Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:46 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:46 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: More on non-provocative defence


Sam Roggeveen


18 December 2008 16:22

Anton Kuruc writes (my somewhat piqued grumpy reply follows):

I have been following your posts on 'non provocative' defence. There are so many reasons why your argument is not only wrong but dangerous. 
You don't understand the nature of long term and fundamental uncertainty that defence capability has to deal with. You therefore don't understand how to generate flexibility out of the rigid capability structures and platforms defence buys. This is perhaps the experience Neil James was referring to.

If you understood either of these issues you would, for example, see the immense utility of the LHD. When defence buys the LHD it has no idea what it will actually be used for, if it is used at all, nor where it will be used. You can guess, but you can't know. What we absolutely do know is that if a crisis occurs in 2020 the LHD will be available to respond. Because the LHD is so big it can perform a wide variety of tasks; the smaller the vessel, the less variety and hence less flexible. Defence needs a balanced inventory of offensive and defensive capabilities because we can't know which we will need.    
You don't understand the non linearity of competition and winning. You can't win anything by only being defensive. That is why one of the principles of war is offensive action, a principle you implictly want removed as you don't believe the ADF should be well equipped to attack. You can only win by being able to change the environment; without the means to project into the external environment you can't change the competitor's environment and therefore you can't win. If the other guy knows you can't win he has more incentive to be aggressive as the risk of doing so have been decreased.

By explicitly removing the capacity to intervene externally you will create an enduring change in the competitive dynamics of the external environment. Once that occurs, the system will change, and once non linear change is unleashed it is difficult to determine where it will end. Your proposal will create the kind of dramatic change and uncertainty that is far more likely to create an arms race than avoid one. Thus your quest for stability is highly likely to unwittingly be destablilising.
Your unstated assumption is that Australia has no external interests that might warrant defending off shore. Equally, you don't consider that we might want to act externally in coalition with other partners or at the request of another country. Equally, you dismiss the possiblity that offensive capability can deter a competitor from aggression.

Your proposal limits the strategic options of future governments well in to the future. Defence capability should increase the range of options available to government, not dramatically limit them. Clearly you have never read Luttwak's magnificent book on the paradoxical logic of strategy. Because much in the strategic world is non linear, its logic is frequently counter-intuitive. Unfortunately, your posts demonstrate a neat linear logic that is totally irrelevant to managing the long term strategic uncertainty of a competitive and dynamic non linear environment.

Note for the future, Anton: if you're trying to change someone's mind with your argument, best not to keep telling them they 'don't understand'; it's condescending and intensely irritating.

Anyway, here's why I think Anton is wrong:

  • Yes, defence policy needs to be flexible in order to deal with the unexpected, but clearly it cannot be infinitely flexible. If defence policy was merely about 'increasing the range of options available to government', there'd be no end to how much we spent. Resources are finite, so we have to decide what we want and what we can do without.
  • There's no necessary reason for a non-provocative defence posture to invite aggression. Anton assumes you can only deter through being able to inflict damage on an adversary, but deterrence can also be based on the ability to deny an adversary their war aims.
  • Anton's rhetoric is way disproportionate. All I've recommended is getting rid of the F-111s, not buying cruise missiles and modifying the LHDs, yet he's talking about enduring, dramatic, systemic change. Is the entire regional political order dependent on the ADF's strike and expeditionary capabilities?
  • As is clear from my paper, I do not assume that Australia has no external interests, nor that we will never want to operate internationally with partners.

Over and above these specifics, what dismays me about critics such as Anton is the assumption that the risk is all one-way. That is, any attempt to cut defence spending or reduce 'flexibility' is seen as toying with our national security in an uncertain world and is therefore irresponsible.

What is seldom acknowledged is that the risks of defence spending run both ways: when you spend more on defence, you incur opportunity costs elsewhere, such as in health spending or education or tax cuts. I see no reason to weigh those opportunity costs less seriously than the possible dangers of a smaller, less flexible ADF.