Anchoring a Way Ahead for Indo-Pacific Defence

By John Blaxland

In Australia and Indo-Pacific Defence: Anchoring a Way Ahead, author and editor of over thirty books, Robbin Laird, brings to bear his expertise on defence and security affairs to make sense of contemporary Australian international security and defence policy. This is his third book focused on Australian defence. It reveals the sharp mind of a person very well connected in Australian defence policy, academic and military practitioner circles. Laird has expertly sought to engage with and understand perspectives of Australian defence and security experts, many of whom are associated with the Williams Foundation, a not-for-profit Australian organisation established to advocate for the appropriate development and use of airpower, along with the other services, in defence of Australia and its interests.

This book echoes the work of the Williams Foundation which has encompassed reforms underway affecting the application not just of airpower, but also capabilities that apply to the maritime, land, space and cyber domains. It addresses the challenges of force modernisation and transformation in the context of fluctuating great power relativities (notably with the rise of an assertive and more confrontational China) in a dynamic Indo-Pacific region, at a time of significant policy initiatives affecting Australia and its place in the world. These initiatives notably include Australia’s 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR) and the implementation of the Australia, United Kingdom United States (AUKUS) advanced technical sharing agreement, helping Australia to acquire nuclear propulsion submarines and other advanced military capabilities.

Laird taps into the insights of a wide range of defence and security experts including Marcus Hellyer, Andrew Shoebridge, Peter Jennings (formerly with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, or ASPI); Andrew Dowse (RAND Australia); Andrew Carr, Stephan Fruehling, Paul Dibb, Richard Brabin-Smith, the late Brendan Sargeant, Alan Dupont, Ross Babbage and this writer (currently from or previously with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, or SDSC, at the Australian National University).  Others scholars consulted include Harald Malmgren and Nicholas Linsman.

The perspectives of a significant number of current and former service personnel are woven into the narrative as well. These include Robert Chipman, John Blackburn, Darren Goldie, John Harvey and Michael Kitcher from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF); Tim Barrett and Darron Kavanagh from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN); Simon Stuart, Anthony Rawlins and David Beaumont from the Australian Army; and Mike Pezzullo from the Australian Public Service.

Renowned politics and international affairs commentator, Greg Sheridan, features also, as does the US Navy ‘s Charles A. Richard. Australian defence industry leaders feature in the mix also; notably John Conway (Felix Defence), Matthew Wilson (Penten), Jason Scholz (Trusted Autonomous Systems defence Cooperation Centre) as well as Allan Paull (Defence Science and Technology Group) and Jake Campbell (Northrop Grumman Australia).

Laird also puts these perspectives in the context of the views of current and former political leaders like the late Senator (and retired Major General) Jim Molan, former Defence Minister and Australian Ambassador to the USA, Kim Beazley, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, as well as Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minster Richard Marles.

The book explores conceptual frameworks for thinking about Australia’s defence considered at and around Williams Foundation seminars in 2022 and 2023. These include the strategic challenges faced due to the rise of China and the state of flux in the United States’ economic strength, its political resolve and questions over its military preparedness associated with accelerated technological developments. The book also considers issues arising from Australia’s ‘paradox’: its attempts to reconcile its history and its geography and the striving for a variety of regional partners, including in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Pacific island forum (PIF), AUKUS, the Quad (alongside India, Japan and the USA); its sense of being an island continent (or an ‘archipelago’); the changing nature of the Chinese challenge, or ‘co-opetition’ posed by authoritarian powers; the paradox of living dependent on seaborne trade and thus vulnerable to the influence of a foreign power that does not need to invade Australia to defeat it; and the challenge of effective deterrence that avoids escalation.

Laird also considers recent and forecast precision and longer range weapons systems acquisitions, the rotation of US forces in and through Australia, the challenges of supply chain resilience and weapons stockpiles, artificial intelligence, robotics and unattended vehicles, the politics and policy ingredients and technical difficulties that come with AUKUS.

Laird further observes ‘The ADF is a modest force well trained in coalition operations’, but requires some work to best be able to operate from the Australian ‘sanctuary’. He makes some important observations: The Australian Army, given its operation of the lands, is the key force in terms of working in the neighbourhood’ (notably on regional defence diplomacy); the [RAN] faces a major challenge in terms of sorting out the mix and match of platforms’; and the ‘RAAF remains the tip of the spear’.

This is an important book by a very well connected, informed and astute observer of Australia’s circumstances as they pertain to defence challenges, US alliance dynamics, and technological as well as policy and political hurdles.

His conclusion points to the utility of this book in shedding light on finding solutions to key defence challenges centred around the notion of ‘Archipelagic Deterrence’:

[Australia] needs a defence policy that fits this period of global upheaval. In my view, it is by becoming more resilient and doing so by being interactive with and driving change amongst its allies to shape credible paths to more resilience in the face of the authoritarian powers that it provides a leadership role…

Australia’s archipelagic Deterrence strategy represents a more stable and resilient alignment of interests and capabilities between Canberra and Washington than forward leaning alternatives. Australian leaders may talk loudly about pan-regional and global contributions however the enduring logic of the nation’s force structure and posture has always been territorial security. The DSR reinforces that tradition…

Defence practitioners, strategist and policy makers will find this book a rich resource.

John Blaxland

Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University