Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 05:43 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 05:43 | SYDNEY

Defence debate: Hugh White responds II


Hugh White

23 April 2009 13:13

Here are parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and nine on our defence debate.        

As promised, this post picks up on some of the other very stimulating responses to my Focused Force paper that I could not cover in Tuesday’s effort. I might start with Raoul’s kind but also insightful piece. He focuses on the centrality of the elusive concept of self-reliance in the argument I am making about Australia’s defence choices in the Asian century. This is of course absolutely correct, but I’d like to suggest a change of terminology.

I personally shy away from the expression ‘self-reliance’ in looking at our future strategic choices, because I think the expression is best preserved to describe the special and distinct degree and mode of dependence on the US that evolved in the decades after Vietnam as apart of what we’d now call the Defence of Australia (DoA) era.

Self-reliance was integral to the DoA construct, and the concept was absolutely embedded in our confidence in sustained and uncontested US primacy in Asia. The policy we may wish or need to adopt as US primacy fades will have little resemblance to that, and I think we risk understating the differences if we use the same expression to cover the very different demands of the Asian century.

So I prefer to talk of ‘independent strategic weight’, by which I mean our capacity to achieve strategic results by the actual conduct of military operations (as opposed to the symbolic use of armed forces and military operations as diplomatic symbols). 

The challenge of building forces with the independent strategic weight to support a range of interests extending beyond the defence of Australia in a more fluid and contested Asia is very different from the task of achieving self-reliance in the defence of Australia within the framework set by US primacy. So it’s better to use a different expression for it.

This brings me to Graeme’s wise and pithy observations. Two points here. First, I’d just like to restate my dissent from the widely-held view (that Graeme shares) that I am a China Hawk. As I wrote on Tuesday, it is no part of my argument that I expect China to threaten Australia directly as it grows stronger.

Australia’s security hitherto has not depended on China’s weakness but on Asia’s order, and if we become less secure in future it will not be because of China’s strength but because of growing disorder in Asia. China will shape our future security because its growing power is driving a change in Asia’s order which may or may not produce more instability, but if it does that will not necessarily be China’s fault. I cannot stress too strongly how important this point is to my analysis, and how different it is from the ‘China threat’ argument.

My second point relates to Graeme’s wry suggestion that I am making a deliberately overstated ambit claim when I say we would need 18 submarines, 200 JSF and 12 infantry battalions to achieve our current strategic objectives in a more contested Asian future.

He hints that in the grand tradition of Defence budget bids, I am calculating that an argument for 18 might deliver a decision for 12, which is what I really intend. As an observation about ERC tactics Graeme is perceptive as always, but I need to assure him that there is no hint of exaggeration in my numbers. I think Graeme cannot quite bring himself to believe that I think Australia may need a very different defence force in future decades if we want to maintain our present strategic weight in a very different strategic environment.

He is not alone: many others have responded to my force structure numbers in the same way. I find it surprising how reluctant our defence community is to acknowledge the possibility that Australia might need significantly different forces if our strategic circumstances change significantly.

Why would anyone assume that a force much like today’s will sustain Australia’s strategic weight in Asia over coming decades, unless they assume that Asia will not change much over coming decades? And who assumes that?

I am delighted that Chris Skinner has reposed to me the question on defence of trade that I failed to answer for him at last week’s launch. It’s a fascinating subject, and one that the Prime Minister seems to find very interesting to judge from his comments in Townsville last year.

It deserves much more attention than the quick response I can offer here, but the key question is whether a need to defend seaborne trade requires us to develop different operational options from the maritime denial concept I propose in A Focused Force. I would answer ‘no’, for three reasons.

First, I’m sceptical that the traditional concept of guerre de course has much application in the modern world. When British goods from British colonies were shipped to British ports in British ships there was such a thing as British trade, but what is ‘Australian’ trade today?

Second, even where we do have evident unique national interests in seaborne trade – for example during a general war – there seems no effective, let alone cost-effective, way Australia could defend long-distance sea traffic from attack by any form of conventional sea-control or convoy operations. The scale of the task is simply too vast, especially when adversaries have plenty of long range submarines.

This means, third, that the only way we could defend our trade from interdiction would be to threaten the trade of an adversary in return: deterrence in other words. That might be an appealing option. But that does not need sea control: what it needs is sea-denial capabilities – ie more submarines!

Chris’ broader point that there are many other discontinuities which could produce many other kinds of security risk to Australia is also valid. I exclude many of these risks from consideration of defence policy. Not because I do not think they are important, but because I do not believe that armed force will do much to manage them. In fact as a general proposition I do not think armed force is cost-effective for much other than fighting other armed forces, so I focus defence policy on the risks we might find ourselves doing that.

Finally some remarks to our anonymous supporter of surface ships. The relative priority for ships and submarines in our force structure is a critical question, and I am very open to arguments that differ from mine.

Like all force structure questions, however, this one cannot be resolved by talking about the qualities of particular types of capability in isolation, but only by considering the relative cost-effectiveness of different options for achieving the objectives we have set ourselves. I am not opposed to Major Surface Combatants (MSCs) per se: my argument is simply that they are less cost-effective in achieving the strategic objectives we set ourselves than submarines.

My reasons for thinking that can be boiled down to two propositions: our strategic objectives require us to achieve sea denial but not sea control, and submarines are more cost-effective then MSCs for sea denial because they are less vulnerable to counter-attack.

Both of these propositions deserve careful scrutiny. I am a great fan of John Reeve’s work and a loyal reader of Semaphore, so as it happens I know both the pieces mentioned by our navalist friend. I did not find that either offered a convincing case against either of these two key propositions.

In particular, while they argue that MSCs can be defended at a cost, and up to a point, they do not establish that they are more cost-effective than submarines in sea denial. I would argue that the costs of defending MSCs, and the high residual vulnerabilities that remain even after billions have been spent, make them less cost effective.

But the point our navalist friend raises about ‘eggs in one basket’ is an important one. Any force structure gains robustness from diversity. But this must be balanced against the equally important point that spreading our investment across too many different kinds of capability risks leaving us without the capacity to achieve strategic effects with any of them.

So I agree there is a risk in focusing on submarines, but there is also a risk in spending money on forces that on present evidence will not achieve important strategic objectives cost-effectively. On balance I think there is more risk in spending money on MSCs.

Photo by Flickr user Keith Marshall, used under a Creative Commons licence.