Australia’s warning time is running out: Beazley
24 Dec 2021|

Former defence minister Kim Beazley has delivered a sobering comparison between how Australia dealt with the lead-up to World War II and the complex and deteriorating strategic situation it faces now.

Now governor of Western Australia, the former ambassador to the US, long-time politician and senior academic began his John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library anniversary lecture in Perth this month with an account of the American campaign in the Pacific that included the battle of the Coral Sea.

That crucial naval battle was fought in part of what is now Australia’s exclusive economic zone. ‘It was that close,’ Beazley said.

Australians as a people mounted a massive defence effort, but they knew that their survival and independence depended on a gigantic allied endeavour, Beazley said.

When he was defence minister, the view was that Australia would have 15 years to prepare for a major threat and to build the capabilities to defend itself. ‘The 15 years is up,’ Beazley said. ‘Warning time, except in the sense of actual movement of forces, is over.’

Now, he says, Australia’s defence planners face a massive conundrum. How much of an effort must be placed on the here and now? What effort has to be put into the long term?

He says Australia must work out how to harden vulnerable facilities and establish war stocks.

‘How do we hide, protect and secure the necessary supplies, be they fuel, ammunition or spares? What missile capabilities do we add to our aircraft, ships, submarines and soldiers? How do we get the numbers that we need in platforms and personnel?’

Just as important is dispersal, he says, ‘remembering for all of this we will have no time. We are now in the long run-up. We will fight with whatever we have at the point of delivery. We can only hope that at that point our diplomacy has meant we can abort that delivery.’

Beazley relates how BHP chief Essington Lewis, who was to become director-general of the Department of Munitions during World War II, provided Australia’s ‘stroke of luck’:

In the 1930s he visited both Germany and Japan, but it was Japan which worried him. They were much more secretive. He began a massive stockpiling of iron and steel way beyond the needs of his company. Can you imagine that in today’s reverence for market forces? He laid the basis for a massive expansion of Australia’s war industries he then ran during the war.

In the end, those industries and what they did for Australia’s and America’s armed forces, together with what we did in expanding ours during the conflict, looked remarkably like what we would think of in our days as self-reliance.

Beazley quotes an analysis from the Australian War Memorial: aside from the needs of our own troops, Australia’s war economy provided vast amounts of clothing to hundreds of thousands of American service personnel in the Southwest Pacific. Huge quantities of basic materials for road and base building, as well as armament, transport and signal equipment, were also supplied. In 1943, Australia supplied 95% of the food for a million American personnel.

Beazley says John Curtin is the only Australian prime minister to date whose government faced an existential threat, though he never said it in contemporary terms:

He ran a strategy out of necessity of self-reliance within the framework of our alliances. That he might have to do so he anticipated when he stated in 1936: ‘The dependence of Australia upon the competence, let alone the readiness, of British statesmen to send forces to our aid is too dangerous a hazard upon which to found Australia’s defence policy.’

But this time, says Beazley, having an Essington Lewis around won’t be enough:

I can only have the deepest sympathy for those now engaged in sorting this. The price of failure on my part as a minister, or my department, was small. Now it may be existential. And it is not just Defence. What Defence does is establish deterrence. Diplomatically, that’s an invaluable tool. For other portfolios, notably DFAT, PM&C, Transport, Home Affairs, Attorney-General’s, the task as best they can perform it is to create relationships which build confidence in the region and, at home, plan and secure mobilisation.

Beazley stresses that a strong diplomatic effort is vital to reduce the likelihood of conflict. ‘There is much we can do for ourselves,’ he says, ‘particularly in the area of diplomacy in our region and further afield.’

Joint US–Australian facilities such as Pine Gap are crucial for the nation’s read on the region. ‘This brief reading can go no further except to say the capabilities are vastly greater than when I was defence minister, and our integration much deeper.’

Australia’s dependence on its US ally has increased massively, he says, and he identifies four ‘inflection points’ in Australia’s post–World War II relationship with the Americans:

The first was the ANZUS Treaty negotiated in 1951. The second, in the 1960s, was the creation of what I would call the modern American alliance with the negotiation of the joint facilities. The third was the 1980s when we put flesh on the bones of self-reliance within our alliances. The fourth has been the negotiation of AUKUS.

History, he says, does not repeat itself, or even necessarily rhyme. ‘The strategic structure of our region, however, contains within it forces and directions potentially deeply troublesome enough to challenge the verities developed at the time of that third inflection point and with a passing resemblance to the 1930s challenges.’

Beazley says the diesel–electric-powered Collins-class submarines are the world’s best—capable everywhere but most lethal in archipelagic waters. ‘There are a number of entry points to Australian waters and it can be decisive in those areas.’

Since the Collins were built, there’s been a massive increase in the number of submarines in the region, many nuclear powered. ‘We face a threat in the open ocean. Speed counts in defending our approaches and around our coast.’

The nuclear-powered submarines promised under the AUKUS agreement with the US and UK will be crucial to the future defence of Australia, Beazley says, but the pact is also about joint research and development on a range of technologies and supply chains for military and civilian purposes. They include cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, hypersonics, wider undersea technologies, stand-off strike capabilities, industrial bases and supply chains.

Key developments are already underway. Western Australian mining companies are the world’s most advanced in robotics, says Beazley. ‘NASA believes their capabilities are ahead of their own in key areas.’

Australia needs a laser-like focus, Beazley says. ‘We are a democracy, so that means not just government but also people.

‘Curtin was confident we were up to the challenge then. We will be now.’