The US and Australian strategy
25 Nov 2014|

TensionThe recent debate in these pages on how Australia should think and act as a power in the international system is important and timely. The thoughtful contributions of Peter Jennings, Andrew Carr, Rod Lyon, John Blaxland, Nic Stuart and Peter Dean argue well the emerging regionalist and globalist schools of strategic thought. A true historian, John rightly points out the wise regionalist continuities in our strategic policy, traceable through defence white papers and actual commitments since the 1970s. But another important continuity is the centrality of the US alliance to Australia’s defence policy. This is timely, because the US is struggling now to determine how it will play its accustomed global power role going forward. Whatever it decides, it’s clear that the hard power that has made the US an effective steward of that system since the Second World War is no longer guaranteed. To the extent that Australia’s strategy relies on US power, that should concern us.

Peter Jennings has earlier discussed the value of hard power in general and of US hard power, judiciously applied, in particular. Andrew Carr acknowledges the importance of that power to Australia. But a health check on American military power, including recent messages from the US national security community, renders a worrying prognosis.

Recent traffic in Washington suggests that the greatest challenge to US military power in the future is the uncertain defence budgetary situation. That’s driven by a fiscal and political environment best exemplified by the bizarre 2011 Budget Control Act, which imposed heavy government spending cuts compounded by ‘sequestration’—additional, mandatory, across-the-board cuts triggered by Congressional failure to find alternative savings, which has been inevitable in Washington’s current political environment. The calamitous impact of sequestration and the urgent need to end it are the loudest, most consistent and most bipartisan message coming from the national security elite, usefully articulated last week by Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work. But although sequestration is unanimously condemned in national security circles, there’s little optimism in Washington that the necessary budgetary conditions will return soon. Many expect DoD to be operating under sequestration for years. Consequently, ‘affordability’ is now the driving mantra of US defence capability.

That situation has not emerged suddenly, and DoD has been working ‘to do more without more’. For example, Under-Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Frank Kendall, has been steadily implementing his Better Buying Power initiative to reform a clunky US defence acquisition apparatus that some consider a national security threat in its own right. Many ideas are common sense, but some foreshadow a new reality in which the US has less military power available at short notice: for example, a proposal to buy and build fewer major platforms (such as ships and aircraft) up-front and to rely on rapid manufacture to produce more quickly when needed; and to keep new technology and designs ‘on the shelf’ until the strategic situation justifies their acquisition.

Science and technology investment is also emphasising affordability, deliberately swinging away from traditional ‘monolithic’ platform-based approaches and towards experimentation and information-based solutions to reduce development costs and accelerate capability upgrades. Sustaining S&T investment is a key challenge for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who recently announced a contemporary version of the ‘Technological Offset’ campaign by which the US overcame Soviet numerical superiority from the 1970s.

But these measures bring second-order risks, not least that of a shrinking and less busy defence industrial base. For example, recently there’ve been warnings of a loss of naval shipyards under current funding plans, while the uncertainty of defence business may be making industry both less competitive and less interested in supplying DoD. While the protective power of pork-barrelling in US politics shouldn’t be underestimated, lost industrial capacity is a real possibility that’d make just-in-time purchases both riskier and pricier. And in areas where DoD would prefer to save money, such as by reducing personnel costs or shedding surplus infrastructure, Congress sometimes prevents it from doing so.

DoD faces many other challenges in meeting America’s defence needs. While it seems to understand the totality of the problem, a solution isn’t guaranteed in the current political environment. There’s a real possibility that, soon, the US will be facing its global responsibilities with considerably less military capacity on hand.

That’s an issue for Australia as long as the US alliance is a key pillar of our defence strategy. And that’s unlikely to change soon, whether that strategy is regionalist or globalist. As Rod Lyon points out, we have strategic interests that we alone haven’t the means to secure and must work with others to do so. For the foreseeable future, the US will be the principal ‘other’ and we must factor that into our strategy, and help America where we can.

Andrew Smith is a consultant and independent researcher based in the United States. Image courtesy of Flickr user Francis Mariani.