Implications of the U.S. Elections for Australia’s Defence Policy

By Paul Dibb

No matter which candidate is elected President, the US alliance will remain the wellspring of our security. This is because – contrary to the views of many Australian commentators these days – the ADF would not be a credible military force without our close defence relationship with America.

A second Trump term will risk a continuation of even more unpredictable US external policies. But this will not mean the end of the militarily powerful America or our military ties with that country. As Walter Russell Mead has recently observed, a second Trump term would be at least as chaotic as the first. And Trump is likely to look for trophy achievements overseas. A belligerent China may come in for even more ideological attention requiring American technology and defence supremacy. Mead observes that hawkish unilateralists in the GOP may well see forward defence as smarter than waiting for adversaries to attack the US.

A President Biden would at least improve the atmospherics and common sense coming out of Washington regarding foreign policy. Even so, the substance of American policies to China would perhaps change but little – given the increasingly bipartisan attitude in the US Congress towards a threatening China. But a Biden administration would have a less antagonistic approach to allies – even though it might expect that allies would contribute more to common interests. We can expect that such approaches to us from a Biden Administration, however, will be made in a much less febrile and threatening manner.

Whichever President is in power in the White House with whom we must do business does not mean that we are going to walk away from the US alliance. However, it has become fashionable recently to call for Australia to consider how we might navigate a new world alone without America. My colleague, Hugh White, has gone as far as proclaiming that Australia’s dependence on the US  has been largely abandoned and, instead, Australia is seeking its security principally as part of a  coalition of Asian countries  – or what he calls call ‘an Asian NATO’  – to contain China.

These claims are not supported by a close reading of the recently released 2020 Defence Strategic Update in which the Prime Minister and Defence Minister have made it plain that the Government “will continue to deepen our alliance with United States”.  The Update emphasises that the security arrangements, interoperability, intelligence sharing, and technological and industrial cooperation between Australia and the United States “are critical to Australia’s national security”.

The most important example of the increasingly close relationship we are planning to have with the US is the fact that Australia is going to spend in excess of $100 billion on missiles and strike weapons to increase the ADF’s maritime deterrence and long-range land strike capabilities. These missiles include maritime guided weapons, deployed ballistic and high-speed missiles, high-speed, long-range strike capability, as well as air-launched strike missiles  And just from where – other than the US – do the “let’s abandon the US alliance” types think we going to acquire such sophisticated missiles?

Another example of our increased reliance on the US is the fact that without access to highly classified US defence technology, the ADF would not be a credible force capable of fighting high-intensity conflict against emerging regional systems. Australia has the most capable fifth-generation air force in our region, but our Joint Strike Fighters and Growler EW Super Hornets depend crucially on huge amounts of highly classified operational mission data from the US. In effect, this means we are integrated into the US military system.

Next, there is the issue of self-reliance – which we allegedly are also abandoning. The Defence Update makes it clear that increased defence self-reliance is a fundamental part of Australia’s defence policy.  Important examples of self-reliance mentioned in the Update include the supply of specialised munitions and logistic requirements, such as fuel, critical to our military capability. The new focus on sovereign defence industrial capability now includes the prospect of us manufacturing certain missiles in Australia for the first time. Is that the end of self-reliance?

In addition, the strategic update identifies growing the ADF’s self-reliance for delivering deterrence effects – including expanding the Jindalee operational radar network to provide wide area surveillance of Australia’s eastern approaches, acquiring enhanced smart mines to secure our maritime approaches, a network of satellites to provide an independent defence communications network, as well as the acquisition of a sovereign space-based imagery capability to support our targeting of long-range precision strike weapons. Another important new self-reliance role for Australia is to be ‘capable of leading’ coalition operations in our immediate region should circumstances require it.

Finally, we are left with the accusation that Australia has dumped the direct defence of our own territory and opted for ‘an Asian NATO’. That propaganda term was first used by China in 2007. Anybody who has worked with the ASEAN Regional Forum knows only too well that it is hard to  get agreement on the time of day, let alone agree to a NATO-type alliance where ‘an attack on one is an attack on all’.  Instead, what we are seeing is an increasing group of like-minded states – such as the Quadrilateral of the US, Japan, India and Australia – working together to support the rules-based order in the Indo- Pacific and resist China’s aggressive coercion. The aim should be not to contain China, but to constrain that country’s increasingly belligerent behaviour.

Too many commentators in Australia these days want to give China more so-called ‘strategic space’ when it has already grabbed the entirety of the South China Sea and increasingly threatens the very survival of Taiwan.

Those who assert that Australia could go it alone need to tell us what they are proposing instead. Other than the US, precisely from where are we going to get such regionally superior military capabilities? And let us not pretend that Europe is in the same category. The fact is that if push comes to shove and we are in high intensity conflict in our own defence, we need access to the best military capabilities available.

Paul Dibb is professor of strategic studies at the ANU. He is a former deputy secretary of defence and director of the defence intelligence organisation.

This article was first published in The Australian on November 2, 2020 and is republished with the permission of the author.