• Pete Jonson

Australia’s defence

Updated: Jun 22

‘Australia is following the wrong defence strategy’ writes Greg Sheridan. ‘It is a mistake of perhaps mortal consequence. It involves a profound misreading of our national circumstances, and the continuation of old policies and old habits of thinking which are no longer relevant.’


‘Everything tells us our strategic circumstances have changed gravely for the worse, because of China’s new capabilities and new aggressiveness. But we are still muddling along with the old defence force structure underpinned by the old ­assumptions.’


Clearly scary when delivered by one of Australia’s leading journalists.


‘To put it at its plainest, we are continuing to pursue “a balanced force” when we urgently need to switch to an asymmetric approach which would impose massive costs on an aggressor.


‘We have just emerged from one of the most intense weeks of prime ministerial diplomacy in our history. Everywhere, the message was clear: China, China, China. The G7 summit called for a new inquiry into the origins of Covid; called out Beijing for its unfair trade practices; condemned its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and throughout China; supported “a free and open Indo-Pacific”; and warned Beijing against using force on Taiwan.’


Australia has pursued a ‘broad’ defence strategy when the only need is to lay some focus on any big ugly nation who may just create serious pain beyond trade withdrawal. As Greg Sheridan’s Saturday headline put it: ‘Our focus must be China, China, China.’


Everything tells us our strategic circumstances have changed gravely for the worse, because of China’s new capabilities and new aggressiveness. But we are still muddling along with the old defence force structure underpinned by the old ­assumptions.’


In an important speech, Prime minister Morrison said: “Australia’s strategic environment has changed significantly over recent years. Accelerating trends are working against our interests … The view that the world hasn’t changed in the past five years is disconnected from reality.”


The defence boffins change their minds slowly and seem still in the ‘broad coverage’ approach. Instead, Australia needs some smart analysis to provide a focussed approach to missiles able to reach China. I would suggest that at least some of the missiles have nuclear capacity and that they be loaded into nuclear submarines. Surely our great American partner could sell us a few elderly nuclear submarines with training from their top nuclear submariners.


Mr Sheridan does not go that far, but I bet he thinks it, as would other serious defence strategists. ‘Ross Babbage, the grand old man of strategic policy, tells Inquirer: “This idea of a generalised force, a balanced force, is based on very general thinking. Defence used to say we don’t know what the future threats are, so we need a bit of everything – which meant they didn’t do anything particularly well. That has been the culture for decades. There’s a whole habit of thinking based on the idea of no particular threat.


“But now we do know the identity of the primary serious threat, the nature of its forces, the goals of its national leadership. There is a need for a much more focused, and much faster, system of defence force development.”


Mr Sheridan continues: ‘There is one strategic threat to Australia: China. All our defence efforts should be directed at countering that threat. Everything else Defence does is not only second order, but trivial, because it deals with contingencies that cannot rise to a serious direct threat.’


‘But to hear Defence officials discuss this in recent Senate estimates was dismaying. After a year, they are at initial planning stages. They may not just have one partner, as the PM announced, but lots of partners for lots of different bits and pieces. Instead of a simple, clean project Defence, in its normal way, is going to transform this into a giant science experiment with a million moving parts.


‘After a decade’s deliberation, they may come back with a terrific Icelandic/Ecuadorean hybrid Aus­tralian part-designed orphan missile, a bargain at 20 times the cost of anything else, for which there will be no customers. The missile equation is urgent. The way Morrison spoke in March, and Dutton more recently in parliament, suggests that they know this. They should remember the Defence Department works for the government, not the other way around, and they should order a result, and a commencement of facility construction, soon – within months, or weeks.


‘The old ways were never much good. They are absolute rubbish now.’


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