Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 21:02 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 21:02 | SYDNEY

PM arms race theory takes another hit


Rory Medcalf


10 November 2008 16:54

The media game of sink-the-Prime-Minister’s-alleged-arms-race-theory continues. The latest salvo comes from the Financial Review, which has a report (subscribers only) citing comments last week by the Chief of the Royal Australian Navy, Vice-Admiral Russ Crane. Decide for yourself whether the Chief was firing a shot across the Prime Ministerial bow: the text of his speech is on the ASPI website.

The main comments quoted by the newspaper – in which the Chief of Navy reportedly describes Chinese and Indian military modernisation as ‘normal’ – were presumably made in the question and answer session. After all, the Q&A typically provides richer waters for journalists to trawl than does the prepared speech.

The initial media reports which quoted Prime Minister Rudd referring to an arms race were based on a momentary lapse during such a session in September, when he did indeed use that term, only to immediately correct himself. (Mind you, in that same appearance he spoke of an arms-buying ‘explosion’ in the region – even more alarming and debatable a metaphor.)   

For his part, Vice-Admiral Crane last week emphasised the maritime nature of Australia’s strategic environment and the need for Australia’s military strategy to be maritime, echoing a similar point from the PM’s September Townsville speech. Where the two seemed to part company is that Vice-Admiral Crane was careful not to imply that Australia should somehow acquire the capacity single-handedly to protect its sea lines of communication – the ocean-spanning highways of its commerce. Nor did he raise hopes of the much-expanded Navy that some commentators assume the Prime Minister was foreshadowing in Townsville.

Where the Chief did show his hand was in laying down some clear markers on his preferred shape for the Navy. He was working to temper the expectations of those who have seen this year’s Defence White Paper process, and the beginning of feasibility thinking on the 2020s Collins replacement submarine, as a chance to advocate a ‘submarines first’ approach to Australian maritime capability:

I would strongly support an increase in submarine numbers…[but not] at the expense of capable surface combatants…Defence needs at least this number [11-12] of capable…surface combatants to ensure we can provide options across the full spectrum of contingencies, and this includes positively influencing events to prevent conflict – being a positive force in our region. I cannot countenance a force which is so heavily weighted to high-end warfighting that it offers little to Government in the broader areas of Maritime Operations short of high end conflict. That said we must continue to be able to hit hard if we have to…[submarines] offer an extremely powerful but somewhat niche capability.

If the PM is indeed something of a convert to the ‘subs first’ school, then it would seem the Navy’s advice is ‘Yes Prime Minister, but mind the opportunity cost’.

In sum, it is clear that if the Chief of Navy has his way, the Defence White Paper will go only a short way in sacrificing the Navy’s balance for some fresh emphasis on weight. Certainly some change is sorely needed – for instance, the Chief’s remark that Australia ‘needs more work’ to increase its anti-submarine warfare capability is quite the understatement.

But his priority is to craft a Navy that can provide options to government rather than a one-purpose deterrent. In an era where we need to weigh strategic uncertainties alongside non-state threats, a strong US alliance and a growing web of security partnerships, I believe this emphasis remains the right one.

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