Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:49 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:49 | SYDNEY

Offensive force structure serves defensive strategy


Raoul Heinrichs

17 December 2008 09:41

There is something intuitively attractive about Sam’s case for a ‘non-provocative’ defence policy – the idea that Australia might enhance its own security by adjusting its force structure and declaratory policy in ways that make its neighbours feel more secure, and hence less inclined to acquire countervailing military capabilities. But let me explain why, in my view, his argument is not entirely compelling.

Sam’s overall argument rests on the problematic assumption that Australia’s current defence policy — built as it is on a highly offensive war-fighting doctrine and an explicit commitment to the maintenance of military superiority — must, at some level, be provocative; that is, likely to provoke security consequences which are at least serious enough to outweigh the benefits of retaining the current defence policy, and the risks of changing it. The problem, as Sam himself seems to recognise, is that this is an assumption for which there is very little supporting evidence.

Australia has enjoyed relative military superiority in Southeast Asia for at least four decades now, yet no state in the region, not even Indonesia, has seriously concerned itself with balancing Australian power or attaining strategic parity through a build-up of military capabilities. Even today, with Canberra on the cusp of acquiring a whole range of new offensive war-fighting capabilities, there has been no corresponding build-up in Southeast Asia and no general deterioration in political relations, much less rapid, focused, and interactive military procurements characteristic of an arms race.

This may be attributable to the fact that no state in the region has thus far had the wherewithal to compete directly with Australia, as Sam suggests. But neither have any combination of states sought to aggregate their capabilities in an effort to offset Australian relative advantages, which, in the context of individual weakness and threat perceptions rooted in the skewed distribution of military capabilities, is a balancing option that has surely been available for some time.

What Sam’s analysis appears to overlook is that Australia’s military edge and offensive war-fighting doctrine are themselves embedded in a broadly defensive grand-strategy. The greater salience of threats emanating from powerful countries in Northeast Asia means that Australia’s ‘strategy of denial’, which seeks to prevent the intrusion of these powers into Australia’s air and sea approaches via maritime Southeast Asia, accords fundamentally with the interests of states such as Indonesia, who might otherwise feel threatened by Australia’s military dominance. 

The best way for Australia to mitigate the strategic anxiety of its Southeast Asian neighbours, therefore, is to reaffirm a commitment to capabilities such as long-range strike aircraft, which are integral to this strategy, while abandoning those which are not (ie. amphibious ships). The enduring challenge for Australian declaratory policy, and one to which the authors of the 2009 defence White Paper ought to be attuned, is to reiterate the importance of Australia’s current defence policy to the external security of Southeast Asia by clarifying the relationship between Australia’s offensive doctrine and force-structure, its insistence on military superiority, and its inherently defensive strategic objectives in Southeast Asia.

Photo by Flickr user Two Big Paws, used under a Creative Commons license.