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  • P.D.Jonson

Sunday Sanity Break, 22 September 2019 – How to Defend Australia

Updated: May 1, 2020

First step in defence of Australia is to make friends with the USA president and its senior politicians. Our Scomo – President Trump’s ‘man of Titanium’ – has done well in his State Dinner and related events in America overnight and will continue to do so in the coming days of his lengthy visit. ‘We’re good mates and have fought wars together for the past 100 years’, is the essence of Scomo’s pitch, and it is a good one. He even got a shot in about the benefits of free trade, including with China.

My recent reading has been Hugh White’s important book ‘How to Defend Australia’. Today I intend to provide a few paragraphs to convey the essence of his pitch. One I found compelling although others, including Paul Monk in Quadrant, have a different set of views.

As is well known, our conscript soldiers were sent up the Kokoda Track to slow down the cream of the Japanese army, which they did with little training. The USA navy, with input from the Aussie navy, stopped the Japanese war fleet in the great battle of the Coral sea in May 1942. Churchill had decided Australia was too far away to defend and it was this decision, however sensible, and American forces who secured Australian freedom.

Early in the book Hugh White asserts: ‘If we stick to our present plans we will not be able to defend ourselves in the decades to come, and the longer we delay a decision to change course, the harder, and the more our strategic risks will grow’. With slow relative growth, one reliable estimate is by 2050 our economy will rank well behind all major Southeast Asian nations. ‘So as our strategic risks are growing, our resources are, relatively speaking, shrinking’.

With inevitable reduction of relative US economic power, as well of that of Australia’s, because of slower growth than China, India and Indonesia, Australia’s ability to fend off a serious take-over attempt by one or more of those nations in the in the, say, next 50 years future, must be doubted. That tells this scribe that Australia needs either to spend far more as a ratio to GDP than the future Asian giants or develop very advanced weapon systems than the Asian giants have. Spending a far higher proportion of GDP is highly unlikely to be determined by a democracy with great demands to look after unemployed, elderly or handicapped people. I also cannot imagine an Australian government acquiring a nuclear submarine fleet or developing a savage biological weapon that does not infect Australians but which is powerful when introduced into the people of any hostile nation.

Hugh White recognises that: ‘The broad lessons of the past few decades … suggest that armed aggression, while unlikely, is far from unthinkable against any country that lacks the capacity, either by itself or with allies, to impose heavy costs on an attacker’. Potential aggressors in our locality are China, India and Indonesia. Many people will scoff at this part of the analysis, and in any case White quickly says that invasion of Australia by an Asian giant is not highly likely. China is the most likely nation to be worried about, not for any Chinese desire for Australia’s people, perhaps for Australia’s resource base. More important is a steady reduction in America’s relative military capacity (due to slower economic growth) and the possibility of a return to America’s traditional preference for isolationism.

In any case, Australia’s current military strategy is not one that would be likely to prevent a determined attack by any giant Asian nation. Conversely, obvious preparation for such a strategy would reduce the enthusiasm of any likely aggressor. The war of terror was a major distraction, for Australia as well as for the USA. ‘The focus on the Middle East rather than Asia, on lower-level operations rather than major wars, on land operations rather than maritime operations, and on coalition rather than independent operations all distracted Australian policymakers and ministers’. And ‘The results was a series of decisions that will weaken Australia’s defence for decades to come because of decades to come because of the high opportunity costs they impose’. High White on P 60 of his book lists what he regards as critical mistakes. ‘These poor decisions were themselves the result of a deeper failure, or refusal, to comprehend the scale and significance of the strategic shifts underway in Asia’.

The core of Hugh White’s book is to explain why Australia’s interesting location South of Asia and lack of appropriate analysis by our defence establishment and political leaders, have left us with far from the best situation we could have attained. The relevant establishment will ignore this analysis, as to take it on would serve to get some very senior Australians to look weak or indecisive.

The most important defence strategy is defined by Hugh White as ‘maritime defence’. Sea denial and air control. This gives Australia the best chance of preventing successful attack by a major aggressor. It would require many more submarines and more fighter jets. (Hugh White also reluctantly discusses the nuclear option for Australia’s defence and I summarise his position as ‘only in some circumstances’ that he chooses not to define. I would I think take a different view and believe we should be trying to convince the US to sell us second hand nuclear submarines and teach us to man them.)

Let me jump to Hugh White’s concluding chapter. It starts with two questions. ‘Can Australia defend itself?’ And ‘Should Australia defend itself? ‘A qualified Yes’ is the answer to the first question, but we need a better defence strategy and a probably far higher cost. The better strategy is called ‘maritime defence’, which involves more specialised and focused sea and air power and a relatively smaller army. Overall as a share of GDP defence spending needs to rise to 3.5 % of GDP, or 4 % if we were to pursue the nuclear option. ­

The second question is to stay with a far cheaper defence force and rely on a big brother (USA, possibly India, Indonesia or Japan) in a very bad situation. That would define us as a ‘small power’ rather than the ‘medium power’ status we see as the current status quo and the choice (I suspect) of a majority of Australians.

And ‘We don’t have much time to make the choice. Even with exceptional effort it would take until 2030 at least to build the absolute minimum force we would need to as a middle power, and perhaps until 2040 to finish the job. These will be very risky decades, and our strategic exposure will increase the longer we delay.’ (P 297)

Anyone with a serious interest in Australia’s defence policy should acquire and read Hugh White’s book very carefully. I hope this brief review makes at least some senior Australians do this.


Fiona Prior enjoys Tom Stoppard’s investigation of love in ‘The Real Thing. More here.

Sporting life

GWS beat Collingwood by 4 points in a dramatic upset, while Richmond recovered from a poor first half to beat Geelong. So it is a traditional Melbourne side verses a new Sydney side. Go Tiges is my cry.

Melbourne Storm can back from a surprise loss last weekend to a dramatic win this weekend. Ge Storm is my cry.

Australia’s (No Folau) Rugby team started badly but settled down well to beat Fiji with a good second half. Go All Blacks is my cry.

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