As the China-US rivalry casts a shadow over our region, Australia can’t simply buy its way to security, writes Ben Eltham.
Count Raimondo Montecuccoli, the favourite field marshal of the 17th century Habsburg monarchy, once said that the three things necessary for war were “money, money and money.”
That’s not a bad starting point for a discussion of the 2016 Defence White Paper, released yesterday by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Defence Minister Marise Payne.
Media coverage has concentrated on the eye-watering sticker shock of the document, perhaps not surprisingly. Huge amounts of money have been promised to arms spending, including the commitment to keep spending money even if Australia’s economic growth drops off.
Gone is the favoured “two per cent of GDP” rule that the defence establishment has pushed so hard for in recent years. Instead, the White Paper sets out a concrete timeline of spending, committing to the budget no matter the external economic circumstances.
Once again, the White Paper has focused on traditional war-fighting as the key threat facing Australia, downplaying human and natural security issues like failed states, cyber-terrorism and climate change.
While these other types of threats are name-checked, in the end this is a very traditional White Paper, concerned ultimately with military force. The astonishingly large amounts of money committed to new ships and planes is in stark contrast to the negligible interest the current government has shown in any kind of preparation for a warmer planet – despite the manifest difficulties that a warmer world will pose, not least for the ADF itself.
Similarly, the White Paper almost completely ignores the key strategy of any nation up to and including a hot war: diplomacy. Astonishingly, the word “diplomacy” is mentioned just once. Foreign aid is also ignored (though you could argue the current government has basically abolished it anyway), and diplomatic infrastructure like embassies and high commissions are completely forgotten.
Where the White Paper talks about “engagement”, it really means military engagement, such as shared defence cooperation and exercises, military attaches, US bases in Australia, and the like. If war is a continuation of policy by other means, then the White Paper seems to assume Australia will be relying a lot on our military in future years – even in peace-time.
There’s no getting around it: the government has just committed Australia to our largest arms build-up since the Second World War. It is a lot of money. Perhaps $150 billion will be spent designing, building and sustaining a fleet of new submarines, and there is a long shopping list of new equipment for the admirals and generals to move around their maps. Critics have already pointed out that the huge increase in spending will wipe out any chance of a budget surplus for the next decade, at the earliest.
The laundry list of new or updated capabilities is dizzying. It includes:
- P-8 anti-submarine surveillance planes
- missile-carrying drones
- new military satellites
- long-range Gulfstream spy planes
- all sorts of communications and cyber warfighting programs
- more helicopters
- more transport planes
- new replenishment ships
- new frigates
- new ocean-going patrol boats
- riverine patrol boats
- new infantry fighting vehicles
- land-based anti-ship missiles
- long range rockets
- air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles
- upgrades to army, navy and air force bases
And last but not least, the White Paper recommits to 12 new “regionally superior” submarines.
While the defence boffins are happy about all the new toys we’ll be acquiring, some hard questions need to be asked about what all this kit is going to be used for.
Australia cannot win a conventional war in Asia, as the White Paper itself tacitly concedes. Nor can we realistically stop determined military aggression from a great power like the US or China. So almost any level of military spending will not deliver Australia unquestioned security. All we can do is raise the cost of foreign aggression, by maintaining a muscular defence capability and building a network of alliances. In other words, we’ll have to act like any other middle power.
A bigger and more potent ADF can certainly help with the alliances. And it does seem as though the White Paper envisages a beefed-up ADF as a key player in a regional alliance to contain China. Indeed, the submarines will have a powerful benefit to the US in the arms race in the northern Pacific.
Just this week, the U.S. commander of the Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, complained that the US Pacific Fleet needs more subs. The US “suffers [a]shortage of submarines today,” Harris told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, “my requirements are not being met.” Harris added that he was concerned that the Pentagon’s plan to modernise its own submarine fleet may not move fast enough to keep pace with its Pacific rivals.
Along with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the submarines are of course the most expensive and controversial item of the new plan. The White Paper calls them “regionally superior”, which is one of those nice phrases that could mean just about anything.
If we’re talking about the other submarines operating in south-east Asia, perhaps our new submarines will be superior. Or maybe they won’t. It’s way to early to say. They have yet to be designed, let alone built. Indeed, the government hasn’t completed its “competitive evaluation process” to decide which of the three competing bidders from Japan, Germany or France will construct the boats.
As Sam Bateman of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore points out, “the decision is a choice between Australia locking itself into an alliance with Japan for the next four decades or having some strategic independence within the region.”
A truly “superior” submarine would have to be better and quieter than the current gold standard of global submarine design, the US Virginia class. These subs are nuclear-powered and can stay underwater indefinitely. An Australian sub with conventional power can’t match a nuclear sub for range or endurance, although perhaps it could be quieter. Even so, it seems like an ambitious goal.
There’s no doubt there’s an Asian arms race in submarines. China is rapidly bulking up its nuclear and conventional submarine fleet, with the aim of controlling the Taiwan Strait and denying access to American surface vessels in the South China Sea. Vietnam has just bought some top-line Kilo class subs from Russia. Thailand is buying modern submarines for the first time. Indonesia has plans to beef up its sub fleet. Singapore is buying Type 218 subs from Germany.
In other words, submarines have become the new metric of naval strength in Asia, rather like battleships in the North Sea before World War One. If Australia really wants a “regionally superior” deterrent force of submarines, we may need more than 12 subs – perhaps 18, or even 24.
The comparison with the early Twentieth Century should concern us, because many historians nominate the naval arms race between Germany and Britain as a key factor in the origins of the Great War. It was the decision by rising power Germany to attempt to build a powerful navy to challenge British sea power that irrevocably pushed Britain towards alliance with France and hostility to Kaiser Wilhelm’s Reich. The parallels with Chinese assertion in the east Asian archipelago are worrying, to say the least.
The provocative build-up of Chinese forces in the island chains along the “nine dash line” have profoundly spooked China’s regional neighbours. The US has responded in kind, beefing up its Pacific presence, and investing in new doctrine and weaponry to counter China’s “anti-access/area denial” strategies.
There’s a chicken-and-egg aspect to any arms race, of course. The White Paper overtly mentions Chinese militarisation in the Spratly and Paracel island chains as a reason for Australia’s decision to get into the submarine race. But China has already reacted negatively to the White Paper’s hawkish sentiments, despite being briefed about its likely contents well in advance.
Whether Australia is wise to ante up in such an environment is very much open to debate. But it’s not a debate Australians are having. We’ve been told that more arms will increase our security. But is this true? Both Labor and the Coalition are committed to the US relationship, of course, as well as strengthening ties with regional partners like Japan. The risk of Australia being drawn into a north Asian conflict – cold or hot – is rising.
We’re certainly seeing a worrying increase in tension. Things could definitely get worse: China’s President Xi Jinping is a muscular nationalist, and a future US president could be much more assertive than Barack Obama too … particularly if his name is Trump. Whether we like it or not, Australia is being drawn into the dangerous great power rivalries to our north.
Conflict between the US and China is essentially the worst-case scenario for Australian grand strategy. You’d think we’d be doing everything in our power to diffuse tensions, and to urge both parties to peacefully manage China’s rise. That’s not what this White Paper commits us to.
Instead, Australia is openly talking about conducting “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea in support of the US. That should make citizens genuinely concerned about Australia’s future strategic environment.
In summary, the real questions the White Paper raises is not about the cost of defence – important though that is. The more important dilemma is the one posed for Australian grand strategy, as we confront the unsettling possibility of a conflict between our most important ally, and our most important trading partner.