an impressive career in the Army Reserve, having reached the rank of brigadier. While her army background is unlikely to have given her much exposure to strategic issues, she is clearly not a novice in defence matters. Much will rest on the ability of the Defence Secretary and the Chief of the Defence Force to persuade the Minister that the government’s defence policies need serious revision. After that, reform will rest on the Minister’s ability similarly to persuade her cabinet colleagues.

The sting will be the extra costs involved, especially at a time when the public’s main concerns lie elsewhere. Defence is low on the list of voter priorities. Still, if the new minister proves able to make her case, perhaps we will see a new Defence White Paper. This would be most welcome, as the 2016 Defence White Paper is conspicuously out of date. It can barely paper over the cracks that have already appeared in the strategic environment.

Dr Richard Brabin-Smith AO is Honorary Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He is a former deputy secretary for strategic policy at the Department of Defence and former chief defence scientist.