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Australia’s management of strategic risk—a view from the red team

Posted By on January 10, 2018 @ 06:00

Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith’s recent ASPI paper, Australia’s management of strategic risk in the new era [1], is an important strategic piece, which isn’t surprising given its authors. Australia often produces incisive and well-argued strategic-level thinking. But we aren’t so good at the next step down and usually skip straight to force structures with only superficial consideration of the operational concepts that ought to drive them. With that in mind, here’s my attempt at a ‘red team’ appraisal of the argument, first from Beijing and then from Jakarta.

Culture is more important than the West usually recognises. Mao’s military writings accord to some extent with Sun Tzu’s and both retain great influence in Chinese culture. Sun Tzu emphasised the difference between core and non-core interests and keeping your military commitment proportional to the issue at stake. He warned against getting irrevocably committed to wars that could become protracted. Finally, he wrote that the epitome of skill is not to win a thousand battles, but rather to subdue the enemy without fighting.

What might China want from Australia and what Chinese commitment would be proportional? Or, to reverse the question, what pain could China inflict at low effort and what would Australia concede to avoid it? As a trade-dependent nation with poor resilience overall—not just in terms of fuel—Australia is uniquely vulnerable to low-effort coercion by distant blockade. China has no need to put a single sailor or soldier within reach of Australian mainland–based military capabilities. Pressure on key suppliers and a concentrated cyber offensive might even be enough without additional naval effort. Australia also has no clear idea what levers Beijing has among the large Chinese diaspora in the region and in Australia’s major cities and ports. Improving our resilience to blockade might be a more cost-effective investment than equipping to defeat a direct military attack.

If China felt it necessary to escalate to direct attack, what are its best options? Submarine-launched missiles would require the least resources and lead-time. Unless you know the approximate location of a submarine, even a noisy one is nearly impossible to find. Given the area of sea within cruise-missile range of Australia’s major coastal infrastructure, the chances of preventing a submarine-launched attack are miniscule. The mere claim that a submarine is within missile range could have serious psychological and political effects, especially if the question of nuclear escalation was ambiguous. What would China have to gain by bringing higher-signature surface or air forces within reach of Australian mainland–based capabilities?

Australia could spend itself into penury on military kit and still be unable to prevent either distant strategic coercion or a submarine-launched attack. If defence is impracticable, what about deterrence? During the Cold War, France recognised that it couldn’t defeat the Soviet Union and opted for a modest nuclear capability. The Soviets could kill France, but would they be prepared to lose an arm to do so? Nuclear weapons appear to be off the cards for Australia, but what else could we do to make China pause? What are China’s critical strategic vulnerabilities? What levers affect them? Australia will never be able to defeat the giant, but could we put a valued piece of its anatomy at sufficient risk to cause China to prefer options not involving us? That’s too big a question to address here, but it needs more attention than it seems to be getting and it’s directly related to whether our subs should be powered by diesel or by atoms.

Let me remove my Chinese hat and move on to a possible future Islamic Indonesia. The finer points of Islamic jurisprudence may seem odd to Australian leaders, but they’re very important to many Muslims. Western leaders’ theologically illiterate attempts to condemn the actions of ISIS as un-Islamic were easily ridiculed by its media machine by simply measuring them against the Quran and Hadith. In our military headquarters we have advisers on law, equity, gender and a host of other things that don’t matter to our enemies. Where are the theology advisers? How do we avoid encouraging the very thing we’re trying to prevent? The necessary knowledge is readily available within Australia, but it’s not utilised because the problem isn’t recognised.

Perhaps a more likely consequence of a rise of radical Islam would be that the Indonesian state could no longer control the centrifugal forces intrinsic to its structure. Would we see ‘archipelagic balkanisation’, rather than a unified Islamic Indonesia and subsequent state-on-state conflict with Australia? In either case, Australia desperately needs concepts and doctrine for archipelagic warfare. That’s a critical gap that successive force structure reviews have failed to recognise. Consequently, large chunks of our current force are all but unemployable in archipelagic warfare.

What does all that mean for Australia? Many governments have come to recognise that chasing the mythical ‘balanced force’ with the budgets available to them ensures inadequacy everywhere. The art of strategy is deciding what to forgo to fund what’s important. That demands hard decisions.  Dibb and Brabin-Smith’s proposals comprise mostly, though not entirely, doing what we do now better, and that has a hint of the balanced force about it. Fully protecting our vulnerabilities is almost certainly beyond our means, but our potential enemies have pressure points too and analysing and exploiting them to make any exchange unattractive may be more achievable with the resources Australian governments will choose to afford.

That would require outside-the-box thinking and might lead to non-traditional force structures, two areas in which Australia has a poor track record. It would have major implications for the nuclear submarine debate and for the utility, or otherwise, of fast jets that can only operate from highly specialised fixed bases. But let’s sort out the strategy before we dive down into choosing the instruments!



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[1] Australia’s management of strategic risk in the new era: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/australias-management-strategic-risk-new-era

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