Jim Molan’s polemical article in Quadrant (March 2013) (and his précis on The Strategist last week) presents a target-rich environment. Putting aside what I’ll describe as Jim’s robust style of argument, he addresses the two key perennial policy questions for Defence: how much to invest and what to do with the investment.
His main proposition seems to be that good strategy leads Australia being capable of engaging in ‘high-end warfighting’ in so-called Wars of Necessity. ‘That is why we build the ADF’, he says. So what’s his justification for this level of capability?
At one level, Jim seems believe we should invest just so that the ADF ‘can conduct a level of sophisticated joint warfighting operations appropriate to a nation such as Australia’—whatever ‘appropriate’ means in this context! To be fair, however, the appeal to national pride and institutional vanity is not the only or the primary argument offered in the article.
He goes on to say that a consistent 2% of GDP funding for the ADF would ‘give Australia confidence that it possessed a force capable of reinforcing the integrated system of strategic deterrence that inhibits early resort to force by any regional player’. Whether or not such an integrated system really exists, or would be effective if it did, this proposition sets out a serious regional policing and deterrence role for Australia.
This can only be a deterrence policy directed at China. Most commentators see the risk of conflict in the Indo-Pacific region as high, and most likely involving China. The argument I infer from this is that to deter China from engaging in conflict in the region, the ADF requires a sophisticated joint warfighting capability to undertake high-end warfighting in Wars of Necessity.
Are Australia’s overall interests, domestic and international, best met by taking a provocative stance towards China? Apparently. In Jim’s view the urgency of meeting this need gives investment in Defence the highest spending priority. To the point that it means that ‘governments have a greater obligation in relation to funding defence out of government revenues…than they do for social programs’.
What level of capability does this line of reasoning imply? I think the statement ‘only with AWDs can there be meaning in having fighters, submarines, amphibious ships and troops’ provides a strong clue. Only in a littoral operation in support of an offensive or hostile insertion of forces against China can these ADF capabilities find their justification. Or, conversely, the need to conduct such an operation provides the justification for the level of capability.
Suggesting that over time Australia could build a military capability that could police or deter China is naive militarism at its worst. I believe China would perceive our act more as a symbolic gesture in an alliance context rather than as strategically significant. The assumption that Australia acquiring this level of capability would weigh heavily in China’s strategic decision making is, to say the least, exaggerated in Jim’s article.
China’s security concerns are massive relative to Australia’s. China, a nuclear power, has land borders with 14 countries: four are nuclear armed, of which three are non-NPT members and the other holds the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. China has the world’s largest land force and two of the world’s four largest land forces are in neighbouring states. States bordering western China include some of the most volatile and least stable states in the world—including Pakistan and Afghanistan—and China has unresolved border disputes with some of them.
As the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper stated, ‘It is important to keep regional defence expenditure in context: in some cases, increases over recent years come from relatively low baselines, while the US defence budget continues to dwarf those of other countries’. SIPRI data shows that between 1989 and 2011 the US outspent China by ratio of 9.9 to 1 and separately US allies (South Korea, Australia and Japan) alone collectively outspent China by 180%. The deterrent effect on China’s rate of military investment or strategic policy of Australia acquiring the proposed level of capability would be marginal at best.
Like Jim, I now consider the post-Vietnam emphasis on continental defence flawed and lacking strategic imagination. Equally, I think to the justification for enthusiastically embracing a high-end offensive expeditionary force structure requires far greater analysis and more prudent consideration than is evident in Jim’s article.
I think the real consensus among commentators is that the answer to the rise of China remains elusive, but I think it’s obvious that avoiding major conflict involving China and Australia is one of our highest strategic priorities. Preparing for a so-called War of Necessity in Asia that can’t be won isn’t in our national interest.
Mike Scrafton is a consultant and former senior defence executive and chief of staff to the Minister for Defence.