Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 08:28 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 08:28 | SYDNEY

Non-provocative defence: A reply to Neil James


Sam Roggeveen


18 December 2008 11:17

I intend to take up Raoul Heinrichs' critique of my non-provocative defence proposal in a separate post, but first I want to respond to Australia Defence Association Executive Director Neil James, who wrote a rather biting letter to the Financial Review in response to my op-ed.

Unless you have a subscription, you can't read Neil's entire letter on the AFR website, and Neil declined an invitation to write a post for The Interpreter, so I'll just quote what I think are the relevant bits. From my reading, Neil makes two arguments against my proposal. The first is that...

Roggeveen misunderstands the necessary purpose and nature of our defence force's possessing capability edges. Wars are deterred or if needed won by maintaining (legal and even "unfair" if necessary) advantages over potential and actual adversaries. We should never shrink from giving our forces a capability edge if it stops or wins wars and lessens our casualties and national damage.

I can almost see how you might come away with that impression of my views from reading only the op-ed, though I do say in that short piece that Australia should 'keep the defensive elements of our capability edge, but cut those that could provoke regional balancing.'

In the longer paper, I am much more explicit in supporting precisely the argument that Neil alleges I do not understand. I agree that Australia should have the capability to win any war it gets involved in. But I go on to caution that this carries consequences, since any potential adversary is likely to feel precisely the same way. And that can lead to arms racing, which is a risk that my proposal seeks to ameliorate.

Neil James' second point concerns what he regards as my misunderstanding of the role of Australia's new amphibious ships (LHDs). I will concede that my reference to 'storming enemy beaches' was too dramatic a way of describing what these ships are built for. But they are designed to put quite large numbers of troops ashore, who can if necessary secure small parcels of territory, perhaps to help evacuate Australians in a time of crisis or lawlessness. Or, as Neil says, the ships could be used for humanitarian or disaster relief operations.

But regional states are within their rights to look at our capabilities, not just our intentions, and what they could see in these LHDs is two of the largest ships Australia has ever had in its fleet, with the capability to put several hundred troops ashore in distant countries. What's more, the LHDs will be protected by sophisticated new destroyers that might even have the capability to strike land targets with cruise missiles.

The argument I make in my paper is that the cost of reassuring regional countries about what we intend to do with our LHDs is very modest. Again, these countries will look at our capability as well as our intent, so I suggest slightly modifying the capabilities of these ships: remove the ski jumps and integrate non-military agencies in the design and operation of the ships so that they operate more as national logistical assets, and less as warships.

The main benefit I see from such a proposal is that it reassures our neighbours. But there's a spin-off too, which is that it will improve the capabilities of these ships for the kinds of soft power jobs they are more likely to do anyway.

One last point about Neil James' opening paragraph, in which he says that my argument...

...typifies the growing problem of those who try to discuss strategic principles, or how they can be applied operationally, without any apparent detailed knowledge or practical experience in either regard.

In reference to 'practical experience', I sincerely hope Neil is not arguing that only those who have served in uniform should be debating these matters, since that strikes me as a pretty undemocratic sentiment.