Strategy, means, time: the race to defend Australia
4 Jul 2024|

CIA Director William Burns said on 2 February 2023 that the CIA knew ‘as a matter of intelligence’ that President Xi had ordered the People’s Liberation Army to be ready to conduct an invasion of Taiwan by 2027. The optimal time for such an operation, allowing for tides and typhoons, would be April 2027—which is 33 months away. Burns was not claiming that Xi had made a definitive decision to go to war over Taiwan.

Most analysts favour the view that Xi would prefer to achieve his goal of subjugating Taiwan without resort to war. Nonetheless, we should plan on the probability of a Pacific war before the end of the decade as being at least 10 percent. If we adjust our assumption about Xi’s appetite for risk and consider his possibly rising concern about the correlation of forces in the Indo-Pacific, the probability of a Pacific war occurring between now and the end of the 2020s is more likely to be 20 percent.

In such a war, US and allied forces would be in combat with Chinese, and possibly Russian, forces in the Pacific, and probably in the Indian Ocean, too. It is possible that such a war would be fought for a prolonged period with conventional and cyber weapons alone, with the ever-present risk of nuclear escalation being a restraining factor, initially at least. It is also possible to imagine a situation where tactical nuclear weapons might be used, with a break on escalation to strategic nuclear strikes (against nuclear forces or population centres) being observed, for a while at least.

Crises other than war might come sooner than 2027, especially were China to continue to ratchet up pressure on the Philippines to the point where US security assurances were triggered. A PLA maritime raid on the Philippines, designed to test US and allied resolve, might well occur over the next 12 months, without necessarily triggering the major war for which China is not yet ready.

Whether and how war might occur is a topic for another day. For now, we should focus on the question of time—and specifically how we might in Australia make time by accelerating war preparations. Time is a critical, but too often neglected, factor in strategy. Strategies are often full of declaratory intent but silent on time and other crucial factors, such as space (that is, geography) and means (or resources). A time-bound approach to strategy exposes the question of why tasks take so long and how they might be accomplished more quickly. It forces us to ask: ‘What are the obstacles to moving at speed?’ Similarly, space (or the ‘where’ of strategy) and means (or resources for any strategy) must be considered. Absent the detailed consideration of time, space and means, ‘strategies’ are merely performative activities.

Today’s Australian Defence Force is configured for the 1980s model of escalated low-level conflict, when defence spending was 2.5 percent of gross domestic product. Though we now face the prospect of more substantial conflict, the ratio will be 2.1 percent in financial year 2024–25.

Had we proceeded with the plan in the 2009 Defence White Paper, we would now have the base force from which to build rapidly the military that we would need for a major war, with the defence/GDP ratio now being at or close to 3 percent. As it is, the ADF is too modest in size, and is not at the required state of readiness, for sustained operations in major war, as I outlined in an earlier article in The Strategist. While we cannot in the time that is available do much about rapidly expanding the force in terms of new major platforms, we could do a great deal in terms of equipping and readying the force in being, by increasing the availability of existing platforms, weapon systems and war stocks and also by lifting the readiness and survivability levels of ADF units.

Whatever else we do, there is an urgent need to dramatically increase local defence production. Why is that? With the increased global demand for defence production, as wars continue or threaten to break out in the Euro-Atlantic, Middle Eastern and Indo-Pacific theatres of the Eurasian geostrategic area, Australia will need to urgently increase local production, whether of indigenously-designed, co-designed or licensed platforms, systems and weapons. Reliance on global supply chains and market forces could render us defenceless. In other words, we need to add to the aggregate level of global defence production, and we need to do so for our own self-interested reasons.

We have done this before. Thanks to the tireless work of Andrew Ross of the University of New South Wales, we today better understand how Australia’s industrial development over 1900-45 was crucial to the defence of Australia in 1942–45. BHP’s Essington Lewis, as director general of munitions and later of aircraft production, was able to draw upon a mobilised national economy and industry base. His story should be better known. Blainey’s biography The Steel Master: A Life of Essington Lewis (1971) is well worth reading, or rereading.

We should also widen the lens and examine defence production during World War II more generally, especially in the United States. The best account is Arthur Herman, Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II (2012). We should better know this history and those business leaders. Men like William Knudsen, the head of General Motors who was appointed by President Roosevelt to be the director of war production, and Henry Kaiser, who oversaw the construction of 2,700 Liberty cargo ships, which proved to be vital in keeping Britain and the Soviet Union supplied—ships which were just good enough and which could be produced in days once the production techniques were mastered.

Or consider the Manhattan Project. Leslie Groves was appointed to lead the project as a temporary brigadier-general in August 1942. He was given a temporary wartime promotion to major general in March 1944. He was the proponent of taking first steps and adjusting his plan as he went. He knew that developing the perfect plan, especially given the experimental physics that were involved, was the enemy of good strategy. He relied on the initiative of his subordinates. He took risks with untried processes and moved on quickly when they did not produce results. If you have seen Christopher Nolan’s movie Oppenheimer, you might appreciate reading Groves’s memoir, Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (1962).

After World War II, similar traits were seen in the Marshall Plan of 1948 to rebuild Western Europe and in the Apollo programme of the 1960s. Individuals were empowered to make decisions, based on the work of teams of specialists. There was an emphasis on getting the job done, whatever it took, without being crippled by self-doubt and by compliance and oversight burdens. Men like Knudsen, Kaiser, Groves and our own Lewis were forceful types who lived their work and who would have scoffed at the idea of work/life balance. Being a man should of course today not be a prerequisite for similar roles today—but living the job should be.

What follows is a practical way to urgently increase the defence production in Australia of indigenously-designed, co-designed or licensed material. It very consciously tries to capture and reflect the memory of how similar things were done in those earlier times. While modern production processes have changed due to the complexity of high-technology end products—and perhaps instead of old school industrialists we might need a real-life Tony Stark—the same timeless principles of leadership and action-focus still apply.

To urgently increase local defence production, a Defence Production Commission should be established, headed by a director general of defence production. The commission would be chaired by the director general, who would be joined by the secretaries of defence and industry as members. The director general would be the provider; the secretary of defence would hold the budget as the purchaser and would consult closely with the chief of the defence force, who would be the user. The secretary of industry would be the enabler—charged with ensuring that the full weight of national industry policy and programs was thrown behind the effort.

Defence production would be seen as a sovereign national capability in its own right and nested in Australia’s industrial structure—‘sovereign but internationally connected’, to apply the formula used in a December 2023 report by the Australian Industry Group and the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre: Defence Industry in National Defence.

The commission’s responsibilities would include production of ships, guided weapons, explosive ordnance and munitions and autonomous systems, including any licensed production, and maintenance and repair of aircraft and vehicles. Having it report to a cabinet-level minister for industry and defence production would ensure mobilisation of the entire economy in the face of looming peril. This would bring to bear the full spectrum of capital, innovation, workforce and scale across the economy. It would ensure better links between the defence production function and critical enabling national functions such as science, research, development, immigration, education, training, infrastructure and so on. While defence industry might lack scale, the Australian economy does not.

As the user, the ADF would set its requirements in the form of operational problems to be addressed, allowing industry to innovate and problem-solve without having to conform to strict tender conditions. These are too often written without deep understanding of national industry capabilities, especially in areas such as artificial intelligence, cyber, space, aerospace, data systems, autonomous systems, biotechnology, heavy engineering and more besides.

The commission and the office of director general would be established by a Defence Production Act, which would, among other things, exempt the commission from the requirements of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013. This would allow the commission to employ innovative procurement methods, using procurement superpowers, which would be authorised by special rules set by the minister for industry and defence production in consultation with the defence and finance ministers.

The commission would move away from simply being a contractual partner. To achieve results it would be empowered to use its superpowers: its legislation, regulations, authority as a landlord, debt and equity financing, loan and other forms of business guarantees, accelerated depreciation and, in the extreme, constitutionally valid requisition during wartime. Strategic investment partnerships with (vetted) pension funds, private equity funds and emerging national security investment funds would be able to be used. The National Reconstruction Fund would be repurposed.

The commission would have the power to abolish red-tape and strip back unnecessary regulation. It would aim for 60-day turnarounds between proposal and contract, with a bias towards letters of intent being sufficient in many, if not most, cases. The commission would be empowered to remove barriers to entry, especially for industries that are adjacent to the defence sector. They could be mobilised with little effort, save the abolition of disincentives, which tend to be a function of bureaucratic requirements. We would need to be prepared to tolerate failures, where these could be explained as reasonable risk/reward initiatives. Ministers and senior officials would need to be prepared to defend such risk taking.

The commission would drive aggregation of effort across Australian industry and beyond. Foreign partners would be involved through defence-production free-trade zones and would include the United States, Britain, Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, Sweden and potentially others.

Accountability would have to be framed in accordance with the commission using its superpowers. Accountability would be ensured by the proposed joint defence committee of the parliament and by the auditor-general and National Anti-Corruption Commission. Otherwise, oversight exemptions would apply, including, for instance, by resolution of the Senate in relation to Senate Estimates.

A final word on Defence bureaucracy. If Defence were to be directed to move to a prewar footing, it would do so quickly. Finance rules, procurement complexity, convoluted oversight—all of which are imposed from the outside and which are then replicated internally within Defence through a maze of committees and processes—would all have to be done away with. Today, an Australian Leslie Groves would not be put in charge of a modern Manhattan Project. She or he would instead be an attendee at a project oversight committee meeting where generalists would opine on the ‘high technical risk’ associated with nuclear fission.

The times demand a different approach. With clear political authority, and the removal of external and internal blockages, Defence would deliver. It is a matter of will, and the right authorising environment.

We can gain time by simultaneously increasing authority and accountability. We can reduce time delays by concentrating authority in the hands of those who are not afraid to use it—and to answer for it. Purpose generates effort which quickens time, as we see in war—and in pandemic response, in dealing with natural disasters, and more besides.

A sense of urgency can literally make time. French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941) wrote of the need to differentiate between ‘objective time’—which can be measured by watches, timetables and so on—and ’la durée’ or lived time, the time of human agency, where time can speed up or slow down. We can spend an hour of objective time accomplishing nothing useful, where time seems to pass slowly, or we can spend that hour achieving a great deal, where time seems to pass quickly.

Bergson married the cousin of novelist Marcel Proust, who wrote the famous novel that is today translated into English as In Search of Lost Time. One of Proust’s themes was ‘time regained’ through memory. If we remember how we once were, we might—hopefully without delay—remember how to be so again in similarly dark times.