How to Defend Australia?

By Michael Shoebridge

Editor’s Note: In our work with the Williams Foundation, the evolution of Australian thinking about the evolution of a fifth generation force, and the need for enhanced Australian strategic autonomy have been the key focus of attention. 

Recently, Hugh White published a book which brings the question of how to defend Australia in the decade ahead into the mainstream discussion.

There is little doubt that the Williams Foundation work has provided a solid professional understanding and discussion of the core issues, but White’s work is clearly to be welcomed for bringing the debate into the mainstream of political discussion in Australia.

The core questions he addresses in the book are:

Can Australia defend itself in the Asian century?

How seriously should we take the risk of war?

Do we want to remain a middle power?

What kind of strategy, and what Australian defence force, do we need?

In a recent ASPI article, Michael Shoebridge provides his analysis of the book and the main arguments of the book

How to defend Australia sets out four strategic objectives for Australian forces: defending the continent, securing the neighbourhood, supporting maritime Southeast Asia and preserving the wider Asian balance.

To achieve this, Hugh White proposes a maritime denial strategy to stop adversaries—including a great power like China—from being able to send military forces to attack Australia. The strategic objectives are all eerily familiar to Australian policymakers over the last 40 years—because they’re based on our geography.

Australia, along with Southeast Asian and ‘wider Asian’ powers, now needs to factor America out of security calculations, according to White. And we have to pursue these key strategic objectives, some of which involve ‘substantial’ or ‘significant’ military contributions to regional coalitions, while allied to no one. Both are deeply flawed judgements.

Worse than this, White says Australia must be able to ‘deter or repel a direct military attack against us by a major Asian power such as China, India, or perhaps Japan or Indonesia’. So, we need to simultaneously arm against India, Japan and Indonesia while seeking to work with them.

Cobbling together ‘regional coalitions’ with partners of convenience who know you also consider them potential military threats is a poor basis for achieving security. Add to this the book’s assessment that China has the ‘necessary levers’ to prevent regional powers from acting collectively, and this seems a bizarre prescription for Australian leaders.

The force structure that follows this assessment would see the air warfare destroyers retired, frigates cancelled, the two big landing ships sold off, and the purchase of lots more advanced fighters to bring the strike jet fleet to 200. White is open-minded about whether the fighters should all be F-35s or a mix including more F/A-18 Super Hornets. What’s left of the Royal Australian Navy would get more light frigates similar to the Anzac class for stabilisation missions in the South Pacific.

The showcase item would be 24 new submarines more like an evolved Collins class than the Attack class now being designed by France’s Naval Group. The Attack class would be scrapped as too expensive, too late and with too much focus on operating further afield than the archipelago to Australia’s north. The submarines would have no anti-submarine role, but would attack an adversary’s ships beyond the range of land-based aircraft.

The Australian Army would eschew heavy combat capabilities and become a light force for stabilisation operations in Papua New Guinea and the broader South Pacific. It would have no role in meeting the four outlined strategic objectives or being involved in wider conflicts in Asia. White argues that missile-equipped submarines and aircraft can make warships or troop transports indefensible.

The idea that land forces could stop adversaries seizing bases and territories closer to Australia is missing from How to defend Australia. It should not be, particularly if our neighbours want more commitment from Australia than just using their territory as the place from which we defend against attacks on the mainland. Strategy is about more than fighting, it’s about shaping the environment so that war is prevented and if it has to be fought, it’s fought from the strongest position, with the strongest team on your side.

The approach also neglects the threat environment that ‘light expeditionary forces’ may face in undertaking stabilisation operations.

White makes strong points in his criticism of the small numbers of complex, expensive weapons that Australia is acquiring. It’s true that surface warships now need to use a lot of their systems for self-defence against missile and submarine attack, and so have less offensive firepower than would seem to give a good return on investment. And he’s right that value for money of spending $50 billion for the developmental and still-a-long-way-off Attack-class submarines, equipped with small numbers of torpedoes, is questionable.

But his prescriptions don’t seem radically different on these value-for-money issues. He’s doubtful of the power of emerging capabilities like autonomous systems and, besides, they’ll be expensive. I think he undervalues the power of some of these new capabilities, and discounts the ability to acquire them much more cheaply than manned alternatives. The future Royal Australian Air Force would be broadly more of the same, supplemented by even more information and intelligence systems, and advanced missiles.

Where the forces would differ to now is in giving up on anything other than sinking ships and shooting down aircraft on their way to Australia, supplemented, perhaps, by attacking bases that support such an endeavour—unless that will make the bases’ owner very unhappy.

That leaves a big vulnerability in the plan. Maritime denial is all about preventing forces from attacking us. None of White’s proposed force structure seems well-placed to protect shipping and aircraft bringing what our economy would need to sustain a conflict lasting more than a couple of weeks.

Fuel’s an obvious example. If we can’t protect shipping against submarine, surface ship, aircraft and missile attack, we’ll run out of fuel in around 25 days. Australia needs to be able to defend its long international supply chains.

White argues the best path is to attack the adversary’s trade, and to stockpile loads of stuff. He pretends that this will be enough in the case of every adversary, as all have trade dependencies. But China could sustain a conflict longer than we could despite Australia’s best efforts to attack its supply lines.

I think he knows his ‘solution’ here is no answer, as he volunteers that Australia ‘could not maintain its sea lines of communication with allies and suppliers’ and this ‘is a reality we have to live with’. It’s a reality to live with and lose by if we adopt these plans. I’m also not sure who these allies are in White’s world.

White’s contention that his force structure proposals could be paid for by a defence budget amounting 3.5% or 4% of GDP is nonsensical. That’s partly because the cost of sustaining capabilities in the much deeper local way he proposes would require a radical re-engineering of the economy and workforce. And because of the considerably higher costs of sustaining and operating the myriad systems on his menu without the access to US data, logistics, capabilities and intelligence we now have. Our access through the alliance is uniquely deep and adds considerably to our defence capabilities.

As an example, the F-35 and other high-technology US systems like the EA-18 Growler aircraft are software dependent, with Australian ability to sustain them reliant on updates from the US. Removing this dependency is probably not feasible from a technical or capability perspective. His calculations are wobbly on whole-of-life costs for major platforms, but this is a minor detail given the flawed conceptual architecture.

My view is that the front-end strategic assessment that leads White to his conclusions is wrong.

Australia needn’t live in an Asia without American power and we shouldn’t plan for powers like India, Indonesia and Japan to be both adversaries and partners.

If we had to do so, we’d need a different plan to the one White proposes in How to defend Australia.

Michael Shoebridge is director of the defence and strategy program at ASPI.