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This is the transcript of the speech delivered by Honorary Professor Richard Brabin-Smith at the public panel event ‘Why Australia Needs a Radically New Defence Policy’ on 27 September 2018.
Video of the event is available on the Coral Bell School Youtube channel.
Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. The strategic bus is leaving town, and if we don’t get on board, it will be all too late, and it will all end in tears.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of the strategic changes that we are now experiencing.
Specifically, increases in the capacity of armed forces in the Indo-Pacific serve to undermine one of the critical foundations of what has been defence policy since the 1970s.
For one nation to contemplate the use of military force against another, it needs to have the motive, the intent, and, perhaps most importantly, the capability to conduct operations.
So, what is it that we are changing from? In the 1970s, and for the next three-plus decades, no-one in our broad region had the military capability to do us much harm. Further, while motive and intent could change relatively quickly, it would take much longer for a potentially hostile nation to develop the necessary capability, doctrine and proficiency.
These were key observations. They led to the conclusion that, in the context of the defence of Australia, only lesser contingencies were credible in the shorter term, and that more serious contingencies were credible only in the longer term. This in turn gave rise to the notion of ten to 15 years of warning time for such more-serious contingencies. There was the policy conclusion that the size and shape of the ADF should be sufficient to handle shorter term contingencies, and be the basis for expansion during warning time for more serious conflict.
All this is familiar stuff.
In contrast, today, higher levels of military capability in the region are changing the basis that underpinned these policies. In particular, the continuing modernisation and expansion of China’s armed forces mean that its capability to conduct operations at high levels of intensity and technological sophistication has increased, and will increase further.
This is not to paint China necessarily as our adversary, although as Paul has pointed out, China’s values, strategic ambition and increasing economic power are already in some respects in sharp contrast to our own Australian values and interests.
Rather, it is to say that, because the capability exists or is planned to come into service, warning times for more serious contingencies are now potentially much shorter than in previous years. Further, indicators of warning will come to depend more critically than in the past on assessments of motive and intent. Such judgements are inherently more subjective and fluid than assessments of capability. Strategic risk management therefore becomes more challenging.
What are the consequences for defence planning? I have five main points.
First, there is a need to reconsider the spectrum of possible contingencies: in particular, contingencies envisaged as credible in the shorter term will need to embrace higher levels of technological sophistication and intensity than those considered in previous years. What would be the nature of such contingencies? What would be their context? How would Australia’s interests be engaged? What level of intensity and duration might be expected? How would they be conducted? How would the risk of escalation be managed? How would they be drawn to a conclusion? What might we plan to do to avoid them in the first place? And what are the implications for the force structure and its readiness profile? Such analysis would require a more sophisticated approach than one based on only lesser contingencies credible in the shorter term and more serious conflict put off into the never-never.
Second, how should we approach indictors and warnings for potential conflict? The need for clear judgement in this area would be compounded by the likely absence of an obvious warning threshold, as there could be high levels of ambiguity. There could well be contestability between the intelligence assessment agencies, and between them and policy areas.
Third, and following from the prospect of shorter warning times, is the need to consider higher levels of readiness and sustainability. This is manifest in a wide variety of ways: ADF training levels; stocks of missiles and torpedoes; holdings of maintenance spares; the ability to sustain operations for weeks or months round the clock, with particular implications for surveillance, command and control, intelligence staff, cyber operators, and combat pilots; fuel; and operational bases, especially in the north. In previous years, many consumables have been held at levels not much more than those appropriate to peacetime rates of effort and low levels of preparedness.
Fourth is the matter of the size of the ADF and its potential for expansion. On the one hand, recent years have seen some important new capabilities such as the Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft, the Jindalee OTHR radar network, better tanker and transport aircraft, and much-improved command arrangements. System for system, tomorrow’s ADF will be much more capable than yesterday’s. Further, by 2040 we will have a few more frigates, and by 2050 or so (which is a long way off) we will have doubled the size of the submarine force to 12 boats.
On the other hand, in many ways, the ADF now planned for is only modestly expanded from that of the benign years of the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of the “core force and expansion base” period. In many respects the numbers remain modest, especially against the prospect of more intense conflict.
Two issues follow from this. First, whether the ADF would be large enough to handle the more-demanding contingencies that are now a real prospect with little warning. Second, what would the modes and mechanisms be for timely expansion for the ADF, including over a much-reduced expansion period? ** We should at the very least identify the steps that should be taken now to shorten the time that future expansion would take.**
A related issue, as Michael Shoebridge of ASPI has pointed out, is the need to consider attrition reserves, not just for peacetime accidents but also for combat losses on operations.
My fifth point is the matter of capabilities that could prove important additions to the Australian Order of Battle. Technology will bring new possibilities and imperatives anyway (such as hypersonics), but some specifics for consideration include improved strike capabilities for enhanced levels of deterrence (a point on which Brendan will say more), nuclear powered submarines and an Australian maritime area-denial weapon, perhaps drawing on the formidable capabilities of the Jindalee radar network.
The other great policy challenge comes from uncertainty about the United States.
What I have said so far assumes that the US continues with more or less its present levels of commitment towards its friends and allies in the Indo-Pacific region.
What might the US do that would be different from this?
An obvious possibility is that the US would raise the threshold for its active involvement in its allies’ security. It would expect its allies to become more able to conduct operations in their own defence – a sort of Guam Doctrine Mark II. Currently we get privileged access to US defence capabilities, intelligence, science and technology, and doctrine. Provided this access continued, the consequences for us would be to increase the emphasis on what I have already mentioned: more readiness and sustainability, improvements to northern bases, attention to the expansion base, enhanced strike, etc. This would cost more but would not in itself represent a major redirection of policy.
Much more worrying would be if the US withdrew into its shell and significantly reduced its interest in the Indo-Pacific and its allies, and for that matter in the North Atlantic too. I believe this to be most unlikely, but if it were to happen, the consequences for us – and others – would be severe. Alternatives to American high-tech equipment would not be as capable, and probably just as expensive. Reduced access to US intelligence, science, etc would be a severe disadvantage. Further, with American withdrawal, we would expect a more assertive China to fill the vacuum.
A particular concern would be the end of extended nuclear deterrence, not just for us but for other US allies in the Pacific, Japan especially. To say the very least, such a development, and the prospect of nuclear proliferation in the Pacific, would require Australia to review its own position on nuclear weapons.
What I have just outlined is not a counsel of despair. Far from it. In many ways, today’s Defence Force is in good shape, and the modernisation plans are impressive and reassuring. Our relationships with such countries as Japan, Indonesia and India are already a good basis on which to build, and to advance our shared interests in the security of the Indo-Pacific. While past policies cast a long shadow, Defence itself recognises that changing times mean that policies themselves must change. However, whether the rate and extent of change are sufficiently recognised is a moot point.
Time is not on our side. We cannot afford complacency. Our future strategic circumstances will be much more demanding than those of the past 40 years, and we need to respond to these changes now. The strategic bus is leaving and we need now to get on board. Otherwise, it will be all too late.