Trade and industry, National security | Australia

13 April 2018

Australia’s official justification for acquiring land-based anti-ship missiles appears to overlook some key issues. Greg Raymond takes a look at what other factors might have influenced the decision to go ahead with the pricey procurement.

Is there a political economy of Australian defence procurement? It’s not a question often considered. Certainly, as a country with enviably low rates of corruption, Australians are unused to thinking about their defence procurement in terms other than pure strategic need. But you don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to consider drivers beyond regional defence modernisation.

My recent article in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies takes a look at Australia’s decision to acquire land-based anti-ship missiles. It is a case that can be analysed in ways that go beyond the official 2016 Defence White Paper justification: that the missiles will protect offshore resource platforms in Australia’s northwest. This explanation, as noted by Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Chris Cowan, seems to overlook issues of missile range, as well as the problems of stationing missiles on or near platforms.

In view of this conundrum, I pull back from the White Paper justification to look at three other factors: domestic electoral politics, the influence of the Australian army, and broader trends in defence modernisation including the rise of anti-access area denial (A2AD) systems of defence.

More on this: Australia’s defence diplomacy

Considering these allows us to think about Australian defence procurement as a two-level game, in which party political interests and organisational corporate interests are given expression if they can be mapped to national interests.

That party political interests might influence procurement is hardly news. We hear this frequently in the media, most prominently in the case of Australia’s decision to build its next generation of submarines in Adelaide.

In the case of land-based anti-ship missiles, there is a rich history of calls from the Northwest Australia community and resource industry groups for a greater Defence presence. Most of this industry and community falls within a single Federal seat – Durack in Western Australia – which the Coalition government holds but where it experienced a reduced vote at the last election.

Successive Australian governments have resisted moving a Defence base to this area on the basis of the cost, with current force disposition considered adequate for security.

But the community in that region remains demonstrably uneasy. It is not unreasonable to think that stationing missiles might be a cheaper means of assuaging these concerns.

The second factor I assess, the influence of the Australian army, is easier to show. The army is on the record arguing for the value of the land-based anti-ship missiles for offshore operations.

Furthermore, the acquisition is consistent with the army’s championing of a maritime strategy as a means of transcending the role it was assigned in Paul Dibb’s 1987 Defence White Paper, which oriented Australia’s defence planning toward continental defence.

It is a matter of historical fact that the Australian army disliked this role both for reasons of status, in that it was assigned a lesser role than the air force and navy, and for reasons of policy, in that it remained strongly of the view that this construct ignored the necessity of continued expeditionary operations.

More on this: Missiles and missile defence in a nuclear Asia

Ultimately both history and governments fell in with the army’s view. The 1999 East Timor crisis showed that an amphibious capability was a serious deficiency in Australia’s force structure. And over many years, successive army leaders worked to convince governments that an army able to move itself effectively offshore could be a tactical and strategic asset.

To say that army sought to transcend the Dibb-assigned role of ‘strategic goalkeeper’ is not to deny that the army had every right to legitimately seek to alter policy. But now that Australia has acquired a serious amphibious capability in the shape of two 27,000 tonne helicopter carriers, it has also acquired the dilemma of defining what this capability will and won’t be used for. The potential operational spectrum spans from humanitarian and disaster relief operations, stabilisation missions, up to and including high-intensity conflict with a peer competitor.

This policy envelope remains fuzzy, and hence provides scope for acquisitions without a solid rationale.

The final factor that may have tilted the government and Defence towards this acquisition is China. China is increasing its capacity for projecting power at distance from its shores, raising concerns about what this might mean for Australia’s future security. Just this week, media reports suggested China is planning to establish a military base on nearby Vanuatu, although the Chinese Embassy was quick to deny the story.

At the same time, China is demonstrating what can be done to defend against approaches from the sea, using missile capabilities. It is widely agreed that China, using a combination of missiles, space-based sensors and conventional platforms, has developed an effective anti-access area denial defence strategy for its seaward perimeter that significantly raises the costs for an adversary wishing to manoeuvre close to its shores.

Acquiring land-based anti-ship missiles may be a step in the direction of an indigenous Australia A2/AD capability, something that Australian strategists Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith recently advocated.

All in all, the land-based anti-ship missile acquisition appears to exhibit a rich confection of different influences. This suggests that Australian defence procurement may indeed have its own form of political economy in the guise of a two-level game.

This piece is based on the author’s article in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies, ‘Two-level games and Australia’s Defence procurement: The case of land-based anti-ship missiles’. All articles in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies are free to read and download.

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