Gi­ant de­fen­sive steps in a re­gion edg­ing closer to con­flict


The Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment is chang­ing the in­ter­na­tional and strate­gic ori­en­ta­tion of the Aus­tralian na­tion. We are now, for the first time since the Viet­nam War, liv­ing in a re­gion with a strong chance of ma­jor power con­flict. And we have de­cided to ac­quire se­ri­ous mil­i­tary strike power as part of our de­ter­rence.

These are huge de­ci­sions. The gov­ern­ment is right to make them. The process has been led by Scott Mor­ri­son and De­fence Min­is­ter Linda Reynolds.

The ca­pa­bil­ity de­ci­sions are eye-wa­ter­ing in their con­se­quences, and their dol­lar amounts.

But they are un­der­pinned by a hard-headed and un­de­ni­able strate­gic anal­y­sis.

The gov­ern­ment on Wed­nes­day pub­lishes the Strate­gic Up­date and the Force Struc­ture Plan.

The Strate­gic Up­date recog­nises how se­verely Aus­tralia’s strate­gic cir­cum­stances have wors­ened. In the 2016 De­fence white pa­per the as­sess­ment was that mil­i­tary con­flict in our re­gion be­tween ma­jor pow­ers was a “re­mote” pos­si­bil­ity. In Wed­nes­day’s Strate­gic Up­date that has changed to merely “un­likely”.

When ma­jor power con­flict moves from re­mote to un­likely, that is a near cat­a­strophic de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in strate­gic

out­look. Let’s be very blunt. There is more pos­si­bil­ity of war, or of more lim­ited mil­i­tary con­flict, in our re­gion than has been the case for many decades.

Aus­tralia faces this dan­ger in a mo­ment when ev­ery­thing has been thrown into dis­ar­ray by COVID-19. It has ex­posed our vul­ner­a­ble sup­ply chains and it has ac­cel­er­ated ev­ery neg­a­tive trend in the re­gion.

The gov­ern­ment will re­fo­cus our de­fence force on our re­gion, with less em­pha­sis on the Mid­dle East. This does not mean im­me­di­ate draw­down of our re­main­ing forces in the Mid­dle East but the era of Iraq and Afghanista­n hav­ing any ef­fect at all on our force struc­ture, or any pri­or­ity in our de­ploy­ments, is surely gone.

In the 2016 De­fence white pa­per we had three bal­anced ob­jec­tives — do­mes­tic, re­gional and global. Now our pri­or­ity will be over­whelm­ingly re­gional, and within our re­gion we plan to Shape, De­ter and Re­spond. That means we want to shape our en­vi­ron­ment, de­ter at­tacks against us and, when nec­es­sary, re­spond with de­ci­sive mil­i­tary force.

But the only ques­tion that ever re­ally counts in de­fence, to quote Lenin, is this: what is to be done?

The Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment is go­ing to do a great deal. Over the next decade it will com­mit $270bn to new and en­hanced de­fence ca­pa­bil­i­ties. That in­cludes $75bn for mar­itime forces, $65bn for air ca­pa­bil­i­ties, $55bn for land forces, $15bn for cy­ber and in­for­ma­tion war­fare and $7bn for space ca­pa­bil­i­ties. All five — mar­itime, air, land, cy­ber and space — are now fully fledged do­mains of po­ten­tial war­fare.

There are a num­ber of big spe­cific items in­cluded. There will be two more sup­port ships to help our LHDs (land­ing he­li­copter dock or am­phibi­ous as­sault ships) and other naval ves­sels. The off­shore pa­trol ves­sels will have greater com­bat lethal­ity, with smart sea mines they can de­ploy or counter. This gives us im­por­tant ad­di­tional de­fen­sive op­tions.

The gov­ern­ment will also go ahead with the pur­chase, at about $800m, of up to 200 US lon­grange anti-ship mis­siles. Ini­tially, these will be de­ploy­able on our Su­per Hor­net Fight­ers but in due course they could also be car­ried by our F-35s. The LRASMs have a range of nearly 400km. But you have to add to that the ef­fec­tive range of the Su­per Hor­nets, per­haps ex­tended by aerial re­fu­ellers. Aus­tralia would have the ca­pac­ity to hit ad­ver­sary ships hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres from our shores.

The LRASM also rep­re­sents a dif­fer­ence in type. It is ex­tremely so­phis­ti­cated with in­de­pen­dent tar­get­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. It can team up with its bud­dies and at­tack in swarms or mini-swarms. It car­ries a big pay­load: 450kg. It can take eva­sive mea­sures on its way to its tar­get. It’s very hard to shoot down, very hard to de­fend against. If you’re plan­ning mar­itime dam­age against Aus­tralia, it is a ca­pa­bil­ity of which you would have to take ac­count. LRASMs have not been in use in the US for a year. That they were ap­proved for sale to Aus­tralia so quickly demon­strates how close the al­liance with the US is and the ben­e­fits it can de­liver.

It is the first step in Aus­tralia ac­quir­ing broader mis­sile strike ca­pa­bil­ity. The gov­ern­ment also plans to buy more F18 Growlers, the adapted ver­sion of the F18 fighter that spe­cialises in elec­tronic war­fare. EW blinds and dis­ables an op­po­nent’s forces.

There will be heavy in­vest­ment in the devel­op­ment of hy­per­sonic weapons, nec­es­sary for of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive pur­poses. China and Rus­sia are putting mas­sive ef­fort into hy­per­sonic mis­siles. Hy­per­sonic weapons travel at many times the speed of sound and, be­cause of this speed and the an­gle of their re-en­try, are ex­cep­tion­ally dif­fi­cult to de­fend against. The US too is de­vot­ing bil­lions to de­vel­op­ing hy­per­sonic weapons. Can­berra wants to be part of this, both so that it is up to the minute on any abil­ity to de­fend against such weapons and so that Aus­tralia too can ac­quire them when they are re­li­ably de­ploy­able.

We have not had a strong strike ca­pa­bil­ity since the re­tire­ment of the last F111s a decade ago. They were a mag­nif­i­cent plane in their day, though in terms of cost over­runs, de­lays and con­tro­versy dur­ing con­struc­tion and ac­qui­si­tion they were right up there. Can­berra may in due course in­vest in an­other gen­er­a­tion of strate­gic bomber, but the gov­ern­ment has made the de­ci­sion to pur­sue new strike ca­pa­bil­ity through mis­siles. This is the right de­ci­sion. This is the strike tech­nol­ogy of the fu­ture. Be­cause we are such close al­lies of the US, we can stay on the mis­sile tech­nol­ogy glide path, though we are right to in­vest in our own sov­er­eign ca­pa­bil­i­ties. All of this costs a lot of money. But it is an ur­gent na­tional ne­ces­sity.

The gov­ern­ment’s an­nounce­ments will fully main­tain all fund­ing com­mit­ments of the 2016 De­fence white pa­per. The gov­ern­ment is al­most unique in ac­tu­ally hon­our­ing a white pa­per.

The gov­ern­ment plans to de­cou­ple de­fence ex­pen­di­ture from the size of the GDP, at least in terms of pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tion. How­ever, given the econ­omy will shrink for a while be­cause of COVID-19, while de­fence spend­ing at the very least is main­tained in real terms, the de­fence bud­get will sail well over the tal­is­manic 2 per cent of GDP am­bi­tion. This means that as a na­tion we are rightly in­creas­ing the rel­a­tive size of our de­fence ef­fort.

There is noth­ing strange or mil­i­taris­tic about Aus­tralia’s ac­tions. Other na­tions – In­dia, Ja­pan, Sin­ga­pore and Viet­nam among them – are do­ing the same thing for more or less the same rea­sons. The ex­tremely as­sertive be­hav­iour of China over the last three years, es­pe­cially the last 12 months, has changed the strate­gic cal­cu­la­tions of our re­gion.

Aus­tralia is re­spond­ing to more than just Bei­jing’s be­hav­iour. In the next 10 or 15 years our re­gion will host half of the world’s sub­marines. Those Aus­tralian jack­asses who claim subs are ob­so­lete seem to know some­thing that ev­ery sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary power in the world, all of which are in­creas­ing their sub­ma­rine fleets, have missed.

Sub­marines are a fun­da­men­tal piece of Aus­tralia’s de­ter­rence ca­pa­bil­ity. They pro­vide un­matched sur­veil­lance and help se­cure our mar­itime ap­proaches. It is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine any se­ri­ous ef­fort at se­cur­ing Aus­tralia that does not in­volve sub­marines. There is no prospect of Aus­tralia ac­quir­ing nu­clear subs in the next decades and the nu­clear sub de­bate is a hobby horse for cranks.

In the mean­time, the gov­ern­ment will ex­tend the life of the Collins-class subs and as it does so it will grad­u­ally in­tro­duce into them much of the state-of-the-art tech­nol­ogy that will ul­ti­mately go into our French-de­signed subs. The more strike and de­ter­rence ca­pa­bil­ity Aus­tralia has, the less likely it is we would ever have to use it.

It is an ax­iom of se­cu­rity that you plan against ca­pa­bil­ity rather than in­tent. For the past 20 years Bei­jing has been en­gaged in one of the most in­tense mil­i­tary buildups in mod­ern his­tory. We must take re­spon­si­bil­ity for our own na­tional se­cu­rity. This may be a piv­otal day in our his­tory.

As­sertive be­hav­iour by China has changed the strate­gic cal­cu­la­tions of our re­gion

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