Threats and Vulnerabilities: Where Should the Australia’s Defence Focus Lie?

By Scott Graham Lovell

 Australia is the largest and most resource-rich island in the Asia-Pacific region.

It exports more raw manufacturing materials like coal and iron ore and has larger Uranium deposits than any other nation on the planet.

The country has the largest coastline in the southern hemisphere – yet its mere 50,000 personnel strong Defence Force is one of the smallest in the region. 

Over the last 20 years the ADF has been spread thin across multiple conflicts overseas, with little consideration to ever having to defend its own borders.

Post Middle-Eastern conflict, what does the current regional threat situation look like and what should the ADF be concentrating on to ensure its safety and sovereignty?

This subject can provide more material and analysis than what’s required for a PhD thesis, however this article provides an overview of the current regional threat environment, the major vulnerabilities to Australia’s national defence and some broad suggestions on where the ADF’s focus should lie over the next decade to work towards mitigating these vulnerabilities.

The Regional Threat Environment

Let’s not beat around the bush here.

The primary looming threat to Australian national security in the region is China and its ability to pressure Australia and its first island chain.

The points below are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to considerations as to why Australia should be concerned about China:

  • China currently accounts for a whopping 33% of consumption of Australian export products, including iron ore, coal, natural gas, gold, aluminium, copper and beef. China has been quoted saying that Australian natural resources are key to their economic growth and their manufacturing industry is heavily reliant on this material.
  • China has significant investment in Australia, including the ownership of over 9 million hectares (35,000 square miles) of land, accounting for almost a quarter of Australia’s foreign-held farmland.
  • Almost every nation within South East Asia is in debt to China for between 5 – 25% of their GDP. This regional domination has been achieved through huge infrastructure projects and loans to nations that China knew they couldn’t afford to pay back, thus allowing them to take advantages and control of these nations through threat of economic foreclosures. China has strategically leveraged this domination to allow them to project their military presence throughout South East Asia towards Australia with little to no push-back. They are pre-positioning for something major!
  • China’s South East Asia tactics have been spread across the globe in a very strategic way. Through the same economic means, China has basically indebted most of Africa, South America and certain key gateway countries in the Middle East. In doing so, they have set up massive Military presence in places like South Africa, Argentina, Djibouti, etc. These places all have something in common… they are the main trade routes of the world. Cape Horn, Cape L’Agulhas, Suez Canal… these all have major Military strategic significance and China has immense interest in these areas. They have also recently started offering their economic assistance to Panama (to the distaste of the US government).
  • In more recent developments through the Covid-19 pandemic, there are potential future political conflicts which may force China’s hand sooner than anticipated. Australia is already pushing for a post Covid-19 investigation which is meeting strong resistance from the Chinese government, who have already threatened certain economic sanctions if Australia go ahead. With China needing Australia more than Australia needs China and the possibility for future trillion dollar lawsuits, export sanctions, tourism bans, land sales restrictions, asset freeze and seizures, debt foreclosures and payment boycotts, it has the potential to start a major conflict in the region.

Australia’s Vulnerabilities

In a tactical sense, Australia’s sheer size and remoteness is a double edged sword.

On one hand, to launch an invasion of Australia would be a military operation of unprecedented size and complexity in modern warfare terms.

In order to try and hold significant land mass and control movements between major cities would be almost impossible without deploying thousands of aircraft and ships, tens of thousands of light and medium armoured mobility assets and millions of troops… and there would still be thousands of kilometres between strategic points of interest throughout the country that would require patrolling and route clearance.

No military force in the world today would have the size and materiel required to take and hold the entirety of the Australian land mass.

So what is the real threat?

The other edge of the sword is that due to Australia’s sheer size, there is approximately 10,000km of northern coastline that is relatively unguarded.

Although it is monitored by systems like JORN and patrol boats operating in the area, the coastline between Cape York and Perth has only one single solitary location (Darwin) that houses Australian military forces.

It is basically undefended, in the sense that the capabilities in the area are not equipped to stop an invading force nor provide protection of any significant proportion of the coastline.

In reality, an invading force could land in any number of remote northern Australian locations, capture significant area, establish a point of disembarkation, forward operating base and defended air strip without a shot being fired or even seeing another human being for that matter (northern Australia is that sparsely populated).

The real threat is that an invading force that is self-sufficient and has land, sea and air superiority could easily take control of land and assets spread throughout the remote areas of northern Australia.

These assets are where China’s interest lies.

And even without an invading force, China could put sufficient pressure against out northern territories to blackmail Australia into privileged terms of access and denial to others. 

The remote north of Australia is where a large percentage of the natural resources are mined.

The landscape is peppered with uranium, coal, copper and iron ore mines and there are cattle and sheep stations that cover tens of thousands of square kilometres.

If the invading force were to capture these assets and civilian personnel, they could easily reap these resources continuously for as long as they held their ground.

The question is, how long could an invading force hold their ground in remote regions of Australia?

If they were holding civilians as a captive workforce, there would not be any easy solution to ending the conflict. Australian forces could not engage the Chinese military directly due to their overmatch in almost every aspect of warfare.

Could we rely on our long-time allies such as the US, UK, Canada, the Dutch or anyone else to come to our aid?

It’s a long way to Australia from anywhere in the world.

How long would it take to mobilise sufficient forces from North America or Europe to deploy to Australia?

Would it be too late and the Chinese are positioned for control over northern Australia?

Politically, is there any nation in the world who would risk open war with China by aiding Australia?

Big questions that must be asked.

ADF Focus and Mitigation Strategies

What should the ADF and Australia as a nation be focused on over the next decade in order to mitigate the looming threat of China?

Setting aside political strategies and national protection programs that limit foreign investment and land purchases, the following actions should be considered to deter any potential invading force keen to capture Australian assets:

As I mentioned in a previous paper (found here), the ADF needs to first and foremost grow significantly!

In order for Australia to be capable to truly defend itself, it needs to at least quadruple the size and manage their budget smarter to expand capability into at least three full time Divisions.

Without this growth, the ADF will just not have the resources required to sustain meaningful long term national defence operations.

The ADF need to focus on expanding area defence in the north of Australia.

There needs to be a much stronger presence in the waters and regions around remote northern Australia. Over the last decade the ADF has been focussed on moving assets out of Darwin and into its sister base at RAAF Edinburgh, South Australia.

There really needs to be a reversal of this strategic movement, regardless of the reasons for the movement in the first place (remote locality sustainment costs, limited training window due to wet season, etc.)

There is a dire requirement to improve movement infrastructure throughout the Top End.

Major transport routes that cover thousands of kilometres across northern Australia are regularly impassable due to the fact that they are red-dirt roads that flood and turn into a bog whenever the seasonal rains hit. There are limited heavy lift capable airfields in the area and only a handful of railway lines that could support bulk vehicle and logistics movements.

The Federal and State Governments should focus on building and improving the state of roads and rail networks to open up access to these remote areas and the ADF should be building FOB hub airfields right across the coast of the Northern Territory and Western Australia to allow for quick and precise deployment. There should also be consideration for dedicated railways that can move entire squadrons of armoured vehicles long distance in short time to enhance their regional capability (it’s no good having tanks and APC’s in Darwin if it’ll take a week to move them 2000km to an enemy landing site).

Serious consideration should be given to inviting allied nations to build their own bases across the northern coast of Australia.

One way to bolster defence and multiply capability would be to establish a number of foreign military bases in the area.

We could allow the US/UK/Dutch/etc to build bases across northern Australia with many benefits going to all parties, such as:

  • Providing interested allies a permanent and strong strategic presence in South East Asia. Such bases could provide forward operating locations and staging platforms for operations within the region and reduce reaction time for any local military responses significantly;
  • Provide opportunities for regular, large scale multi-national training exercises, collaborative developments, high power weapons systems testing, electronic warfare trials… all the things that require vast expanses of controlled space which Australia could provide
  • Local economic factors – infrastructure investment, jobs, service provision, product sales, etc. Wherever the military goes, they bring their wallet!

Australia needs to consider preparing for coastal defence activities and operations.

The ADF needs to be ready to deploy wide area defence systems at short notice to provide a deterrent to an invading naval force.

There should be consideration for both new (dispersed long-range anti-ship/anti-aircraft guided weapons) and old (vast quantities of sea-mines) technology procurement and deployment preparedness in order to provide genuine options to defend the northern coastline.

In times of great peril and pending global conflict, a significant contribution is expected from civilians.

Both individuals and Industry entities would be called upon to do what they can for the greater good of the nation.

In this vain, evacuation and resource destruction training/preparation would be the most likely and effective course of action.

Australia should require its civilians in the area to prepare in the following ways in the case of a pending invasion:

  • To get themselves and key infrastructure enabling equipment out of harm’s way (evacuation plans, heavy equipment movements, etc)
  • To prepare for demolition of key infrastructure to avoid enemy capture and usage (i.e. collapse mine faces and tunnels, remove power grid, blow dams, taint water sources, derail trains, etc)

The Chinese are first and foremost considered shrewd business people.

The only reason for them to invade Australia would be for economic reasons.

All of the above may not be able to defeat an invading Chinese military force, but it would increase the cost and risk of the activity so much as to deter them enough by making the occupation non-economically viable with unacceptable attrition.