Does Australia even have a defence strategy?

Show comments

There is less to Australia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan than meets the eye. The West, the coalition, the US, whatever, got its arse handed to it, in a geostrategic kinda way, and we’re doing the smart thing. Getting out before tragedy becomes farce.

There’ll be a good 40 or 50 years to mull over how yet another primitive insurgency laid their smackdown on us, with revisionist war buffs eager to point out that we didn’t lose any actual battles, only one inconvenient war. The 'what ifs' will never go away. Principally, what if George Bush jnr and his two closest goons, Tony Blair and John Howard, had actually bothered to stick around and finish the job in Afghanistan before tearing off down the Silk Road towards their next excellent misadventure in Iraq.

In the end, though, we’re done. A week or two after Hamid Karzai gets strung up or blown up by the Taliban, they’ll take over again. Either openly, or via some franchise operation. (Chances are, if Mullah Omar was ever foolish enough to move back into the presidential palace, he could rightfully expect to catch a cruise missile up the date the first time he bent down to smooch the ol’ prayer rug.)

Of more than a passing interest, however, is what if anything remains of Australia’s strategic and defence policies for the next 20 or 30 years.

Here’s a quick, very dumbed down, somewhat gratuitous version of the tensions in Australian strategic thinking. We’re a small, rich, technologically advanced and culturally European country in a neighbourhood full of countries with which we have almost nothing in common. Our relative wealth and power are in decline. Our major ally, likewise. The two oceans which surround our continent will play host to a century of hyper-power rivalry, with the US, China and India all manoeuvring for dominance.

Traditionally our policy response to these challenges, and to the bipolar environment of the Cold War before them, tended to gravitate one way or another, either structuring the defence forces to venture from these shores as part of an allied expeditionary force to meet perceived threats as far away and as early as possible. Think Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Or, alternately, to retreat behind the walls of Fortress Australia - don't laugh - structuring the ADF to be able to defeat a regional threat without needing to rely on the kindness of allies. This latter approach has really only been in vogue once, during the 1980s and early 90s. It came a cropper in East Timor when, after the unprecedented military build up overseen by Kim Beazley, Australia still found itself stretched to project its power just a short distance from home, with the passive if grudging acceptance of the country into which that power was being projected.


OK, history lesson over, and I apologise to genuine wonks for complete lack of depth and nuance.

Fast-forward to the present day and, after Iraq and Afghanistan, what we now seem to have instead of a defence policy, or even a debate over that policy, is an emerging consensus that no such policy even exists anymore. That decisions about the national blood and treasure are being made in the absence of any kind of guiding principle at all.

I’m gonna throw to experts at this point, because they do this for living.

Last week the Lowy Institute’s blog, The Interpreter, hosted a lively and widely unread exchange between civilian defence experts Rodger Shanahan and Hugh White, and retired Major General Jim Molan, my one-time boss when I was a baby research guy at Defence, but probably more famous for running the war in Iraq during one of its more successful periods.

Shanahan kicked off wondering about the math of defence equipment purchases. Why buy 100 Joint Strike Fighters, for instance? A suspiciously round number. Or 12 submarines, which, just as suspiciously, is exactly twice as many as we have now. The new subs will be much more capable than the already somewhat awesome Collins Class boats. (And yes, they are actually rather awesome, even if successive governments refuse to pay the real cost of staffing and maintaining them.) So why twice as many?

Hugh White replied that 100 of the F-35 stealth fighters matched the number you got if you added up all of our F1-11s and F-18s, at which point you begin to question the smarts of the people at the top of the defence policy food chain, who aren’t generals or admirals, but the politicians we elect over them.

White thinks the problem runs much deeper than numbers that seem to have been worked out on the back of a beer coaster.

“Here is Defence's deepest secret,” he wrote. “There is no plan. There is no plan for how the ADF will be used to achieve Australia's strategic objectives”.

Why? Because nobody we’ve elected to think about this stuff has any idea of “what our strategic objectives are”.

In other words, said White, we have NFI what the ADF is supposed to do. That’s why there’s no rhyme nor reason to the numbers of planes we buy or subs we build. “Even worse, it means there is no systematic way to decide what we need at all.”

(At this point I’m going to pointlessly divert and predict that at least some comments below will decry that there’s absolutely no need for any defence capacity beyond that needed for natural disaster relief. The money should instead be spent on health and welfare and edumucation. I’ll just point out that as big as the defence budget is, it’s dwarfed by the spend on those very, very worthy policy areas, not just collectively but individually. Defence gets $21 billion, which is admittedly a hefty chunk o’ change, but they are well shaded by education on just under $30 billion. They’re being laughed at by health on $60 billion. And welfare? They doesn’t even know Defence exists. They be stylin' it, dawg! Livin’ large on $122 billion per calendar goddamn year.)

As White points out, before we go spending those 20-plus bills on whizzbangs and killbots – Disclaimer: Hugh White may never once have actually used the terms whizzbang. Or killbot – “we must first decide quite clearly what we want the ADF to be able to do”.

And part of that is deciding whether we expect America to hang around. (Or China to get gnarly.)

Sweeping in at the death to throw even more cold water and gloom on the debate, Jim Molan peeled back the layers of White’s purely strategic concerns, to reveal the festering politics beneath them. He’s worth quoting a bit.

“We will not make real progress in defence policy until we recognise that governments (not the ADF, not funding, not the quality of the argument or the strategic situation) are the biggest problem in the security of Australia. This is because there is absolutely no incentive for governments to be any clearer on strategic issues than they are at the moment. The result is as Rodger pointed out: voters don't know why governments do things in defence so we cannot assess government performance and therefore cannot hold them accountable. Defence is so convoluted that very few understand it. Australian voters can readily see when things are wrong in health care because it affects them personally and they can vote accordingly. But because defence policy is so esoteric, the lag in cause and effect so long, and secrecy so often abused, Australians are forced to rely on the views of experts even more than in other areas. On the technical side, no government is expert to begin with. By the time ministers become expert, they also see the political benefit in not being open.”

Until governments are willing to be open about why they want to buy a hundred jet fighters or a dozen submarines, “we will never know if 100 fighters or 12 subs is sufficient,” said Molan, “because we don't know the answer to the basic question: 'Sufficient for what?'”

I agree with it all, but doubt that any government of any persuasion will ever play straight with these questions. Because the answers are too horrible to speak of publicly.