What defending Australia really means
Calls for Australia to achieve complete self-sufficiency in defense ignore deliberate, pragmatic and fundamentally cost-based policy choices about the role of its armed forces over the past three decades, writes Charles Knight.
Recently, foreign editor of The Australian Greg Sheridan wrote a caustic open letter to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Defense Minister Richard Marles, arguing for major defense reform.
He diagnoses serious ills, including the uncertain supply of defense materials, but the crux of his argument is “Everyone knows we can’t defend ourselves, but no one at Defense ever says so”. This is said as if it were a shocking revelation and a fundamental criticism of the Australian Department of Defence, the Australian Defense Force (ADF) and all they stand for.
But this is not at all a revolutionary position. In fact, it’s a truism. Australia has explicitly and pragmatically chosen to rely on a stronger ally for defense since Federation in 1901. This reflects the Australian public’s enduring support for the alliance and the likely understanding of dependence on United States for support such as nuclear umbrella, ammunition resupply. or personnel and platforms to defend vast coasts, seas and islands.
This support is explicit in academic analysis, whether 40 years ago in Rethinking Australia’s Defense or in recent work responding to our changing geostrategic situation, such as Australia’s defence: Towards a New Era, Australia’s American Alliance: Towards a New Era, and After American Primacy: Imagining the Future of Australian Defence.
Rather than contesting or bemoaning this lingering reality, Australian defense commentators and policy makers should recognize and engage with it and its costs and benefits. This provides a starting point to explain how a smaller, professional, well-trained and expeditionary ADF defended them and Australia’s interests in supporting the United States and its interventions. This would better position defense policymakers to debate with critics the benefits of this alliance.
It would not just be about acting to save face. This would also highlight its drawbacks. By recognizing that Australia cannot currently “defend” itself, those who rightly criticize the moral, political and strategic costs of enthusiastic support for the alliance might better understand its reasons.
Critics could be directed constructively to overcome the political problem of persuading the public to accept the massive financial and social costs of seemingly ethically superior alternatives such as armed neutrality. This approach will also highlight the serious risks Australia faces if its alliance with the United States weakens or fails.
In 2019 Hugh White of the Australian National University wrote How to defend Australia. The book is driven by its assessment that US military power is in decline.
Importantly, he points out that Australia in the past never intended to ‘defend itself’ in any absolute sense.
Even at the height of the Keating government’s strategy to implement the 1994 White Paper, Defending Australia, the assumption was that self-reliance meant only the ability to defeat small raiding forces and impose enormous costs to an invader, not complete self-sufficiency in the face of a large and determined adversary.
IIts authors – of which Hugh White was one – explicitly understood that any enemy capable of projecting an invasion force against Australia could only be defeated with the help of the United States, and this position has not changed. .
This is perhaps where the disagreement begins over what ‘defending Australia’ means – and this is where Hugh White’s book comes in. It systematically unpacks issues ranging from obligations to Papua New Guinea to failing to achieve maritime supremacy to securing sea lanes, providing a helpful framework for outlining what Australia can and cannot do.
White argues that, in descending order of priority, Australia should be able to defend the continent independently of direct attack by a major power, to deny bases in the inner arc of the islands to the north to a major Asian power independently, and to use force to support order, constitutional government and internal stability among our smaller neighbors.
In addition to this, it must be able to make at least a substantial, and perhaps even decisive or leading, military contribution to a regional coalition to resist major power intrusion into the Indonesian archipelago. , and make a meaningful contribution to the coalition in any power struggle across Asia-Pacific.
The great contribution of How to defend Australia is to identify for discussion that the first two points, the defense of the continent and the denial of bases, cannot currently be done without external support.
To make up for this shortfall, White proposes greater autonomy via a strategy of maritime denial, which aims to prevent the adversary from freely using the sea, which unsurprisingly echoes the White Paper. Its prescriptions have been strongly contested, in particular on the costs.
Massive organizational changes and similar expense are evident in other approaches that seek complete ‘autonomy’. In the 1980s David Martin championed armed neutrality for Australia, and recently Dr Albert Palazzo has taken the same approach. While these approaches do not meet White’s basics denial requirement, they could plausibly “defend the continent”.
Yesand, to deal with the deteriorating strategic situation, they must be implemented quickly, require enormous cost and effort, and perhaps most important of all, require a social license to succeed.
Indeed, has Australia ever adopted such a drastic change in policy before a war hit her?
To go somewhere, Australia needs to know where it is starting from. Perhaps the most important conversation is why the leaders never acknowledge that the ADF cannot “defend” Australia, but it is important to note that they were never asked to do so – after all, it’s a much clearer position to start an increasingly urgent public conversation.