Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 17:37 | SYDNEY
Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 17:37 | SYDNEY

Security without 'The Edge'


Rory Medcalf


30 May 2008 11:57

Yesterday the Lowy Institute hosted a seminar in Canberra to discuss the question of the Australian Defence Force's regional combat capability edge. This has been a staple of Australian defence thinking for decades, and, with a new Defence White Paper in the works, we thought it time to discuss whether it ought to remain one. Does it serve our interests to maintain our pursuit of this edge? What are the challenges to it, both financial and strategic? What are we giving up if we lose it, and what do we lose if we keep it? Or are these false choices?

These issues were discussed among thirty-or-so commentators, academics, officials and defence force personnel (both serving and former) yesterday. Chatham House rules applied, but below I've reproduced the essence of my remarks to the gathering, and Sam will do the same in a later post. We will also encourage a few other participants to send in their thoughts, which we will publish over coming days.

The Australian Government is preparing a much-anticipated Defence White Paper, assessing the country’s defence needs for the next few decades and identifying the capabilities required to meet them. One of the big challenges in this process will be to decide how to approach the question of whether Australia truly needs military superiority in its region: what kind of superiority, what region, what for? After all, as Australia’s relative wealth in the wider Asia-Pacific (or indeed Indo-Pacific) region declines, and as up-to-date military technology becomes mind-bogglingly expensive, the country will have to make some hard choices about how single-mindedly it continues its quest for a self-reliant combat capability edge.

Certainly a regional combat capability edge for Australia is desirable. But so are many things, and we can’t always have what we want. Sometimes we may not even be able to have what we need. So it is worth thinking about what an alternative national security strategy might involve. What if in decades to come Australia cannot afford to retain a technology edge?

Or what if we can, objectively speaking, afford it, through, say, a large increase in the defence budget as a proportion of GDP, or through extraordinary improvements hitherto unseen in the efficiencies of defence resource allocation? But what if, despite this, future governments or publics cannot be persuaded to make the sacrifices, the drastic changes to their priorities, to policy and process that would be necessary? What if they can’t be persuaded that military threats to this country loom large enough or are likely or credible enough?

What if the defence force we have in 20 or more years from now is, in fact, only a modest improvement on what we can already see on the horizon, while some others in Asia expand their capabilities and reach at least to the level we anticipate, in line with the more maximalist projections of their economic growth? What then might protect Australia against another power’s contemplating the coercive threat of the use of force? What, other than the limited damage which the ADF could inflict, would complicate their calculations sufficiently to give them pause?

White papers and other published Australian defence policy documents tend to proceed from the observation that, for Australian defence planning, there seems no alternative but to meet the challenge of rising regional capabilities. But what if there simply has to be an alternative? What might an Australian national security strategy which did not rely largely or comfortably on military superiority look like?

I would suggest a focus on enmeshment.

Key strategic relationships would be an integral component of such a defence policy: not as luxury or an option, but as essential. Preferably foremost among these would be a strong, sustained and perhaps even refashioned alliance with the US: after all, in the next few decades, it is more likely that Australia will lose its margin of regional military superiority than that it will lose the alliance.

But Australia’s chief relationships would also include substantial strategic partnerships with one or more, and preferably most or all, large powers in the Indo-Pacific or with strong stakes in this region: Japan, Indonesia, India, Europe, and who knows, China, maybe even Russia.

These partnerships would be built upon a status of Australia’s enmeshment with those powers, preferably in at least some cases to the point of indispensability: Australia would not be just another country, relying on international goodwill, norms and law for its protection from predators. The key would be to ensure that the maintenance of our security would be in the vital interests of more powerful countries – both the countries that conceivably might want to threaten us, and the countries that might feel compelled to help us.

Much of this enmeshment would come from our role as a supplier of energy and other crucial raw materials to a range of powers: the fact that we have the resources and are a reliable supplier.

Part of our indispensability to larger powers might also flow from the assets we can deploy to providing essential global public goods in security, including through uses of our armed forces and other security capabilities: perhaps through maritime patrolling and sealane protection, exceptional intelligence, or stabilisation and nation-building roles.

And in a globalised world, there might be other ways in which Australia, perhaps as an advanced service industries hub, would be inextricably enmeshed with others. One might be a calculated migration policy with, among its many aims, a diasporic enmeshment with multiple major centres of power: China, India, ASEAN, Europe, the US. Let a threat to us be a threat to them.

A strategy of omni-directional and many-layered enmeshment is hardly original and there is no reason it cannot or should not go hand in hand with an attempt to sustain a strong military: Singapore is a master at omni-enmeshment, a business and shipping hub and a state that cultivates close and potentially co-dependent relations, including in defence, with multiple major powers. (Indeed, I am indebted to Singaporean scholar Evelyn Goh for the term and concept omni-enmeshment.)

Yes, a condition for all of this is regional and global interdependence: a future in which powerful states are far more motivated and likely to deploy their armed forces in pursuit of common interests against non-state and transnational threats than they are to deploy them to coerce, confront, attack or indeed invade other states.

And yes, interdependence is not guaranteed. But a future in which interdependence steadily retreats is one in which rising economies will fail to meet their growth projections, meaning they will be less powerful than we might otherwise have expected, and that our edge may not be so hard to afford after all.  On the other hand, if interdependence suddenly ruptures, as in 1914, then the ensuing state of disorder and potentially conflict will hardly be Australia’s problem alone.    

Finally, an alternative strategy to reliance on a military edge might also involve:

  • A national security philosophy based on relativities of risk: how likely is a threat; what are its consequences
  • A view that the opportunity costs and/or negative side-effects that would flow from the single-minded pursuit of a combat capability edge are such as to be unacceptable – either too expensive, too much of a diversion from other spending needs, or indeed potentially destabilising in their diplomatic and ultimately their strategic effects in the region
  • An analytical framework that emphasises intent at least as much as it does capabilities.

It would be good for Australia to keep its edge.We should make a concerted and sustained effort to try, mindful of the opportunity costs. But if there are reasons to believe that we might fail, then we need to deploy serious resources into understanding and trying proactively to shape parallel strategies for maintaining Australia’s security in a world of more powerful states. And even if we do succeed in retaining military superiority, it would make sense to have these strategies of enmeshment in place anyway. After all, military superiority alone is not enough to prevent an adversary from miscalculating and starting a fight that nobody wants.