Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 17:53 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 17:53 | SYDNEY

Defence debate: Maritime denial is a good approach

16 April 2009 13:27

Paul Monk is co-founder and director of Austhink Consulting. This is the fifth contribution to our debate on Australia's defence policy which started here. Here are parts two, three and four.     

Hugh White's paper sets out a thoughtful case for a fundamental restructuring and enlargement of the ADF, on the premise that we have entered the Asian century and that the long standing assumptions of our strategic policy are under threat.

There is some genuinely new thinking in this paper, which is refreshing in itself. Hugh states that 'possibilities that were only seen dimly in 2000 are now more starkly clear' and that the reluctance of the authors of the 2000 White Paper to propose systematic revision of the ADF's force structure constituted 'a serious policy failure.' He acknowledges that there can be no going back to the Defence of Australia doctrine and that it has been clear since 2000 that we need to equip the Army for deployment overseas and not simply for continental defence.

So far, so good. Indeed, to find Hugh declaring that we need to very seriously consider increasing defence spending well beyond the levels of the past generation and to significantly increase our power as a state is quite a striking development.

He proposes that, with a wary eye on China and the anticipated relative decline of the US, we should focus our force structure on maritime denial and a complementary capacity to engage, at least in terms of air power, in what could be serious operations, if the rise of Asian powers leads to conflicts in which our vital interests are at stake or we cannot avoid taking sides.

But here his argument is not altogether coherent. In particular, he states at one point (p. 39) that our Army is too small for stabilisation operations and, in any case, if made to concentrate on them, will take on many of the attributes of a constabulary and 'lose the ability to prevail over other conventional armed forces.'

The answer is not necessarily to build a bigger Army, he adds. Yet, seven pages later, he proposes that we both build a considerably bigger Army (12 battalions) and focus it on stabilisation operations. The key, he states here (p. 46) is size, not combat weight. This needs sorting out.

I share Hugh's interest in the rise of China and, not least, its ambitious development of blue water naval capability. I think his maritime denial argument is something that will be well worth looking at seriously.

I would make two other brief points here. The first is that both the CIA and Pentagon seem more sanguine about the threat from China than are Hugh or the authors of the White Paper. The premises of the focused force argument, therefore, need rigorous cross-examination. The second point bears upon the very interesting observation Hugh makes (p. 60) that 'no-one in defence or government accepts responsibility to ensure that good decisions are made...' This must change, he urges. This is something which has interested me since my PhD work on problems of that nature in the US. But Hugh is short on specifics; simply calling for 'leadership'. What is called for, one would have thought, is a searching examination of how, in fact, we make such decisions and how they might reasonably be made better.

Photo by Flickr user Stone Scarab, used under a Creative Commons licence.