Hugh White calls for Australia to scrap ships and build more submarines

Australia must massively reorganise its planned defence structure by selling off most of its surface ships, abandoning those still to be built and replacing them with a fleet of 24 or even 36 submarines and many more strike aircraft, says long-time Defence Department official and academic Hugh White.

In his new book, How to defend Australia, White argues that Australia may no longer be able to rely on the United States to come to its aid if it’s attacked and it must become much more self-reliant militarily.

He urges a major change of course that would reverse many of the decisions made over the past decade on equipment for the Australian Defence Force and require an increase in defence spending from just under 2% of GDP to around 3.5%.

White stresses that he’s not advocating that Australia acquire nuclear weapons, but says that if it did so, that would push required defence spending up to around 4% of GDP.

He sets the scene by noting that Australia has always assumed it could not defend itself alone against the huge countries of Asia and that we have relied on a great ally, first Britain and now the United States, to defend us against a major attack.

He observes that all the big decisions about Australia’s defence have been based on two consequent assumptions—that there’s little chance of Australia facing a military threat from a major power because the US, as the dominant country in Asia, would prevent that from happening, and that if a major power did attack us, the Americans would come to our defence.

That meant we needed forces that would only ever need to fight alone against modest threats from poorly armed near neighbours. For any greater threat we could rely on the US and, in return, our forces should be ready and able to support our American ally in conflicts.

White says things have changed and we are less sure now that America will remain the primary power in Asia, or that it will retain any major strategic role in the region at all. ‘We have been very fortunate to live under America’s protection for so long and we will sorely miss it when it has gone.’

The reality is that containing China’s ambitions in East Asia is going to be very expensive and very dangerous and, for a range of reasons, the US will probably not prevail, White says.

‘The shift is the direct result of the biggest change in the global distribution of wealth and power in 200 years which has brought to a close the era of Western domination of East Asia which began with Britain’s industrial revolution—and will end with China’s’, he writes.

He argues that President Donald Trump’s isolationist position reflects the views of many Americans who would not support bearing the costs of a cold war with China or a war to protect Taiwan. And the more the US steps back from leadership in the region, the less valuable its alliance with Australia will be.

‘Without America as the dominant power keeping things stable and peaceful in the region, the risk that Australia will find itself drawn into conflict with a major Asian power will rise, and the chances of America coming to our aid will fall. That means we must rethink our defence fundamentally, and soon’, White warns.

White says that because Australia has for so long assumed it can’t defend itself without US help, many here have long believed the only possible response to China’s growing power and America’s fading resolve is for us to build up our forces to support the US against China.

We don’t have much time, he says, because the force required to defend Australia independently would look quite different to that we’re building now. If we stick to our present plans, we won’t be able to defend ourselves in the decades to come.

The rapid growth of Asian economies means Australia’s resources are, relatively speaking, shrinking while strategic risks are growing.

White stresses that he’s not saying that China, India, Indonesia or any other Asian power poses a strategic threat to Australia today, and notes that even if they had a greater capacity to attack Australia, it’s hard to imagine why they’d do so.

But he offers two scenarios that might trigger such a conflict. One would be if Australia actively supported the US or Japan in a contest with China for strategic primacy in East Asia or the Western Pacific.

The other would be if China reached a point of clear military primacy in the region in the absence of a significant US presence. If it used the many levers available to it to keep regional nations divided, then it would be capable of launching a direct attack on Australia.

White is quick to clarify that that doesn’t mean China would have any reason to launch such an attack but adds: ‘We can be sure that if China becomes the leading power in East Asia, and even if its power is exercised prudently and sparingly, the coercive power of its armed forces will always be there behind its diplomacy and soft power as it seeks to influence our decisions and actions. This is how hegemony works.’

A well-armed Australia could be, for instance, a more formidable adversary or a more valued ally for Indonesia or another regional power—or with the US if it did maintain a strategic role.

A key argument in his book is that Australia needs to shift to a strategy of maritime denial, which would call for a very different navy from the current navy or, indeed, the fleet now being built. White says we need fewer ‘very vulnerable and very expensive’ surface warships and many more submarines.

The current focus on a strong surface fleet aims to control areas of ocean and project power, primarily, he says, in support of the US Navy and that makes no sense. What’s needed is a navy designed to operate independently and to deny the ocean to an attacker confronting Australia by an overriding focus on sinking the adversary’s ships.

White says the purchase of the two giant landing ships, HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide, was a big and costly mistake compounded by the need to buy a large fleet to protect them. They should be sold and replaced with smaller vessels.

The navy’s three air warfare destroyers should be sold and the program to build nine expensive Hunter-class frigates should be abandoned. So, too, should the plan to build 12 offshore patrol vessels.

With fewer surface warships there’d be less need for anti-submarine helicopters, offering more big savings, White says.

And while submarines are considered to be the most effective weapon against other submarines, White argues that shouldn’t be their function. The main targets of a new and much larger fleet of submarines will be an adversary’s surface ships approaching through the archipelago to Australia’s north. They would not then need the range to loiter off China’s submarine bases.

A fleet of 24 conventionally powered submarines, possibly updated versions of the existing Collins-class boats, would cost no more than the $50 billion to be spent on the 12 Attack-class submarines, which won’t all be operational until the mid-2050s.

Under such a plan, the navy could have 12 new boats by 2034 or 24 by 2046, White says.

The submarines could be complemented with anti-ship missile systems, on land or on fast patrol boats, and sophisticated sea mines. In addition, he says, the air force’s number of strike aircraft should be doubled.

There’d be no guarantees, but Australia’s chances of defending itself would be significantly increased.

Former foreign minister Gareth Evans describes White’s book as ‘characteristically lucid and provocative’.

Evans also says White is initiating a conversation Australia must now have.

How to defend Australia is published by La Trobe University Press in conjunction with Black Inc.