A number of pundits ominously warn we face looming environmental catastrophe. Yet others say it is great power contestation that presents the most imminent existential threat. Others hold to the view that the breakdown in global governance, exemplified by cyber attacks and violent extremist terrorism presents the most pressing challenge. So which group is right? And how can we possibly discern between them?
In fact, a spectrum of potentially existential matters face the nation and the world concerning all three, and Australia is ill-prepared to respond appropriately.
In order to weigh up Australia's options in addressing this array of challenges, a geostrategic SWOT analysis may help; that is, applying a business management tool to analyse internal strengths and weakness, and external opportunities and threats.
Internal strengths include: abundant natural resources; a strong economy; domestic political stability and the rule of law; an educated workforce; a multicultural society; a honed and hi-tech, albeit boutique, defence force; the nation's geography as an island continent.
Weaknesses include a complacency about security and our place in the world; infrastructure pressures and uneven population distribution; fuel dependency on oil refineries abroad; power vulnerabilities and underdeveloped solar and hydro assets; web-dependence and cyber vulnerabilities; and limited sovereign industrial capacity.
A number of external threats also add to the above.
The nation needs a domestic political and societal re-awakening to face the array of challenges presenting themselves. A National Institute of Net Assessment (NINA), akin to the productivity commission, should be established on a statutory basis, drawing on the research expertise in the university and industry sectors, think tanks, government and beyond.
Militarily, Australia's boutique defence force cannot sustain battles of attrition in any substantial conflict: a one-division regular force army, a navy of a dozen or so warships, with a handful of submarines and an air force of about 100 fighter aircraft simply cannot sustain more than the first punch in a serious stoush.
The navy needs to not only build its new fleet, but extend its orders for new ships and retain those we've been considering decommissioning, including the Collins submarines and Anzac frigates. The army needs at least an extra combat brigade. The air force needs more enabling fighters and other aircraft (refuelers, surveillance and airborne control), but particularly needs to focus intensely on development of a suite of drones to compensate for distances to cover and personnel constraints.
Infrastructure investments are needed urgently, bolstering resilience and utility of military facilities across Australia's north. Cyber force, domestic security and border forces also need substantial bolstering, much like Australia's domestic emergency assistance bodies - SES, RFS, police, paramedics etc - need to be better resourced.
Given chronic personnel shortfalls and a wide array of agencies that could benefit from extra people involved, an expansive and inclusive Australian Universal National And Community Service Scheme (AUSNACS) should be considered through which all young Australians could contribute. There might even be significant societal side benefits.
Building on the Australia-ASEAN Special Summit of 2018, Australia should strengthen and deepen ties with ASEAN member states, notably Indonesia, as well as others beyond that are willing to work closely with Australia to bolster regional security and stability.
Australia should maintain and strengthen its economic and security ties with the United States and other closely aligned states. Utilising its trusted access, Australia should counsel against adventurous US initiatives that undermine international institutions, but support initiatives that reinforce the rules based order. Australia's US engagement has a demonstration effect in the region, being closely scrutinised by the neighbours.
The scan of the SWOT provides compelling evidence that great power contestation, combined with looming environmental catastrophe and many governance challenges, presents the need for urgent and innovative change.
- John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.
- Twitter: @JohnBlaxland1