National defence and the RAN (part 1): achieving deterrence by denial

The Royal Australian Navy stands at a watershed. A child of the Royal Navy, the RAN shifted its primary relationship to the US Navy after World War II, buying predominantly American equipment from the 1960s. It has evolved to become more uniquely Australian but is to be further reshaped to meet future security challenges. This post examines how the RAN will contribute to Australia’s new strategic posture of deterrence by denial. Subsequent posts will analyse primary tasks and force structure considerations.

The defence strategic review (DSR) highlighted that we should expect little warning of conflict in times of uncertainty created by the rapid growth of China and its competition with the US. We should do all we can to ensure our own security. Our alliance with the US provides important comfort, but there’s no guarantee that the US will come to our aid. We should never forget our history.

Australia must adapt its security approach to more independently pursue its national interests. The RAN has been neglected for many years but explicitly remains part of our future-focused force. The DSR tells us the navy needs to become more lethal, requiring a fundamental refocus on its firepower.

The DSR acknowledges that Australia’s fate must not be determined by others. Our strategic policy is geared to help shape our region in a manner encouraging its evolution to become prosperous while operating within agreed rules, standards and laws. Australia clearly recognises that there’s strength in numbers and it’s in our national interest to rebuild and fortify relationships wherever we can. In a recent speech, Foreign Minister Penny Wong underscored the importance of Australia’s interests in a regional balance of power and emphasised the centrality of ASEAN to the region’s future.

Wong referred to the Five Power Defence Arrangements, which commit Australia, Britain and New Zealand to consult in the event of an attack on Malaysia or Singapore. The DSR doesn’t reference that commitment.

Diplomacy is clearly the preferred method of settling international disagreements but, as noted by Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell, without credible hard power, diplomacy risks becoming more about negotiating the least bad option.

The DSR tell us that Australia’s security lies in the collective security of the Indo-Pacific, achieving defence objectives well beyond our borders. It also notes that the Australian Defence Force must be capable of ‘impactful projection across the full spectrum of proportionate response’ and be able to hold an adversary at risk further from our shores. How far from our shores is unstated, but the inference is that it should be as far as practicable.

If the air force’s operations are limited to Australian bases, even with refuelling, there’s a significant limitation on how far airpower can project into the region. In 2013, ASPI estimated that a single F-35 joint strike fighter with refuelling could remain on station for an hour 500 nautical miles from its base. That’s Darwin to Dili.

Deterrence by denial brings a wide range of considerations about what the RAN needs to ensure success. ASPI senior fellow Rod Lyon questions the feasibility of Australia unilaterally deterring any single country from attacking its forces or territory. Invasion is recognised as an extremely remote possibility, but its catastrophic consequences mean it can’t be ignored. This should also include occupation of our offshore territories, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island in particular.

If Australia were to face defending itself by applying hard power from forward bases extending from the Cocos (Keeling) Islands to Townsville, something will have gone badly wrong. It would mean the US no longer had the weight in the near region to help us. For Australia to have passively watched such a circumstance unfold would surely mean it had been very careless in providing for its own security.

The important question, then, is how to support Australia’s diplomatic efforts with credible hard power in a region growing in wealth and having its own sense of the future, but with no prospect of having an extensive multilateral security alliance to guide and focus its efforts. Regional nations are undeniably assessing how they will react to China’s economic and other influence on their own national interests. This will require sophistication in how Australia builds those relationships, diplomatic and military, imposing a requirement on us to be seen to be a willing and credible friend when the need arises.

Relationship-building and responding to rapidly changing circumstances can’t succeed on a part-time basis. Australia has been accused of such behaviour recently by Pacific island nations. It is obvious and will not achieve the degree of collaboration that’s vital to success. Relationships among military personnel in our region are as important as those in the diplomatic community. It’s far too late to create the degree of interoperability that brings the familiarity necessary for coalition or combined military operations if it’s not there when a sophisticated, unconstrained and well-organised adversary takes the stage. If we’re to be taken seriously, we must be in the region and be seen to contribute to regional security outcomes.

This poses a sensitive political and operational dilemma. The Australian National University’s Stephan Frühling notes that Australia operating forward would achieve an immediate deterrent effect, but historically Australia’s political considerations have often overridden operational factors and prevented that presence. Today’s geopolitical conditions require that tension between political and operational considerations to be brought into much sharper focus. Australia’s public must not be shielded by polite diplomatic language about China’s behaviour in all manner of circumstances that work against our national interest. Governments must be better at communicating the facts to our citizens.

Multiple contested territorial claims over islands in the South China Sea and exploitation of several by China, coupled with its aggressive behaviour toward nations in their vicinity, create opportunities for potentially disastrous military miscalculation. This is the world’s busiest, most economically critical marine highway. Its disruption would have an immediate global impact and the outcry would be instant and loud, even if Australia’s trade were only selectively affected. While deliberate interference with trade seems a remote prospect, it would have such grave consequences that it’s hard to contemplate Australia not becoming involved in ensuring freedom of the seas.

How do these considerations affect the RAN’s future? Naval power doesn’t need agreement from any country to operate in international waters or economic zones. Warships can be present with persistence, provided the seaborne resupply system can cope. Naval forces can join those of other nations for training, to share knowledge and to grow the mutual understanding they might need for real operations. Navies, almost by definition, are international in character.

Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarines will be very potent offensive weapons that can create great uncertainty in an adversary’s mind. Surface forces can be highly visible or out of sight. Their ability to unthreateningly support diplomatic efforts while retaining an ability to become instantly engaged in operations at a time of our choosing is very useful. That’s different from but complementary to a submarine capability. Together, they provide the essential spectrum of options government will always need.

All forces are vulnerable to attack to some extent, but when suitably equipped, as those of the RAN should be, they will be as lethal and survivable as the best of any nation.

Achieving Australia’s strategic outcomes will place considerable responsibility on its navy to be able to conduct sustained operations and tasks throughout the enormous Indo-Pacific, now recognised as Australia’s primary area of military interest. Those tasks will be addressed in our next post.