Guerilla Matilda


The preposterousness of John Howard’s pre-emptive flying squad strike force raises “ at last “ the serious issue of an independent Australian defence policy.

For too long we have relied on alliances with either Britain or the United States in the hope that if needed they would come to our rescue.

Faced with a choice of supporting 20 million English speakers with kangaroos or 300 million Moslems with oil, the White House would establish a sub-committee to report back in a timely fashion.

A physical threat to Australia can only come from or via Indonesia or perhaps Papua New Guinea. You don’t need to be Alexander the Great to work that out. Look at a map. An attack on Fremantle from Johannesburg is as likely as a dawn raid on Sydney from Auckland. It’s the red desert and jungle bit from Broome to Cairns that’s vulnerable.

In 1983, I asked Labor’s new defence minister, Gordon Scholes, about plans for our own guerrilla warfare deterrent capability. He had no idea what I was talking about.

He was expressing a cultural ignorance as much as a military one. In Israel and Thailand the army is part of, and is strongly supported by, wider society. Not so Australia, with our ‘us and them’ mentality to the armed services.

Our defence forces could be made far more effective by relocating to and integrating with existing civilian communities. They could also be trained in the tactics causing so much havoc to the Coaltion of the Willing in Iraq today.

First, the army should have platoons and companies based in northern Australian population centres. In some of their downtime from training they should assist those communities in development projects “ mending fences, building bridges and playgrounds, fundraising barbecues and sports training. If ever needed in combat, they would have greater local support and know the terrain better than any battalion brought up from Melbourne or Adelaide.

Second, our air force requires vertical and short take off and landing multi-role aircraft (Harrier, F-35, Saab Gripen) hidden in the bush and moved about, like the Swedes have been doing for decades.

Third, an effective navy coastguard needs fast patrol boats (Super Dvora Mk III) and frigates with attack helicopter capability (pioneered by Canada; the UK’s Type 23 Frigate) and they should be patrolling our northern waters from Broome to Cairns.

Another Labor defence minister, Senator Robert Ray, told me that Australia’s best defence was close ties with Indonesia. Anyone wanting to harm Australia (other than Indonesia, of course) would have to deal with Jakarta first. In terms of conventional war, he was absolutely correct. Trained at Duntroon and armed with the best of British and American equipment, the Indonesians could prevent anyone else attacking Australia.

That just leaves the threat from Indonesia. But it’s one thing to invade a country, it’s a different matter to hold it, as some people are learning in Iraq.

So Australia’s best defence is to prevent any invasion by declaring our own guerrilla warfare deterrent. Quick, light, well-hidden, but well-known. Nests of vipers in the desert and jungles.

In this regard, Labor has now made the first noises of heading in the right direction, with the Latham-Beazley statement in Darwin. What Australia needs, however, is a total overhaul of its defence strategy.

Instead, Prime Minister Howard has offered a pre-emptive strike proposal. Apart from the fact that pre-emption violates international law, and in practical terms invites a military response (probably from a better army, operating on superior intelligence) that does not violate it, this Howard doctrine gives other nations the green light to pre-empt the threat we might pose.

Should Lichtenstein learn of a plot to steal their garden gnomes, would Howard approve the invasion of Glebe by a Euro-squad?

What if we discover a Jerusalem-based Armenian plan to attack Turkish assets in Melbourne? Are we going to invade Israel? I don’t think so.

Perhaps the blatant stupidity of the Prime Minister’s pre-emptive strike policy will give Australians impetus to debate and demand a 21st century defence force. One that has some hope of doing its job for its people.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.