It's called asymmetry, stupid

How do you choose to fly overseas? It’s tight on Air Vietnam, but Saigon’s interesting and you’re in Paris after just one (uncomfortable) night. And it’s cheap. Qantas might be the unthinking option, but it’s none the worse for that. Or maybe you decide to splurge: business class, cheaper airline. The point is; your decision’s informed. Cost is a factor in the equation.

How about other purchases? I choose to spend a few cents extra for better quality work from an Australian Disability Enterprise or something produced by an Aboriginal business. The benefits are intangible, like buying Australian. I feel good and don’t mind supporting worthwhile endeavours. Just as you have when you bought The Canberra Times. Provenance is important – it’s worth paying for. These are choices that inform our decisions to buy.

Now let me transport you to a parallel universe where cost is completely and utterly irrelevant. Yes, defence. Many years ago strategic planning became removed from decisions about the equipment we should purchase. We (firstly) worked out a shopping list for how we’d like to defend the country. Then (and only then) we decided where to buy the goodies for the job. The two mental tasks were separated.

That made sense – back then. It’s a different world today. We were wealthier then: now we need to watch the pennies carefully. Other countries aren’t just catching up, they’re passing us. Indonesia’s economy will be bigger than ours by 2020 and this fundamentally changes the strategic situation. We can no longer pretend to be able to afford whatever defence we want. The cost of equipment determines how we defend the country.

Take submarines. No one doubts the ideal strategic requirement is for a big, Australian-built, missile-armed, conventional submarine that can sit in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for weeks on end. But the cost of this would mean we’d need to retire the rest of the defence force. This may be a logical decision if the capacity generated by the submarines means we don’t need anything else but, of course, that’s not the case. The financial envelope is limited and pretending otherwise is futile. So what gives?

Until now, nothing. Policy purity has dominated. There has been nothing more than the occasional genuflection toward reconciling our equipment ambitions to procurement decisions. Unfortunately our (relative, but increasing) poverty means we can no longer afford this approach. If we can’t make cars it’s ridiculous to subsidise a shipbuilding industry to make air warfare destroyers, particularly when there is another way. It’s called strategic asymmetry. It’s actually a far superior method of designing forces.

Go back to the little medieval town of Agincourt in 1415. If he’d had the chance, King Henry V would have invaded France with an army of armoured knights. Everyone knew these were superior to peasants; particularly ones equipped with longbows because they couldn’t afford armour. Yet conventional wisdom isn’t everything. Heavily outnumbered, Henry’s tired and hungry retreating archers stopped to form a thin line, awaiting the mounted onslaught behind pointed wooden stakes. The knights charged to be met by a cloud of piercing arrows searching for chinks in their armour. A couple of hours later the flower of French chivalry lay dead. The victory was decisive.

The English hadn’t aped the conventional military solution – they found superiority by emphasising what they could do better. We need to do the same. We already do. Look at the SAS.

John Howard didn’t have much to offer when he joined George Bush and Tony Blair in invading Iraq. Our tanks are obsolete. Our special forces, however, are top notch and so they formed the basis of our contribution to this unnecessary war. What use would an armoured brigade have been, or even a squadron of tanks? Don’t play the game someone else wants, do what you can. Reinforce success, not failure.

Western Australian company Austal make littoral combat vessels and sophisticated, high-speed catamarans for the US Navy but not for the Royal Australian Navy. Why? Our CEA radars are amongst the world’s best and the work  Saab has done upgrading missile defence on the Anzac class is brilliant. Why can’t such success stories form the building blocks of our strategic assessment?

The ongoing disaster that is Australia’s shipbuilding industry is the recurring disaster that has provoked this week’s spectacle. A frisson of fear shivered up the spine – or what passes for a backbone – of our coddled defence business with the government’s announcement that it won’t keep writing open-ended cheques simply to support Australian industry. That’s half right. There is no point in propping up inefficiency. But it is still only one part of the necessary solution. The ongoing requirement is for the services to discover a new way of fighting. Our strategy needs to be tied to what we can produce. If we can’t build tanks let's build anti-tank missiles. If we can’t build air warfare destroyers build swarms of light vessels instead.

It’s like flying overseas. There are many ways of travelling; the key is to choose the best way, the right way, for you. The new Defence White Paper needs to ensure Australian industry is incorporated at the centre of our strategy.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer