Tuesday 04 Aug 2020 | 16:46 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 04 Aug 2020 | 16:46 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Australia weakness


Sam Roggeveen


14 April 2008 11:48

Chris Skinner writes to us about defence policy, with my response below:

I think your naiveté is breathtaking in declaring ‘...what if things go really well in the region over the next decade?’ as a basis for any sort of policy development, let alone that of national security! Where have you been over the last few decades? The reality of national security is that prudent investment is made to deal with possible risks arising, and not only to deal with such eventualities but also to influence their likelihood. The projection of powerful capabilities actually discourages a putative adversary from adventurism and provides a basis for serious negotiations of treaties and agreements. Weakness has never been a basis for satisfactory foreign policy.

Thus the question is not, as you put it, whether a credible adversarial situation can be perceived now. Rather it is whether such a situation could arise by the time the capabilities in which we are now investing time and money, will achieve their initial operational capability — a period of many years. So we are assessing what should be done now to deal with possible situations that might arise in the future without attempting to determine now what they might be.

To reinforce this point one only has to look at the major disarmament activities at the end of the 1920’s in the light of the Second World War, that started less than a decade later. This failure to prepare in time applied to Australia no less than any other country. Please allow your mind to travel into the future when who knows what will be the price of oil, when Iran might have nuclear weapons or changes of regime in the countries near Australia might lead them to behave in quite different ways to the present – especially if sea-levels have threatened their very existence or fundamentalism takes hold. We live in an uncertain world, and trusting to things going well does not cut it.

Chris says 'The reality of national security is that prudent investment is made to deal with possible risks arising'. But 'possible' should really be 'plausible' or 'likely'. After all, there are endless 'possible' threats to our national security, but it is hardly prudent to spend money defending against the least likely ones. Like, say, an invasion by NATO. I assume Chris does not want the ADF to be structured to deal with that contingency, because he knows it would bankrupt us.

To a lesser degree, that is the same argument I am making with regard to our regional neighbours. If their economic success continues, we probably won't be able to afford the military capability edge we have enjoyed for decades. So what then? It's not enough to declare that 'weakness has never been a satisfactory foreign policy', because in the future I am describing, weakness will not be a choice, it will just be imposed upon us. And anyway, who says 'weakness' can't be successful? There will always be weak countries and strong ones, and plenty of the former make it work quite well. When we're living among giants, that may be our challenge too.

I would add that this challenge, if it does come, is still some way off. As I noted in my earlier post, our regional air power capablity edge is really not at threat yet, even if our neighbours are buying superior jet fighters. That's because a one-on-one comparison of aircraft completely ignores the big advantages we have in the quality of our people and support aircraft. What's more, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia are buying these Sukhoi fighters in quite small numbers. The 'horse-race form guide' style of air power analysis ignores all these factors.