National security | Australia

22 June 2022

Calls for Australia to achieve complete defence self-sufficiency disregard the country’s deliberate, pragmatic and fundamentally cost-based policy choices regarding the role of its armed forces over the last three decades, Charles Knight writes.

Recently, Foreign Editor of The Australian Greg Sheridan penned a caustic open letter to the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the Defence Minister Richard Marles, arguing for major defence reform.

He diagnoses serious ailments including the uncertain supply of defence materiel, but the crux of his argument is ‘Everyone knows we can’t defend ourselves, but no one in Defence ever says so’. This is stated as if that is a shocking revelation and a fundamental critique of Australia’s Defence department, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and all they stand for.

But this is not a revolutionary position at all. In fact, it is a truism. Australia has explicitly and pragmatically chosen to rely on a stronger ally for defence since Federation in 1901. This reflects the Australian public’s enduring support for the alliance and likely understanding of the reliance on the United States for support such as a nuclear umbrella, resupply of munitions or personnel and platforms to defend vast shores, seas, and islands.

That support is explicit in academic analysis, whether 40 years ago in Rethinking Australia’s Defence or in recent works responding to change in our geostrategic situation, such as Australia’s defence: Towards a New Era, Australia’s American Alliance: Towards a New Era, and After American Primacy: Imagining the Future of Australia’s Defence.

Rather than disputing or lamenting this enduring reality, Australian defence commentators and policymakers should acknowledge and engage it, and its costs and benefits. This provides a starting point for explaining how a smaller, professional, well-trained, and expeditionary ADF has defended them and Australia’s interests by supporting the United States and its interventions. This would better position defence policymakers to debate with critics the benefits of that alliance.

More on this: The price of primacy with Hugh White

It wouldn’t just be acting to save face though. It would also shine a light on its downsides. By acknowledging that Australia cannot currently ‘defend’ itself alone, those who rightly criticise the moral, political, and policy costs of enthusiastic support of the alliance might better appreciate its reasons.

Critics might be constructively directed to overcoming the political problem of persuading the public to accept the massive financial and social costs of apparently ethically superior alternatives such as armed neutrality. This approach will also make starkly apparent the serious risks Australia faces should its alliance with the United States weaken or fail.

In 2019, The Australian National University’s Hugh White wrote How to Defend Australia. The book is animated by his assessment that the United States’ military power is in decline.

Importantly, he points out that Australia in the past never intended to ‘defend itself’ in an absolute sense.

Even at the height of the Keating Government’s strategy to implement the 1994 White Paper, Defending Australia, the assumption was that self-reliance only meant the capacity to defeat small raiding forces and impose massive costs on an invader, not complete self-sufficiency in the face of a large and determined adversary.

Its authors – of which Hugh White was one – explicitly understood that any enemy capable of projecting an invading force against Australia could only be defeated with the help of the United States, and that position has not changed.

This is perhaps where disagreement over what ‘defending Australia’ means begins – and it’s where Hugh White’s book comes in. It systematically unpacks the issues ranging from obligations to Papua New Guinea to the impossibility of achieving maritime supremacy to secure sea lanes, offering a useful framework to describe what Australia can and cannot do.

White argues that, in descending order of priority, Australia should be able to defend the continent independently from direct attack by major power, deny bases in the inner arc of islands to its north to a major Asian power independently, and to use force to support order, constitutional government and internal stability in our smaller neighbours.

On top of this, it must be capable of making at least a substantial, and perhaps even a decisive or leading, military contribution to a regional coalition to resist major power intrusion into the Indonesian archipelago, and make a significant contribution to coalition in any major power conflict in the wider Asia Pacific.

The great contribution of How to Defend Australia is to identify for discussion that the first two items, the defence of the continent and denial of bases, cannot currently be done without external support.

To address this shortfall, White proposes greater self-reliance via a maritime denial strategy, which seeks to deny the adversary free use of the sea, that unsurprisingly echoes the White Paper. Its prescriptions have been hotly contested, especially on costs.

Similar massive organisational change and expenditure are evident in other approaches that pursue full ‘self-reliance’. In the 1980s David Martin championed armed neutrality for Australia, and recently, Dr Albert Palazzo has taken the same approach. While these approaches would not meet White’s denial of bases requirement, they might plausibly ‘defend the continent’.

Yet, to meet the deteriorating strategic situation, they need to be implemented soon, demand huge cost, effort and perhaps most important of all, require social license to succeed.

Indeed, has Australia ever adopted such a dramatic shift in policy before a war was upon it?

To get somewhere, Australia has to know where it is starting from. Perhaps the more important conversation is why leaders never acknowledge that the ADF cannot ‘defend’ Australia, but it is important to note that they were never asked to – after all, that is a far clearer position to begin an increasingly urgent public conversation.

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