The electioneering in Australia over the security agreement between China and Solomon Islands has obscured important questions about why the deal came about and its future implications. At the core of China’s grey-zone tactics is the principle of putting the onus of escalation on unwilling parties by making them get on an escalation ladder. Does Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s declaration of a Chinese base as a ‘red line’ trump that or play neatly into Beijing’s hands? It at least raises the question of what Australia’s military options are if that line is crossed.
In the 2020 defence strategic update, the government outlined its three strategic objectives for defence planning: to shape, to deter and to respond.
Shaping, deterring and responding should be a whole-of-government effort, and yet no minister or secretary is responsible for coordinating strategic use of Australia’s comprehensive national power. The Chinese Communist Party, by contrast, has the United Work Front Department to do exactly that. Arguably, coordination was a function of the national security adviser, a role that was created in 2008 and eliminated in 2013 and its responsibilities absorbed by the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. However, while the advisers could at least give the problem their full attention, strategy is broader than just security and the position lacked the necessary authority.
Strategic coordination is too important to be a part-time job for a busy departmental secretary and too hands-on for a cabinet committee. Would Australia have done better in Solomon Islands if it had had a united front work department with Australian characteristics, with its own secretary?
The 2020 strategic update sets out the geographical priorities for defence, the highest of which is our immediate region. Force design is supposedly strategy-led, yet the answer remains a balanced force optimised for nowhere in particular. An outsider looking at the future Australian Defence Force might reasonably conclude that it’s designed to plug components into a US-led coalition, as it has in the past.
If force design really is strategy-led, then we could expect to see a future force optimised for fighting in the region in areas like Solomon Islands, as I have previously pointed out. To fight where strategy demands, Defence would need to develop a concept for archipelagic campaigning, including anti-access and area denial (A2/AD). ASPI’s William Leben describes something similar, though my answer differs from his in several key respects.
Archipelagic warfare has more interdependencies than any other form of warfare. It is an environment in which a champion team will always beat a team of champions. The most important feature of an archipelago is that all the sea is joined together and all the land is not. That’s a statement of the blindingly obvious, but it’s remarkable how many otherwise capable military professionals fail to understand its implications. Next most important is that it’s easier to hide A2/AD systems ashore than at sea (submarines excepted) and that a suitable island for hiding such systems can be obtained without the large numbers of troops required to take and control large population centres. And you can’t sink an island. Those fundamentals are the foundations of success or failure in archipelagic warfare.
A couple of years ago in a related discussion, a respected and very able senior army officer said: ‘You have to remember, we are the Australian Army, not the Australian Marines.’ That’s true, but shouldn’t we ask why? This illustrates the problem of letting Defence, and the tribes within it, decide for themselves what they exist for.
The effects of this are real, not just philosophical. Australia’s ability to manoeuvre in an archipelago has always been poor. It is currently limited to three large amphibious ships. Many eggs in few baskets is exactly what China’s A2/AD systems are optimised against. Three ships are inadequate for distributed operations, which bodes ill for future combat in places like Solomon Islands.
Defence’s planned replacement of heavy landing craft (Joint Project 2048 Phase 5) was cancelled in 2010 because neither the navy nor the army was willing to allocate any personnel to it. Both services decided their own priorities, independently of strategic guidance. The operational concept document for the army’s current littoral manoeuvre project, Land 8710, had to be developed in the absence of an overarching joint operational concept. The replacement mentality means that capabilities that would be essential to archipelagic manoeuvre but not in the current ADF inventory will probably never even be thought of, let alone funded.
A significant fleet of ocean-capable medium landing craft would not only enable distributed manoeuvre but also free the landing helicopter docks for conversion to carriers, as the Japanese are doing with the Kaga and Izumo. Their aircraft, including helicopters, V-22 Ospreys and F-35Bs, could operate from the islands, supported by medium landing craft (which can carry a lot of fuel and munitions), as well as from their carriers.
Other capabilities unlikely to see the light of day without a concept for archipelagic warfare include coastal naval forces, minelayers (crewed or otherwise) and small to medium hovercraft for crossing the extensive mudflats in the region, or navigating rivers during the logging season when they’re full of tree trunks.
Until strategic-policy-led force design is imposed on Defence from above, and corresponding geography-specific theatre concepts developed, it seems likely that the future force will continue to be designed by the tribes, each of which aspires to be a champion in its own chosen arena rather than to contribute to a champion team in which it might not have the starring role. We shouldn’t be surprised to see the future force looking like a more modern and powerful version of its predecessor, optimised, consciously or otherwise, to do what we have done in the past, rather than what we need to do in the future.
Bob Moyse is a former Royal Australian Navy and Royal Marines officer and former desk officer in the Strategic Policy Division of the Department of Defence.
This article was published by ASPI on May 12, 2022.