What should a Plan B for Australia’s military strategy look like?

In the lead-up to each federal election, ASPI releases its Agenda for change: Strategic choices for the next government to help shape election platforms and public debate. This year the report contains 30 short essays by leading thinkers covering key strategic, defence and security challenges, and offers short- and long-term policy recommendations as well as outside-the-box ideas that break the traditional rules.

Agenda for change 2019 will be published on Tuesday 26 February. Over the coming days, The Strategist will post a selection of essays from it on a range of topics.

The challenge

In 2018, the commentariat pronounced the rules-based global order to be dead, and that nothing but uncertainty was replacing it. Now that the dirges have been sung, the certainties of the Cold War nostalgically pined for, and the calls for a Plan B shouted from the rooftops, where should the incoming government take Australia’s military strategy in 2019?

Of course, military strategy must be aligned with broader national strategy. But has our national strategy fundamentally changed? If we look at the classic triumvirate that makes up strategy—ends, ways and means—the ends or goals of our national strategy haven’t changed. We still want to achieve the things we’ve consistently sought, such as freedom of action on the international stage; an international system that respects the rights of all states and individuals; and freedom from coercion or military threats.

The ways to achieve these ends haven’t fundamentally changed. We can’t achieve them alone and so, while the nature of the international system is changing, we’ll still seek to engage with it and shape it, through multilateral forums when possible and through bilateral arrangements when necessary. As an active middle power (or something even greater) at peak power, we won’t simply accept a passive role and wait for whatever comes.

What has changed in the strategic triumvirate is that we’ll need to apply greater means. This is in part because states with different interests from ours now have increased power, and the great power that we’ve relied on appears to be less committed to pursuing the same ways as us (at least under the current administration) and has fewer means (at least relative to the powers that seek ends inimical to ours).

Now, we could change the ends that we seek and accept something less, but I’ll assume the incoming government isn’t yet ready to say that we’re happy to live in a world where the strong oppress the weak, or other countries tell us how to run our affairs. So greater means will be necessary to achieve our national strategy. We’re already seeing this being applied, for example in the recent ‘Pacific step-up’.

Since our military strategy must align with our national strategy, the big picture of our military strategy is similar to the big picture of our national strategy. That is, the ends of our military strategy are fundamentally unchanged. The three ‘strategic defence interests’ and corresponding ‘strategic defence objectives’ of the 2016 defence white paper are still about right, even if the idea that all three are of equal priority is obviously a poor guide to decision-making and resource allocation. As for ways, we should still work with a broad range of international partners to achieve those interests while continuing to rely heavily on our close alliance with the US, but, as with national strategy, we’ll need to invest more in our own means to compensate for the changing balance among regional powers.

Quick wins

It’s essential that the incoming government confirm its commitment to those additional means. To provide continuity to Defence and industry planning, it should reaffirm the goal of spending 2% of GDP on defence by 2020–21. But it should also state that that isn’t a cap. More will be necessary—determining how much more would be the work of a strategic review that should kick off soon after the election.

The government will also need to assist defence planners by confirming what they can assume the role of the US in our military strategy will be. The most pessimistic forecasts of US disengagement from the region haven’t come to pass. While the Western Pacific is no longer an uncontested US lake, the US hasn’t withdrawn to Hawaii. Even in the worst case, it’s reasonable to assume that the US will continue to provide access to military technology and intelligence.

But while Australia has traditionally sought self-reliance in its combat capabilities in the defence of Australia, it would be useful for the government to confirm what sorts of regional contingencies it expects the ADF to play a more prominent or leading role in, should US capacity be stretched.

Such early decisions, taken together, will provide essential guidance to defence planners; reassure the US that at least one of its key allies in the Asia–Pacific is willing to step up and share the burden of collective security; and demonstrate to all countries that we’re willing to back up our commitments to the community of nations.

The hard yards

Analysis of the fallout from competition between the US and China has focused on what Australia would bring to the table in the case of a US–China conflict, or how we could defeat a direct Chinese attack on Australia. Quite rightly, our strategy needs to accept that the benchmark for adversary military technology will be Chinese and we should strive to both understand it and keep ahead of it.

But when the balance between great powers changes, that inevitably has second- and third-order effects that are difficult to predict as old certainties break down. China’s divide-and-conquer strategy towards ASEAN could reawaken slumbering tensions. By fostering corruption and debt, it could weaken governance in regional states, opening opportunities for insurgent groups whose goals are completely unrelated to US–China competition.

While we can’t predict those events precisely, it’s important that our military strategy acknowledge that there’s a vast range of potential regional contingencies with varying levels of lethality that the government may wish to use military options to resolve, whether alone or in coalition. The ADF can’t be a one-trick pony.

Our military strategy also needs to acknowledge that the application of military power is just as much about shaping the environment outside of conflict as it is about conflict itself. The ADF is good at this. Again, its refocusing on the region has already made great strides. But engaging, training, exercising, demonstrating, showing presence, mentoring and building capacity in others require capacity of our own. This requires numbers and sustained commitment, not just technology, and consequently more means— both people and platforms.

And importantly, military power is only one tool for resisting the efforts of others to coerce us or shape the world in ways that are inimical to our interests. It doesn’t matter how big a navy we have if we roll over and grant a great power whatever its wishes as soon as it threatens to reduce its imports of Australian iron ore. Building our society’s psychological resilience to coercion is as vital as building military capability.

Breaking the rules

As we enter an age of uncertainty, there will be good reason to break some of the old rules, but the government should be cautious about making one particular dramatic change in our defence strategy.

There are suggestions now that we should adopt a strategy that focuses on denying China the ability to project force against the Australian homeland—an antipodean version of China’s own anti-access/ area-denial (A2/AD) concept, or perhaps Singapore’s ‘poison prawn’, but we should be wary of adopting a strategy based on being an indigestible wombat, along the lines of a resurrected ‘defence of Australia’ doctrine.

Such a strategy sends a message to our friends and neighbours to our near north that we regard them as little more than roadkill or speed bumps in the path of a hostile great power heading south. It also runs the risk of developing a force that provides the government with few options in the other contingencies discussed above. And, perhaps most dangerously, it runs the risk of developing a narrow, geographically constrained military strategy that doesn’t support our active, outwardly focused, national strategy. And it would fail to take the opportunity provided by the growing capabilities of partners like Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. That would be a monumental strategic own goal.

A more positive leap would be to break out of the endless loop of seeking the holy grail of enduring strategic cooperation with Indonesia through small, incremental steps. Instead, why not propose bolder measures that serve our mutual strategic goals? For example, we could start a serious partnership on shipbuilding, given Indonesia’s own intent and organisations. Or we could propose joint leadership of a peacekeeping mission that draws on contributions from our region. This would not only demonstrate our shared commitment to international institutions and solutions, but the lived experience of working together for an extended period would build the relationships and familiarity that are essential for interoperability in times of crisis—and confirm that we’ve much more to gain through deep cooperation than we have to fear.