Prime Minister Scott Morrison and President Trump shaking hands

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and President Trump shaking hands

No matter who wins the US election, the alliance will be the keystone of our defence planning

3 November 2020

No matter who is elected United States president, the alliance between our two nations remains the wellspring of our security. This is because — contrary to the views of so many Australian commentators — the ADF is not a credible military force without our close defence relationship with Washington.

A second Trump term risks a continuation of even more unpredictable US external policies. But this will not mean the end of the militarily powerful America, nor our military ties with it. As The Wall Street Journal’s Walter Russell Mead recently observed, a second Trump term would be at least as chaotic as the first. And Trump is likely to look for trophy achievements overseas.

A belligerent China may come in for even more ideological attention requiring US technology and defence supremacy. Mead observes that hawkish unilateralists in the Republican Party see forward defence as smarter than waiting for adversaries to attack.

A Biden presidency would at least improve the atmospherics and common sense coming out of Washington regarding foreign policy. Even so, the substance of US policies to China would perhaps change but little, given the increasingly bipartisan attitude in the US Congress towards a threatening China. But a Biden administration would have a less antagonistic approach to allies, even though it might expect that allies would contribute more to common interests. We can expect such approaches to us from a Biden administration, perhaps in a much less febrile and threatening manner.

We must do business with whoever is in the White House. However, it has become fashionable recently to call for Australia to consider how we might navigate a new world alone without the US. My colleague Hugh White has gone as far as proclaiming that Australia’s dependence on the US has been largely abandoned and, instead, Australia is now seeking its security principally as part of a coalition of Asian countries — or what he calls call an “Asian NATO” — to contain China.

These claims are not supported by a close reading of the recently released 2020 Defence Strategic Update, in which the Prime Minister and Defence Minister have made it plain that the government “will continue to deepen our alliance with United States”. It emphasises that the security arrangements, interoperability, intelligence-sharing, and technological and industrial co-operation between Australia and the US “are critical to Australia’s national security”.

The most important example of this is the fact we going to spend more than $100bn on missiles and strike weapons to increase the ADF’s maritime deterrence and long-range land strike capabilities. These include maritime guided weapons, ballistic and high-speed missiles, high-speed, long-range strike capability, as well as air-launched strike missiles. From where, other than the US, do the “let’s abandon the US alliance” types think we will acquire such sophisticated weapons?

Another example of our increased reliance on the US is that without access to highly classified US defence technology, the ADF would not be a credible force capable of fighting a high-intensity conflict against emerging regional systems. Australia has the most capable fifth-generation air force in our region, but our Joint Strike Fighters and Growler EW Super Hornets depend crucially on huge amounts of highly classified operational mission data from the US. In effect, we are integrated into its military system.

Next, there is the issue of self-reliance, which we allegedly are also abandoning. The Defence Update makes it clear that increased defence self-reliance is a fundamental part of Australia’s defence policy. Important examples of self-reliance mentioned include the supply of specialised munitions and logistic requirements, such as fuel, critical to our military capability. The new focus on sovereign defence industrial capability includes the prospect of us manufacturing certain missiles in Australia for the first time. Is that the end of self-reliance?

In addition, the strategic update identifies growing the ADF’s self-reliance for delivering deterrence, including expanding the Jindalee radar network to provide wide area surveillance of Australia’s eastern approaches, acquiring enhanced smart mines to secure our maritime approaches, a network of satellites to provide an independent defence communications network, as well as the acquisition of a sovereign space-based imagery capability to support our targeting of long-range precision strike weapons.

Another important self-reliance role for Australia is to be “capable of leading” coalition operations in our immediate region, should circumstances demand.

Finally, we are left with the ­accusation that Australia has dumped the direct defence of our own territory and opted for an “Asian NATO”. That propaganda term was first used by China in 2007. Anybody who has worked with the ASEAN Regional Forum knows that it is hard to get agreement on the time of day, let alone agreement on a NATO-type alliance where “an attack on one is an attack on all”. Instead, what we are seeing is an increasing group of like-minded states, such as the Quadrilateral of the US, Japan, India and Australia, working together to support the rules-based order in the Indo ­Pacific and resisting China’s aggressive coercion. The aim should be not to contain China, but to constrain its increasing belligerence.

Too many commentators in Australia these days want to give China more so-called “strategic space” when it has already grabbed the whole of the South China Sea and increasingly threatens the survival of Taiwan.

Those who assert that Australia could go it alone need to tell us what they are proposing instead. Other than the US, precisely from where are we going to get such ­regionally superior military capabilities? And let us not pretend that Europe is in the same category. The fact is that if push comes to shove and we are in high-intensity conflict in our own defence, we need access to the best military capabilities available.

Paul Dibb is professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU. He is a former deputy secretary of defence and director of the defence intelligence organisation.

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