Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:26 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:26 | SYDNEY

Defence policy: Coping with uncertainty


Hugh White

19 December 2008 10:50

Anton's response to Sam’s richly provocative paper about defence policy touches on a point which deserves more attention in the wider defence debate. Defending the decision to buy LHDs, Anton says quite correctly that we cannot today know with any precision what the ADF will be called upon to do in twenty years time. 

How true this is: the whole drama and fascination of defence policy lies in the way it must try to build a bridge between very uncertain future risks and very concrete current decisions. 

That is hard, but maybe not quite as hard as Anton thinks. Even in an uncertain world, there are some things we can be fairly confident about, which can help us choose between different capability investments.  Here are a few examples.

  • First, we can be pretty sure Australia will not have land forces large enough to exercise real strategic weight in Asia in substantial conflicts in the Asian century. The realities of demographics alone suggest that if Australia exercises strategic weight in Asia in the Asian century, it will be in the air and at sea, not on land. Fortunately, we occupy an island continent in a very maritime setting, so air and sea power can do a lot for us. 
  • Second, we can be pretty sure that in any major conflict, the few battalions that we could land and support with two LHDs would have little or no operational significance commensurate with the costs – especially the opportunity costs – of building and maintaining the capabilities involved. What exactly would two battalions do for us against a substantial adversary once they are ashore?
  • Third, we can be pretty sure that twenty years hence we would be unable to defend the LHDs against the submarines and aircraft of a well-armed adversary. So we can be pretty sure that in any serious war, we would not put our LHDs to sea.
  • Fourth, for the important roles that amphibious capabilities can play in lower-level conflicts, it is pretty clear that a larger number of smaller ships would be more use than two very big ones. It’s a matter of availability and concurrency: with only two ships, we’ll be lucky to have even one available at any time, which can only be in one place at a time. And we know smaller ships can do the low-level operations fine: our present ships, Manoora and Kanimbla  (one third the size of the LHDs) have done what we needed in Solomon Islands, Aceh, and in many other places. We can be pretty sure that ships of that size – plus some fast cats – could do the same for us in future.

All that makes me pretty sure that the LHDs are not a good buy.