What is it about authoritarians and military parades?
Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler all felt the need to gaze at tanks and serried ranks of soldiers marching past a dais, comprehensively overawing plumed and mounted French cuirassiers on Bastille Day or scarlet-coated guards on the Queens Birthday. On July 4, Donald Trump felt the need to crowd Washington's Mall with tanks. Finally, last week. it was Xi Jinping's turn. Some 15,000 (count them!) soldiers, 580 vehicles and 160 aircraft marked 70 years of communist rule by parading, goose-stepping, driving and flying above Tiananmen.
Nobody can be certain about exactly what this massive demonstration of missiles and marchers was meant to prove - it hardly represented any sort of celebration of individual creativity. Even when the tanks finally gave way to ranks of cheering women dressed in matching (demure) skirts and waving (faux) torches the message of the dominance of the communist party was hard to miss.
Parades are inspiring, but the secret of success is brevity and a light touch. Both of those attributes, however, were sadly missing from China's birthday procession. It seemed, alas, more aimed at demonstrating dominance and discipline rather than the culture and creativity that infuse ordinary lives with meaning.
Perhaps that's what 70 years of focused striving gives you. Economic prosperity yes, and very positively so, but a country where wealth is shared far more unevenly than most and one where the needs of the mass overwhelm the individual. Perhaps order should triumph, although such monolithic displays of uniformity don't suggest there's any place for the spark that gives meaning to life.
So what to make of this display, which unveiled startling new weaponry (although it does appear some missiles were, in-part, models)?
Well, or at least as far as Defence Minister Linda Reynolds is publicly concerned, nothing has changed. In a speech to a Seapower conference in Sydney on Tuesday she insisted, for example, that we will continue investing almost $100 billion building frigates and submarines, adhering to timetables fabricated over a decade ago; depending on processes and technologies that are rapidly becoming superseded; and completely ignoring the changing reality around us.
She's not that stupid.
Reynolds knows the current 'bible' - Defence White Paper 2016 - actually represents little other than a desperately amateur attempt to create some overhead cover. It offers little in the way of independent detailed analysis, representing instead a thin rationalisation of traditional force structure. It wasn't designed as such, but under the then minister it evolved into a temporary band-aid that covered a huge gulf in intellectual thought. The paper ended up providing justification for equipment purchases that simply replaced previous platforms. This was predicated on the assumption, ridiculous even then, that nothing about the tactical or technical reality on the ground had fundamentally changed. As such, the paper offered a sound basis for securing defence industry and built confidence in the government's strategic narrative. Unfortunately that's not enough to defend the country.
By the time of the last election Labor spokesman Richard Marles had been reduced to asserting, "we'll have what they're having". Defence had vanished from the agenda as a political issue. Reynolds is well aware that she can't risk startling the horses by noisily discarding these gains and starting again. But that doesn't mean she isn't working carefully behind the scenes to refashion defence for the current century, rather than the last one.
Turn back to that parade, with its startlingly grandiose portraits of Xi and gaudily dressed marching girls and boys.
The key weaponry wasn't the aircraft flying overhead, or the tanks passing-by below. The key to understanding this transforming of warfare is what's inside the missiles on top of the huge semi-trailers.
The DF-41 for example, a ballistic missile containing 10 independently targetable warheads. It flies at 25 times the speed of sound and apparently has the capability to launch counter-measures, including possibly decoys. It's the ultimate strategic weapon, threatening annihilation to any opponent.
Then there's the (remote operated) DR-8 spy drone, GJ-11 ('sharp sword') stealth drone, and DF-17 hypersonic glide missile.
Networking squares the individual capability of such weapons. Imagery is no longer dependent on satellites. Instead, a mass of drones would be used to pinpoint enemy forces - such as a US carrier battle group. Flying low and without traceable emissions these expendable weapons would provide an intelligence picture to the commander. The stealth drones would be sacrificed to eliminate air pickets that provide stand-off defence for the carrier and then, once its position had been fixed, it would be penetrated by a 'glide' missile. These would smash into the carrier so fast that the sheer kinetic energy as the weapon slams into the ship would be enough to sink it.
The ANU's Andrew Davies has pointed out that, ironically enough, it is the very speed of these missiles that means once loosed it's almost impossible to correct the missile's course. The fixed trajectory also means, theoretically, that they're vulnerable to lasers - as long as their path can be located in time.
The point of this isn't, however, to attempt to draw a painting of how the next war might be fought. That's futile. The salient issue is that change has been injected as an issue into the debate. It's no longer good enough to continue pontificating about platforms, like frigates and submarines. The world is changing, a lesson even watching an ancient parade can demonstrate.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer