Reassessing Australia’s defence policy (part 2): What are our strategic priorities?
31 Jan 2020|

The strategic policy chapter in the 2016 defence white paper doesn’t provide a framework to determine priorities for force structure, posture and employment. Old concepts such as ‘self-reliance’ have become divorced from their original strategic rationale, while a focus on what should be instrumental ‘partnerships’ has become an end in its own right.

Calls to give greater definition to strategic policy often argue for giving clear priority to the defence of Australia, regional stability or global stability. But all of those could be affected by a range of threats, so framing strategic policy around them requires many assumptions—each of which should be made explicit.

Merely asserting that great-power conflict is the main concern for defence policy is insufficient because it says nothing about how government wants to reduce that risk. And geographical priorities should be the outcome of, rather than an input to, the strategic policy framework.

A more fruitful approach takes inspiration from the distinction between the ‘cold war’, ‘limited war’ and ‘global war’ concepts found in the ‘strategic basis’ papers of the 1950s and 1960s—the last time Australian defence was primarily concerned with great-power conflict in the Indo-Pacific. Strategy, and hence requirements for force structure, posture and employment, vary significantly across those concepts. So a key requirement for strategic policy is to establish priorities among what we would today call ‘competition’, ‘limited war’ and ‘major war’—all three of which could arise from conflict with China.

In competition, Australia’s objective is to influence third countries by demonstrating our ability and willingness to support their security concerns and establish our broader political position as their preferred security partner. That includes practical support, relationship-building and signalling—including through the deployment of force—to third countries and adversaries that Australia is willing to bear the cost of countering hostile influence.

While Australia’s strategic objective is competitive influence, operational objectives and the types of forces required to operate forward would thus primarily reflect the partner country’s concerns (be they fisheries protection, counterterrorism or capacity-building for higher intensity operations). The competitive aspect would largely be reflected in the need to be able to offer more, on more attractive economic and/or political terms, than China. It implies a geographical focus on the inner arc, where our need and ability to compete for influence are greatest.

In contrast, ADF force structure has traditionally focused on limited war, in which countries use, or threaten to use, force in pursuit of specific, limited objectives. From the 1970s, the possibility of limited war with Indonesia was Australia’s main concern, and it remains a valid consideration for self-reliance.

Since the 2000s, the ADF’s ability to make meaningful contributions to joint taskforces in US operations in limited war, in the Indo-Pacific or beyond, has increased—a posture further strengthened by the acquisition plans of the 2016 white paper. In a conflict with China, ‘limited’ objectives could be related to control of specific geographical features, such as in the South China Sea, or merely aim to teach a lesson, but would stop short of attempts at disarming the other side by targeting its ability to conduct major combat operations in the Western Pacific.

Managing the risk of limited war may require immediate deterrence in a crisis, which could be achieved by deploying US and allied forces to make a credible threat of the use of force, in the hope that the cost of such a conflict would outweigh Beijing’s immediate interests. This entails the ability to operate in high-intensity conflict against Chinese forces, but within a confined geographical space close to regional flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific, reflecting the political desire to avoid escalation.

For deterrence (and reassurance of third countries), Australia would need to operate forward, possibly for long periods, in a way that purposely would make it difficult to stand aside should conflict break out, especially with land forces, forward-based air forces and surface naval forces, and in political–military arrangements (such as joint standing taskforces) that demonstrate political commitment. In reality, despite all the rhetoric about ‘100 years of mateship’, Australian governments of both political persuasions have been very reluctant—since well before the Trump presidency—to hitch Australia in that manner to US commitments in Asia.

In major war, the US and China would seek to destroy each other’s ability to oppose their own operations in the Indo-Pacific theatre, with the aim of being able to impose a post-war settlement on regional order. Major war would most likely arise as a result of escalation during limited war or from a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

The main tasks of the ADF in major war would be to defend the continent of Australia as a base area for US long-range air and naval operations, including shipping to Europe and North America on which civilian life and the war effort would depend, and independent operations to shape the post-war settlement in our immediate neighbourhood, where the settlement matters more to us than to the US.

Forward operations to our north would thus focus on submarines and anti-access/area-denial bubbles and independent raids to achieve specific objectives, rather than physical presence to demonstrate political commitment. Australian operational objectives and risk aversion would need to reflect the potentially existential nature of the conflict, accepting that the war’s termination and outcome overall would rest on the threat or use of US and Chinese nuclear forces.

All three of these constructs respond to the threat of conflict with China, but they lead to very different force structure and force posture priorities, to different types of forward presence and to different types of Australian objectives for regional partnerships. They also imply different geographical priorities within the Indo-Pacific, but those are only a consequence of prioritising competition, limited war or global war.

Which of those three situations government prioritises should ultimately be a political judgement on strategic risk, based on an assessment of the nature of Chinese power and objectives and a hard-nosed look at the support that Australia could expect from the US and the support the US would expect from Australia.

But if government doesn’t clearly articulate its priorities in relation to competition, limited war and major war, Australia will continue to remain without a clear and coherent strategic policy framework. The third post in this series will discuss some implications for ADF acquisition in the 2020s that might flow from such a framework.