Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 04:05 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 04:05 | SYDNEY

Reader ripostes: Defence debate questions


Fergus Hanson


20 April 2009 09:22

We've had a number of contributors to our defence debate so far (here parts one, two, three, four, five and six). Hugh's response is just around the corner, but before that some replies from readers. The first is from Chris Skinner, the second from an anonymous member of the defence establishment.

In question time Professor White answered one on my questions but not the other: 'How can (the forces needed for) maritime denial protect the trade shipping on which Australia mainly relies?'  Interference in such trade constitutes a significant vulnerability for Australia should a nation with growing regional maritime capability decide to threaten so.

This is the classical scenario of guerre de course as discussed by many maritime strategists and exemplified in the Battle of the Atlantic and in the Pacific and Mediterranean theatres in World War Two. A country that builds large submarine fleets can threaten such action as mining of channels, approaches and straits without necessarily being apprehended in doing so. The maritime equivalent of improvised explosive devices [IED], one might say.

The other significant insight from A Focused Force was the profound observation that ‘It is easy to assume that something very different is therefore very improbable, because sharp discontinuities always look unlikely before they happen. But they are actually quite common. Often the most important question is, therefore...whether circumstances may change in ways that would make it [a particular contingency] more likely in future.’

9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami and the global economic crisis were such discontinuities; a number of possible scenarios could produce similar extraordinary events in future. These might not directly affect Australia but the assumptions we have used for Defence policy development may well be.

Maritime denial and the build up of military forces is a good idea but we must not rule out the possibility of needing to do more in extremis, should such a discontinuity arise. Say, for example, from unchecked nuclear proliferation that leads to use of a nuclear device in the Middle East or North Asia. Or a breakdown of order in the South West Pacific leading to conflict, perhaps with outside support and incitement.

Then what will Australia need to achieve our goals? Certainly a lot more than merely denial — we will need to intervene and that requires expeditionary capabilities and the means to protect supply lines too.

Here is a second response from an anonymous member of the defence establishment:

The paper by Hugh White restates the salient points of his version of the 'focused force' approach to Australian Defence Force (ADF) force structure, but despite the numerous criticisms raised in both the related academic literature and expressed during recent defence strategy seminars, he has failed to address any shortcomings.

It is unfortunate that much of the Australian media is apparently unable to read more widely than the works of a small group of defence commentators, and given the severe restrictions imposed against comment from within the ADF, it is perhaps not surprising that we see very limited public debate on these matters.

I will take this opportunity to expand upon two of the concerns about a 'focused force' approach and why it should be rejected by Australia. Even if we really believe that Australia cannot afford a 'balanced' defence force, there would be little agreement upon what the ADF should be 'focused'. The foundation of Mr White's paper includes the push for less 'vulnerable' surface ships (p. 50) and more submarines (p. 52); however the basis for this assessment is not supported by the evidence.

All modern navies have surface ships. They are not anywhere near as vulnerable as Mr White implies. Has he seen the recent paper by Dr John Reeve, or even read the RAN Sea Power Centre Semaphore article 'Warship Survivability'? I suppose when the evidence does not support your theory, you can just ignore it — but where is the academic rigour? I would like Mr White to explain the basis he uses to support his ongoing use of the adjective 'vulnerable'.

Turning now to the submarines, if we need more submarines we need to understand how we intend to use them. One of the common mistakes made by White is that he focuses on individual capabilities or single service force elements rather than on a joint ADF operating as an interwoven system of defence assets.

Each ADF capability acts as a node within an ADF system of systems. Each individual submarine cannot achieve desired military effects in isolation; rather submarines contribute to ADF operations as one component amongst many. Australia needs submarines as an integral part of our anti-submarine network.

A strategy that favours submarines over other defence assets would significantly simplify an opponent's ability to counter the submarine threat. Instead of a multi-tiered effort to counter a networked force, the opponent could concentrate on the submarine's vulnerabilities in order to defeat the submarine menace. Many of White's other assumptions underpinning the submarine requirement can also be challenged.

If there is not intellectual consistency in our understanding of Australia's defence strategy and the resulting force structure, why would anyone put all their eggs in one basket (particularly submarines) and gamble with the future of every Australian?