As Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne get ready for week’s annual Ausmin meeting with their US Counterparts, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, their biggest concern must surely be the future of the alliance under the increasingly bizarre leadership of President Donald Trump.
The doubts won’t be on display. As one of the few adults in Trump’s Cabinet, Mattis is a strong alliance supporter. We will undoubtedly see an Ausmin declaration proclaiming a confident future for the alliance, one that overlooks Trump’s destructive path via Kim Jong Un, the G7, NATO, Brussels and London to his unrecorded meeting with Vladimir Putin.
There is every reason why the Australia-US alliance should flourish. Both countries get huge value from it. Outside of the White House one would struggle to find an American that didn’t support the relationship.
But reason is not the currency of choice with Trump. It’s mostly luck that we haven’t yet been on the end of some Presidential verbal spray that could hugely undermine Australian confidence in the future of the alliance.
Malcolm Turnbull and his colleagues must do everything they can to sustain the alliance, to shelter it from the President’s obvious distaste for these entanglements, but it’s timely to think about ‘Plan B’: What’s the plan for Australia’s defence, if it turns out that Trump’s America First approach is here to stay and alliances fall into mistrustful neglect?
…the bigger the problem the less likely it is that we will have a plan for it…
Here’s a general rule about the reality of defence planning: the bigger the problem the less likely it is that we will have a plan for it. That might surprise you because people imagine that national security types always plan to deal with worst case scenarios.
No so. At the beginning of my Defence career in the early 1990s I’d imagined there was a plan to respond to East Timor’s possibly messy departure from Indonesia. News reporting clearly showed trouble brewing. But there wasn’t a glimmer of a Defence plan for that contingency until late in 1998.
Why this chronic planning avoidance? Government couldn’t tolerate developing a ‘Plan B’ because that would call into question the reliability of ‘Plan A’ – in this case that we supported Indonesia’s bloody incorporation of East Timor. Defence was in its comfort zone implementing ‘Plan A’ by building defence ties with Jakarta.
Fast forward a quarter of a century to Donald Trump’s efforts to trash America’s allies, treat the European Union as a ‘foe’ and Russia as a friend. Does any of this suggest that its time to think of a ‘Plan B’ for Australian defence policy?
This is an agonising question for defence planners, myself included. A large part of my Defence career focussed on building the alliance. I was closely involved in the policy push to get US Marines in Darwin; to bring cyber-attacks under article five of the ANZUS Treaty, meaning that Australia and America could jointly respond to common dangers, and to expand cooperation in space and on ballistic missile research.
The 2016 Defence White Paper shows that the current plan B is even more of the alliance’s plan A. The design of our Navy and Air Force hinges on the alliance getting even closer. If alliance cooperation ended we might as well close some of our intelligence agencies and get used to dealing with the region substantially blind-sided.
My assessment is that we don’t face a future completely cut off from alliance cooperation. The US will still want to sell us defence equipment and the Americans get major benefits from intelligence cooperation, not least the location of the Pine Gap joint facility near Alice Springs.
The bigger risk is that an America First strategy will see US military personnel leave South Korea and Japan. Trump might ask why US Marines are working out of Darwin, seeing the bill but not the benefit of a military presence reassuring Southeast Asia that America is standing by the region.
That’s where a Australian ‘plan B’ for our defence posture should come in. The alliance may survive for technology transfer and intelligence, but that may be the practical limit of American interest in Asian security for as long as the Trump approach survives.
Australia’s defence ‘plan B’ must work on the assumption that we will have to do more for our own security, play a stronger leadership role in the region, reconsider the size and strength of the defence force and position ourselves for even darker threats to our security in coming years, without confidence in the US security umbrella.
Here are ten steps I would take to give Australia a stronger defence capability and a leading position in regional security. If this looks a bit scary to you, rest assured that few are thinking this way in Canberra. Just like the East Timor situation in the 1990s, we will go with ‘plan A’ until a massive strategic shock jolts us onto a different path.
First, we should start to lift defence spending to reach 2.5% or 3% of gross national product in a decade. On current plans and spending around 2% of GNP on defence we will spend a total of $497 billion over the next ten years. My ASPI colleague and defence economist Marcus Hellyer crunched the numbers: the bottom line is that growing at a steady rate to reach 2.5% in 2028 adds an extra $57 billion additional to planned defence spending. A 3% target adds an extra $122 billion.
The additional money will buy some extra military gear (more on that soon) but the figures tell you that the top priority must be to get our current spending plans right, we must speed up delivery dates and make sure the existing Defence Force is as at high levels of readiness. We can’t afford a repeat of the ‘fitted for but not with’ era of the 1990s when large parts of the military were simply not equipped to fight.
Second we need to lift our own leadership game in regional security. Australia should conclude a formal defence treaty with Japan, the most consequential democratic regional power. We should also look to sign a formal alliance with NATO’s two most effective defence powers, France and the UK. These groupings can’t replace an isolationist United States, but they are the core of the democratic, rule-of-law supporting countries. As the saying goes, we will hang separately if we don’t hang together.
Third, Australia must invest massively in building strategic partnerships with Indonesia and India. Currently Jakarta presents no conceivable threat to Australia. Now is the time to use every means we can to help build an Indonesian military force that is irrevocably aligned with Australia. It will be harder work with India, but that points to the need for a considerable investment in relationship-building far exceeding our current modest and sporadic attempts to engage New Delhi.
Fourth, we need to accept the reality that Australia can either lead or lose the Pacific island states. Right now, we are losing to an influx of Chinese money which at its heart is aimed at corrupting island elites. In return for residency rights we should look to formalise our role as the defence and security guarantor for Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu and other microstates.
That will mean stationing Navy patrol vessels in some locations and lifting our active Defence presence. We can’t pretend that gifting patrol boats to countries unable to effectively operate them does anything to keep the region secure.
There is big cost here, but if we don’t acknowledge the reality that the Pacific is uniquely our security challenge, the region will turn into a de facto Chinese lake within a decade.
Step five: it’s time to invest in building a nuclear industry able to support a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines giving Australia more military options in an increasingly risky future. You can forget the assumption made in so many newspaper letter’s pages that America will sell us Los Angeles class nuclear-powered attack submarines. The only way Australia can develop a nuclear Navy is to build the skill base ourselves.
Nuclear propulsion will give our submarines the range and endurance to act as the core of an Australian deterrent capability.
Linked to a stronger submarine force is step six: we need to equip our subs (including the current Collins class) with long range cruise missiles as planned in the 2009 Defence White Paper. Operating outside of an alliance construct, Defence needs to acquire the ability to hit targets at very long range, firing cruise missiles from hard-to-detect ships and aircraft.
A substantial part of the defence budget increase must be used to give the Defence Force more hitting power. This would include (step seven) working with the US as a commercial proposition on their plan to develop a long range bomber aircraft – something to replace the venerable F-111 strike bomber long returned from Australian service.
Step eight, we need to copy what the Germans have just decided to do: develop a Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, like the American DARPA, known as the ‘Skunkworks’. An Australian DARPA would work on the next generation of technologies like artificial intelligence, hypersonics and autonomous systems. Currently only around 0.5% of the Defence budget is spent on innovation programs. That’s not enough to keep pace with changing technology.
The Australian DARPA should operate as a stand-alone agency working outside of the cultural morés of Defence that slows innovation and pushes back against lateral thinking.
Step nine, along with everyone else we need to do more in cyber, not simply protecting our own systems but also developing a formidable cyber offensive capability that will be a strong deterrent to would-be attackers. The Australian Signals Directorate should be doubled in size well within the decade.
Finally, I would aim to grow the Australian Defence Force to around 90,000 personal, up from the current 58,000 regulars. This takes us to the 3% of GNP spending level. A force that size would still be tiny by regional standards but would vastly strengthen our ability to operate the high-technology equipment that is central to a strong deterrent posture.
Taking these steps would create a much more powerful case for the US to invest in the alliance. I have no real expectation that we will go down this path any time soon. These are hard policy choices at a time when Governments of all political stripes are more focussed on risk minimisation.
But the risk is that, whether we like it or not, our worsening strategic outlook will force Australia into adopting a stronger deterrence-based Defence posture. Hopefully that will still be in an alliance context with the US.
Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) a position he has held since May 2012.
This article was published by ASPI on July 21, 2018.