Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:37 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:37 | SYDNEY

Defence debate: Hugh White responds III


Hugh White

24 April 2009 10:40

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

Peter's post on hedging and Crispin's on asymmetry and stability both make interesting and important points. Let’s start with Peter, who suggests that we should build a force structure today that hedges against future uncertainty by covering a wider range of capabilities in less depth than I suggest in A Focused Force.

He argues that a more diverse force would allow us to deal with the substate problems we know we have today, and provide a basis to expand our capacity to manage interstate conflicts if it turns out we need them in future.

This is a very important idea, and one I should have addressed more explicitly in my paper, so I’m very grateful to Peter for raising it. As he knows, it is not a new idea: it’s the old concept of Warning Time and Core Force that did such sterling service in the 1970s and 1980s, but is none the worse for that.

In essence he argues that we do not need to decide yet whether to build forces on the scale I suggest to meet the risk of conventional conflict in a more contested Asia. Asia’s future is not yet clear, and so the need for these forces is not yet clear either, and we can wait until they are clear (or clearer) before spending big dollars. In the meantime we can spend smaller amounts to reduce lead-times, and leave more money for the forces we need to meet current tasks.

To start, I absolutely agree we need to address the needs of stabilisation operations, and I suggested in ‘A Focused Force’ that if we want to meet the objectives we now proclaim through such operations then the Army needs to grow four more battalions. So, Your Honour, I’d plead ‘not guilty’ to the charge that my force focuses only on one kind of risk.

Second, I agree that we should defer investment in forces to meet the increased risks of conventional war until as late as possible, because it is not yet clear whether we will need them. The question is, when is ‘as late as possible’? That depends on two things.

1) How far in advance of increased strategic risk materialising will we have definitively clearer evidence than we have today that it will happen? Back in the 1970s and 1980s we could assume we would have decades’ warning, but now I think the timeframes have narrowed.

Can we be reasonably sure we will see a much more contested region for thirty years? Twenty? Ten? And what kind of advance indication can we expect to see that will make it definitively clearer that bigger risks are at hand, other than the emergence of those risks themselves? Those who argue that we can defer decisions until clearer data comes to hand have to be able to say what data they are waiting for, and whether we will get it soon enough.

2) How long would it take us to build the capabilities we would need, even with some prudent hedging investments? There is no doubt that if we really had to we could acquire new capabilities faster that we have over recent decades. But how fast? Could we double the size of our submarine fleet in a decade? Or treble it? Possibly, but I would not bet on it. And what kind of hedging investments short of actually ordering the boats would do much to reduce this time?

So while we should look very carefully at options for hedging as Peter suggests, my hunch is that the number of years warning we can expect to get is already less than the number of years it would take to respond. I’d be very happy to be proved wrong.

I enjoyed Crispin’s post not only for his very kind comments about my paper, but also because he addressed the consequences of the kind of force I propose for regional stability and perceptions of Australia. It is an issue that Rory touched on in his post last week, and one I’m sure Sam will be after me about when he returns from his travels, in view of his arguments on this issue last year.

It’s a very complex issue, (which is why, perhaps mistakenly, I did not get into it in 'A Focused Force') and Fergus will disown me if I offer up another 2,000 word post. So here are just four quick points.

1) Force planning must always pay attention to the security dilemma — the risk that the forces we build may increase our strategic risk by increasing others’ suspicions of us. We should be aware of how our plans look to others, and avoid steps that raise their fears. But there will be hard choices sometimes, when forces that might worry others are critical to our own defences. 

2) One clear advantage of maritime denial as an operational option is that it does appear less threatening than other postures. It is inherently defensive at the strategic level, although it can be very offensive operationally and tactically. So it minimises the security dilemma — as Crispin suggests. Other options like sea control and amphibious operations carry much bigger risks and costs in this regard.

3) It minimises, but does not eliminate: because even maritime-denial options can be applied in a threatening way. So Rory is right to raise concerns about how China and others would read the kind of force-development plans I have suggested. So we should do all we can to promote a stable order for Asia, making it absolutely clear that Australia wants to reduce the role of force in regional affairs. (It might be worth repeating here that I think there is a huge diplomatic agenda for Australia in trying to shape Asia’s future to limit these risks, which is at least as important to our future peace and safety as our armed forces, and about which I plan to write more soon.)  But we have to strike the kind of balance I mentioned before, and so I don’t think we can simply say that because others might be worried we can do nothing to defend ourselves.

4) Finally, a more general point. The interesting phenomenon of asymmetric stability that Crispin mentions between Australia and Indonesia suggests that the way around the security dilemma may often be a question of the relationships between different states’ postures rather than those postures themselves. 

The Australia-Indonesia strategic relationship is relatively stable because neither side can do much to the other. There is some hope that we may see this more generally in Asia over coming decades. The US and China are both moving to a position where each can achieve maritime denial over the other, but neither can assert sea control in the western Pacific. If both are prepared to accept it, this could be a quite stable situation — and one in which a modest Australian sea denial capability would look quite unthreatening too. Just a thought.