Defence and Security. ‘We are on our own’

Australia’s security environment has changed dramatically in the last two decades. With the rise of China, the United States is no longer the dominant military power in Asia and it is no longer prepared to give military priority to maintaining its regional dominance. With this strategic retreat of the United States from Asia, Australia has no choice but to re-orient our security thinking away from support for the United States in the region to the independent defence of Australia and our regional interests.

This is a major change in direction for Australia. It will require astute political leadership and clear-sighted military leadership. And it will require the country to confront its complacent ‘she’ll be right’ mentality and our longstanding cultural cringe. This change in direction is as much a cultural challenge for Australia as a military challenge.

Our two major parties cannot implement this change in national direction. They are too immersed in the traditional habit of dependence upon the United States, and have no track record in designing policy or infrastructure or capability for the independent defence of Australia. Their immersion in this traditional security outlook, and their attachment to its assumptions and practices, is now a real security threat to Australia’s strategic interests. Because of the lead-time required in acquiring an independent military capability, we must move quickly. The two major parties have no capacity to move quickly on these issues.

This change in direction will also require a national consensus amongst Australians in organizing and funding the independent defence of Australia. Right and Left are too partisan and distrusted by significant sections of Australian society to construct a working national consensus. That task can only be accomplished by a unifying national leadership anchored in the mainstream centre of Australian opinion.

Policy Agenda:

1. Australia’s national security interests require a shift in policy towards the independent defence of Australia and our regional interests.

2. This shift requires a thorough overhaul in culture of the Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Force, a closer integration of our civilian and military infrastructure, and a far more rigorous and participative public debate about defence and security matters.

3. The strategic objective of our defence preparedness and capability is a maritime strategy of sea denial, meaning a capacity to intercept and defeat any military threat to Australia in the maritime areas to our immediate north. A secondary objective is to deter and defeat any incursions onto Australian territory. Our strategic interests do not require expeditionary forces for assignment to distant parts of the globe.

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4. The independent defence of Australia requires the following changes in our defence capability:

a. our naval capabilities have been designed to support the US navy in sea control operations in the Asian region (which is no longer a US priority). For a maritime strategy of sea denial, we need a fleet of 24 to 32 less costly submarines rather than 12 exorbitantly expensive ones, along with fewer large warships and helicopters, fewer anti-submarine capacities and no need for amphibious assault forces;

b. our army needs to be reoriented from heavy combat expeditionary capabilities to support a strategy of maritime denial. This means an increase in infantry battalions from 8 to 10 lighter and less costly battalions that can be assigned quickly to Pacific and neighbouring destinations, and to guerilla warfare capabilities on Australian teritory;

c. our airforce needs a doubling of the strike jet fleet to 200, with an expanded base infrastructure, and significantly more investment in long-range land-based surface-to-air missiles and land-strike missiles; and

d. we need major additional investments in intelligence collection and integrated surveillance systems (which have been made more feasible by revolutionary advances in technology in recent years), along with bigger stocks of precision-guided munitions.

5. This change in capability will require an overall increase in defence spending from the current 2% to 3.5% of GDP, an increase from $40bn to $70bn annually. An increase of this size can only be phased in over a period of years, but our strategic interests require a rapid implementation given our fast-changing strategic environment.

6. The $55bn contract to purchase 12 Attack-class submarines from the French Naval Group should be cancelled as soon as possible. This contract is now reported to have blown out to $79bn and rising. The cost is twice the amount per vessel that we should be spending. The break-in-contract fees will only increase in time: they are currently reported to be $14m if a basic design has been completed, $404m if a detailed design has been completed, and $355m per vessel after delivery of the first submarine.

7. The failure of successive Australian governments to develop a clear strategic objective and purpose for our defence acquisitions has led to a wasteful and irresponsible culture of ‘vote-buying’ using defence procurements. This led to the exorbitant cost of the 12 Attack-class submarines. International evidence suggests that the benefits of defence procurements for domestic job-creation and economic development are vastly over-stated. Australia is better served by ‘off-the-shelf’ purchases from other countries to contain acquisition costs.

8. There has been enormous wastage in defence spending under successive Australian governments. Most of this has been hidden from public scrutiny by the Byzantine complexity of internal defence decision-making processes and the phenomenon of ‘provider capture’ in defence spending (where decisions made about billion dollar purchases are driven by internal departmental dynamics, force prestige and industry vested interests, rather than by rigorous and open public debate).

A number of procurement programs in addition to the ‘Asset-class’ submarines should also be cancelled because they do not fit our current strategic objective, such as the $35 billion SEA 5000 Hunter Class vessels. Others should be sold off, such as the Canberra Class vessels.

Major cuts in the number of civilian and military personnel at defence headquarters in Russell Hill, Canberra, should be made, and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation should be significantly scaled back.

9. Australia has no reasonable prospect of developing exports in defence equipment. The current Australian Government’s stated desire to build a defence exports industry is a fantasy that should be ended quickly. It has been run only because the public debate about our real strategic objectives has been abysmally poor for a long time.

10. There is no strategic reason for Australia to introduce compulsory military service in the forseeable future. Our priority is investment in sea and air capabilities and precision munitions to execute a maritime strategy of sea denial.

11. Our forces in Afghanistan should be withdrawn as soon as possible. Our ongoing presence there, after 18 years, is no longer compatible with our own strategic objectives.

12. Australia can and should continue to have a close foreign policy and security relationship with the United States, while quietly discontinuing the now redundant and largely symbolic ANZUS Treaty. We should continue to purchase defence equipment from the United States where this suits our strategic objectives. The benefits of ‘interoperability’ (meaning synergies in defence systems between the two countries) are now outweighed by the strategic imperative of planning to defend Australia independently.

13. Australia can and should continue to have a strong trading and cultural relationship with China, and there is no reason to cancel joint military exercises between the two countries. However, it is prudent for Australia to rule out the sale of Australian assets to state-owned Chinese businesses, limit financial contributions from state-owned Chinese interests to Australian universities and cultural organizations, and limit Australian university financial dependence on foreign students from China.

14. Australia should continue to develop a close collaborative relationship with New Zealand in defence and security matters, and integrate the defence capacities of our two countries where mutual benefits are available.

15. Australia should continue to cultivate close collaborative relationships with Pacific Island states, discouraging military and financial alignments with China, assisting Pacific nation capacities for maritime patrols, and maintaining an Australian preparedness to protect and support constitutional democracy and the rule of law in Pacific Island states.