The alliance—dependence grows as our options narrow
1 May 2018|

The irony for Australia in the post–Cold War era is that our dependence on the United States has grown as the strategic options in our region have narrowed. Our national strategy of ‘defence self-reliance within our alliances’ has been tilted by major shifts in power relativities and US engagement. The change is also driven by a major enhancement of military technologies and intelligence capabilities, led in the West by America.

We’re on the cusp of significant leaps in both. We’ve long seen technological solutions as vital given the challenge of defending a vast continent with a small population. Economic growth and hence military potential in our region has simultaneously advantaged us but also augmented the challenge. The ‘glad, confident morning’ of the fall of the Berlin Wall obscured this likely scenario. Like most, we seized a ‘peace dividend’ and it’s clear now that this reduced focus on defence is problematic.

Our zone was a Cold War backwater after Vietnam. The 1980s were our defence and foreign policy golden years. Our hosting of joint facilities, critical strategically to the US, and the relative military impotence of our neighborhood, meant we were more important to the Americans than they were to us.

However, the Cold War atmospheric sustained the salience of defence issues in our politics. We were able to press the frozen architecture of the Cold War framework for a vast array of Australian initiatives in regional—and sometimes global—affairs in areas of arms control, peace solutions in places like Cambodia, and human rights, notably in assisting the end of apartheid in South Africa. Defence self-reliance strengthened the hands of our foreign affairs ministers and diplomats.

Now, the outlook is massively changed. Our region isn’t a backwater but a focal point of global interest. Partly this is driven by China emerging as a major economic partner of many nations, and as a military competitor of the US. That the US identified the zone as a priority was clear with President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’, which added Southeast and South Asia to the longstanding American focus on North Asia.

The Trump administration has confused this picture somewhat, but in its defense strategy it has identified the Indo-Pacific as top of its priorities. Despite manifold distractions in the Middle East and Europe, both the Obama and Trump administrations continued the allocation of 60% of military capabilities to the Indo-Pacific zone.

There’s a paradox in this. Some commentators point to our trade relationship with China, and its projection of strategic power in the zone and further afield, as indicating a need for us to be more cautious in our relations with the US. Yet the same factors, combined with the economic rise of the region, increase the saliency of the American relationship in our regional diplomacy. It’s a card in our relationship with nations other than China. We’d be lightweight without it. Even with China, it’s a card.

When purely focused on the economic relationship with China, the argument for caution has a degree of saliency, but in terms of foreign investment in Australia, the US is far ahead of China. And that’s before we consider the enormous value of our military/intelligence connection.

As our options narrow, it’s increasingly clear that there are flaws in our otherwise very useful 2016 Defence White Paper.

One is it giving equal priority to the defence of our approaches, deployment in our region and protecting the rules-based order when determining our force structure. The latter two are important and defence capabilities are important factors in our diplomacy. But we have always understood that the requirements of the first will usually produce capabilities that will help with the other two.

The second flaw lies in much of the ADF’s promised new capability coming far down the track. Being able to deny an enemy passage through the choke points in the Southeast Asian archipelago and around northern Papua New Guinea has developed a new urgency.

Submarines are vital but we have too few of them and their replacements are too far away. At least the RAAF is better placed. Some note that the Wedgetail command-and-control aircraft, as well as the refuellers, that we need for operations at and beyond the choke points would be vulnerable. At least the incoming F‑35s are a mini-AWAC in themselves. They’ll be able to act directly with over-the-horizon radar and satellites to vector other aircraft.

Another major national security issue is our failure to hold sufficient fuel reserves to meet our International Energy Agency obligations. We’re obliged to hold 90 days reserves but our best category has 17 days and others are much less. Our supplies are at sea, spread from Singapore to North Asia. This isn’t sustainable and an obvious point of pressure on us well short of war.

It’s in the incorporation of new defence technologies that the US relationship is critical. Only the US can sustain the challenge of inventiveness in the areas of the cyber, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, hypersonics, direct energy weapons, constellations of satellites and, above all, the development of systems of systems. China and Russia will, from time to time, be ahead of America, as was the Soviet Union at points during the Cold War. But as a developer of systems of systems, the US does it the best.

Air Vice Marshal (ret) John Blackburn argues in his superb paper on integrated air and missile defence that our bottom‑up approach needs to move closer to the US top‑down approach. With new platforms and capabilities, we must consider how each links into, enhances and is enhanced by the picture produced by the integrated system. We’re engaged with the US in the development of a number of these technologies and evolving new strategies using them.

Independent capacities in these areas are way beyond our finances, yet they’ll be vital to our survival and to the credibility of our deterrent and defence posture, and they’ll underpin our diplomacy and choices. Chinese advances in the South Pacific will only amplify these requirements.

All this scarcely features in the day-to-day discussion of the shifting power equation in our region as we focus on infrastructure development, economic growth numbers and trading relationships. That the US is the only power that we can credibly connect with in order to provide new military capabilities has to underpin our reactions to the evolving political structure.

We’ve come full circle since the 1980s when the weight was on the ‘self-reliant’ component of our national strategy. Now it’s ‘within alliances’.