Australia needs a broad and clear national security strategy
30 Jul 2021|

Over many decades, Hans Ohff and Jon Stanford have made significant contributions to the defence debate in Australia and they’ve have earned the right to comment. As Australian shipbuilders and submariners engaged in the highest level of the defence debate, they make some good points.

Of course, you wouldn’t expect me with my years of single-service, joint and combined warfighting experience in peace and war, and some exposure to the political scene, to make the kind of appallingly ignorant comments about ships and submarines that they so freely and confidently made in their recent Strategist piece about armoured vehicles. This is parochialism at its worst and detracts from the value of their article.

No one who has ever fought in a war would say we don’t need armoured vehicles. Wherever you have infantry, you need armoured vehicles to protect them.

But I do agree that there is no sign of a defence strategy that might lead a cogent debate about what materiel and operational solutions constitute the best way to achieve whatever the strategy might be. And neither is there evidence that we have a national security strategy. If deterrence is important, there’s no use keeping everything secret. (If we’re bluffing, though, then perhaps there is!)

At first blush, I thought that the strategic goals of ‘shape’, ‘deter’ and ‘respond’ set out in the 2020 defence strategic update might indicate the existence of at least an operational concept as an integral part of a defence strategy. When I have questioned this, I’ve been told that there is a strategy, but it can’t be released. Interesting. And a simplistic three-word operational concept puts us no further ahead than we were in the 1985 defence review.

But how can there be a defence strategy without an overarching and comprehensive national security strategy? What good is it to have a brilliant defence strategy without national liquid fuel, industry, pharma, science and technology, manpower, diplomacy and stocking policies, and a plan to move from peacetime processes that Ohff and Stanford’s article refers to, to the wartime processes that are implied?

What good is it for us to be world class at anti-access/area denial based on brilliant materiel solutions if we can no longer feed the people due to a lack of diesel and if we’re unable to move smoothly from a peacetime footing to a wartime footing in government and the bureaucracy because we haven’t thought it through, and because we lack modern plans or processes? And if the government will put $270 billion into defence over the next 10 years because of the strategic environment, what are we doing for the nation as a whole? If we think vaccinating the population is difficult, try mobilising.

I have said publicly many times that in considering alternative security futures (threats) and preparing for them, this government has done much more for defence than most. Ohff and Stanford recognise this by acknowledging that the 2% of GDP to be spent on defence is now a floor and not a target.

We expect governments to take risks, but unless there’s comprehensive consideration of national security, how does the government know what’s a fair risk to take on defence? The greatest threat to national security, and therefore to defence, is a failure in public health or the economy, and that must be the government’s priority. But where is the medium- to long-term plan?

If the government is consciously taking a risk with our security and our money based on a strategy, we should be told a lot more about it. There should be a national security statement by government that’s based on a strategy and not just a political fix, that has substance and has been thought through.

Ohff and Stanford fell into the trap of decrying this lack of a defence strategy but, like so many commentators, relied on their own implied understanding of how the next war will go. From that they advocated a particular materiel fix. They might be right, they might be wrong, or they might be a bit of each.

I can only assume that they see the next war similarly to Hugh White, involving an attempt by China to reach into our region in some way (they say that invasion is unlikely), against which we use our anti-access/area-denial military force. That may turn out to be true, but it’s not all we need to be prepared for.

Here’s my view (which I’ve offered before) on the sorts of conflicts and wars that we need to prepare for, and smart people out there may improve on them:

  • a continuation of the grey-zone conflict Australia is experiencing now, and which the government is handling well
  • an enhancement of grey-zone conflict—for example, action against our maritime trade and air routes. Our ports are our single point of failure in the security of this nation and we have no capacity to carry our imports or exports in our own ships
  • war between the US and China with Australia as collateral damage. Australia is unlikely to be the main target initially in such a conflict, but our allies may expect us to deploy forces to deter such a war. If that happens, we may be struck directly by cyberattack or by missiles aimed at coalition forces or strategic targets, and our commercial sea and air movements may be heavily restricted
  • more direct attacks on Australia, depending on who wins the initial round of battles between the US and China. China’s aim will be to win decisively and early and to drive the US out of the region. If the US is forced out of the region by a military defeat—which is acknowledged by realists as more than a possibility—Australia may be on its own
  • a regional war in the Middle East or in the Baltic or Black Sea, alone or in conjunction with conflict in our region. If Iran closed the Persian Gulf in a war with Israel or Saudi Arabia, Australia would be deprived of 90% of its liquid fuel, with US stocks still 40 days away from being able to power vehicles even if sea lanes were open. The US, given its limited military capability, might be weaker in our region if it has deployed forces to the Gulf or to NATO.

Unless we have a clear threat scenario, vagaries such as ‘drums of war’, ‘defence of Australia’, ‘shape, deter, respond’ and ‘balanced force’ are useless for real security planning.

If we had a comprehensive strategy directing all aspects of national security, including defence, we might understand what a cascading defence strategy should look like. Maybe we would find that we need a different form of ‘defence balance’ that might even involve armoured vehicles.