Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:21 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:21 | SYDNEY

Debate: Hugh White and Australian defence policy


Rory Medcalf


15 April 2009 13:54

Today the Lowy Institute launched a paper by Visiting Fellow Hugh White, intended as a major contribution to the Australian security debate on the eve of the Defence White Paper

Some of Hugh’s strategic assessments and force-structure recommendations will be controversial, even more so in light of the recent debate in the media and, it seems, government agencies.

To capture the diversity of views on these matters, The Interpreter will conduct a debate in the days ahead, involving both Institute staff and external experts. Readers’ contributions are invited. Professor White will reply once a good sample of views have been aired.

The full text of Hugh’s paper is here. The following is an extract from the executive summary:

Just as Australia’s strategic outlook has been dominated in past decades by American primacy in Asia, so in future will it be shaped more than anything else by what follows as American primacy fades and China grows. The biggest risk is not that China itself becomes a direct threat to Australia, but that the erosion of American power unleashes strategic competition among Asia’s strongest states, which in turn increases the risk that Australia could face a number of military threats to its interests or even its territorial security.

We can escape that risk if the US, China, Japan and eventually India can avoid escalating strategic competition by negotiating a new set of understandings to replace those that have kept Asia so peaceful for the past forty years. The essential basis of any new understanding would be a more equal sharing of power among these key states. 

But is America really willing to treat China as an equal? Will China settle for anything less?  And can either treat Japan as an equal? And will Japan — still a huge power — settle for less than China gets? Unless these questions can be resolved, it is hard to see how escalating strategic competition can be avoided in the longer term. 

That would pose all kinds of new strategic risks for Australia. Would we side with the US if it gets dragged into confrontation and conflict with China? Or would we stand aside and see our alliance dwindle? Either way, we would face more challenging strategic risks and harder choices than we have faced since the 1960s …

… The blunt truth is that our current and planned forces will not be able to achieve the strategic objectives set for them over the past decade, let alone any wider objectives that may be set in future. The Army is too small for the stabilisation operations we expect it to undertake in the immediate neighbourhood, and our air and naval forces are too small and insufficiently advanced to offer the operational options we seek. 

Today the ‘Balanced Force’ we have inherited from the 1970s has a little bit of many things but not enough of anything to achieve a significant strategic result. It will therefore be fine if the next few decades are as peaceful as the last few. But is that a good basis for defence policy?

To provide future Australian governments with genuine military options to protect Australia’s strategic interests if Asia becomes more contested, our defence planning needs to focus on the capabilities that provide those options most cost-effectively. That means making harder choices about the kinds of forces we need and those we do not. What would a ‘Focused Force’ like this look like?

For the Army it means giving priority to expanding the number of infantry battalions to increase our capacity for stabilisation and other lower-intensity operations, especially in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood. These forces need good firepower and armoured vehicles, but we should not invest in land forces for intense continental or amphibious warfare, because Australia will never have the capacity to achieve significant strategic effects in Asia with land forces. In conventional conflict our strategic weight will depend on air and naval operations.

At sea, we should invest in a much bigger fleet of submarines, which are most cost-effective for maritime denial, and stop building highly vulnerable and extremely expensive surface ships for which there is no clear strategic purpose. And in the air we need to ensure a robust air combat and strike capacity against the kinds of forces that major-power adversaries will have in the 2020s and 2030s. That means aircraft at least as capable as the JSF, and many more of them than is now planned.