Getting real about Australia’s security

The attack on Pearl Harbor is generally seen, by both Americans and Australians, as the most momentous event of December 1941. However, another event occurred three days later that is of much greater significance because of its echoes with the current strategic situation. On 10 December 1941, the strategic assumption that Australia’s defence could be provided by a ‘great and powerful friend’ was proven groundless. It had, in fact, been an unrealistic assumption, not only since the start of the European war in 1939, but for decades before.

The event was the effortless sinking of an inadequate British fleet of two battleships, known as Force Z, by Japanese airpower off Malaya’s coast. That disaster is relevant today because, like then, we are putting our trust in a ‘great and powerful friend’, the US. This is despite strong doubts about America’s intent or willingness to send forces to its allies’ defence, and widespread acknowledgement that the US military no longer has the capability to meet its worldwide commitments—as the Royal Navy was found incapable of doing in 1941. Despite that reality, the US is still seen as the ‘centre pole’ of Australia’s defence, as the Royal Navy was in 1941, relieving Australia of the need to think forensically about its own strategy.

Prior to World War I, Britain had maintained the ‘two-power standard’, requiring a navy larger than the next two powers combined. This is similar to the US post-1945 strategy of having the capability to win two big wars and one small war simultaneously. The British abandoned their two-power standard when they signed the Washington Treaty in 1922, limiting the size and number of warships among the great powers. The US two-and-a-half-war strategy has been quietly shelved, and is no longer underpinned by adequate military strength.

In the interwar years, Britain reduced its naval expenditure, stretching the Royal Navy thin in another war when it might be called upon to fight opponents in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Far East simultaneously. After eight years under President Barack Obama, seven years of sequestration and 15 years of Middle East conflict, US defence expenditure is frighteningly low.

Australia’s strategic planners knew Japan would be the next threat. Yet as Japan’s power and intentions became clearer, Australians clung to the Singapore base strategy and the promised deployment of a British fleet to the region. Assurances were given by Royal Navy officials in the Imperial Conferences of the 1930s, and Singapore’s fortifications were strengthened.

The viability of this strategy was steadily undermined throughout the 1930s as Britain faced a resurgent Germany and Italy. Priority had to be given to the Channel and the North Sea, as well as the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. Australia’s defence would inevitably be a lower priority for British decision-makers. At no stage were sufficient naval resources available to deploy strong fleets to all theatres. The US is now in a very similar position.

The fate of the two British battleships sunk off Malaya is relevant to Australia in 2018 because of its lessons about strategic expectations and strategic delusions, and the shock that can result when delusions are punctured by reality.

For generations Australia has minimised defence spending because the US was so powerful it didn’t matter what we spent. We are only now starting to dedicate resources close to a sufficient level to provide for our defence needs. Yet we remain far too vulnerable to a shock similar to that experienced in 1941. Our government is running the biggest peacetime rearmament program in our history, spending $200 billion over the next decade. The replacement of many of the key capabilities on which strategy totally depends—warships, submarines, armoured vehicles—is unfortunately over a very long period, yet that shouldn’t detract from the kudos due.

But is our strategy today any more sophisticated than our disastrous 1941 delusions? In light of concern about US intentions, and knowledge of US capability relative to what it calls ‘four nations and an ideology’ (Russia, Iran, China, North Korea and Islamic extremism), do we still hope to see the US cavalry come charging over the hill to save us? The cavalry might be a bit busy.

Australia now needs to match its rearmament program with a brutally realistic national security strategy, not one based on hope and delusion as we did in December 1941. Realism tests the coherence between policy, national strategy, concepts for national resilience, security and defence, and the steps needed in preparing a nation for war. This time around, let’s not depend on the luck involved in successful battles in the Coral Sea and at Midway. Before anything else, even ships, planes, tanks or personnel, Australian needs realistic strategy. And strategy does not cost.

The echoes of the past are getting louder. We must listen to them, and learn from them.