The industry cart and the strategic horse
19 Jan 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user Life-Of-Pix.

The Australian Naval Institute recently published the inaugural edition of its Australian Naval Review. I was pleased to be asked to contribute to the first issue, and subscribers to the Institute will be able to read my paper Australia’s naval shipbuilding plans: guided by strategy or industry? I set out to examine the stated rationale for the government’s ambitious program of naval ship and submarine building, and to test that against the timeframes we’ve been told to expect from the nation’s shipyards.

The central idea in the paper—that there’s a mismatch between Australia’s strategic and defence industry timeframes—won’t be much of a surprise to dedicated Strategist readers. I’ve made the point before, and Mark and I have made the same point about the future submarines.

To see why there’s a problem, have a look at these excerpts from the 2000, 2009 and 2016 Defence White Papers:

DWP 2000

‘China, as the country with the fastest growing security influence in the region, is an increasingly important strategic interlocutor for Australia.’

DWP 2009

‘In Northeast Asia, China is likely to … continue … its foreshadowed core military modernisation. Over the long term, this could affect the strategic reach and global postures of the major powers. …Any future that might see a potential contraction of US strategic presence in the Asia-Pacific region, with a requirement for allies and friends to do more in their own regions, would adversely affect Australian interests, regional stability and global security.’

DWP 2016

‘While China will not match the global strategic weight of the United States, the growth of China’s national power, including its military modernisation, means China’s policies and actions will have a major impact on the stability of the Indo-Pacific to 2035. China’s Navy is now the largest in Asia. By 2020 China’s submarine force is likely to grow to more than 70 submarines.’

In the 15 years between the 2000 and 2016 white papers, the Australian government’s assessment of China’s increasing capabilities went from being almost incidental to having ‘a major impact’ on the region’s stability in the next two decades. Consistent with that, last year’s White Paper worried about the stability of the Indo–Pacific in 2035.

But on current plans, the first of Australia’s future submarines won’t be commissioned much before 2035. And it’ll be ‘around 2050’ before the RAN submarine fleet will reach 12 boats. Meanwhile, the PLA-N will likely have ‘more than 70 submarines’ just four years from now. If the Australian government’s taking the intelligence agencies’ strategic assessments which underpin white paper discussions seriously, it’s not obvious from those plans.

If there’s a strategic shock of some kind, such as escalation of the current territorial disputes in the South or East China Seas, or a conflict sparked by North Korea, we could find ourselves wanting more defence capability much sooner than is currently planned. In that case, we’d have two broad options. We could try to increase the local production rate, with all the challenges of suddenly finding the required skills and capacity in a local industry that’d been gearing up for a long steady production run. Or we could supplement local production with purchases from overseas suppliers, but at a time when other nations will presumably also be in the market for equipment coming off their production lines. Either way, we’d struggle to acquire capability quickly enough for it to play a role in whatever contingency played out.

Or we could be lucky, and the region’s strategic shifts could play out benignly. It might be, for example, that the ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea is the limit of China’s ambition. When the area’s secured to China’s satisfaction, perhaps it’ll get on with business and a ‘new normal’ strategic equilibrium will emerge. In that case, our leisurely timetable for fleet recapitalisation will be acceptable—and future governments could even find ourselves revising our plans for fleet expansion downwards.

Whichever way you look at it, we’re in a nowhere situation at the moment. Australia’s strategic rhetoric is pro-ANZUS and pro-military expansion because we’re worried about the next 20 years. We also want a steady-state industrial base for our naval ship requirements. The trouble is that we can’t have it all. Something will have to give—either the industry cart has to go back behind the strategy horse, or we need to rethink our strategy.

Let me finish this piece with a new thought. One possible strategy change, which would alter our defence requirements significantly, would be rethinking ANZUS. DWP 2016 emphasised shoring up the alliance, and assessed that the US will be both willing and able to act in ways consonant with our interests. Up until recently Australian strategists have worried about a potential cooling of American commitment. But, like Goldilocks, we’re discovering that our porridge could also be too hot. We’ve already seen hints of that, with unhelpful American musings about unilaterally changing the decades-old ‘one China’ policy, or by implicitly threatening force in the South China Sea. If that continues, we need to think hard about how we position ourselves. The worst case is that the United States unnecessarily precipitates a conflict, either by design or by misadventure.