Defence Minister Peter Dutton needs to shift Australia’s defence strategy fundamentally from integration and reliance on the U.S. military to a greatly enlarged defence force that is capable of deterring a major aggressor, while still working with American forces.
Whereas nations like the United States, Germany, Japan and Britain are likely to remain independent nations because of the size of their populations and economies, Australia’s continuing independence is more problematic: it is a resource-rich continent the size of America, with a tiny population in an unstable region of the world where new economic and military giants are emerging.
In yet another warning to Australia in the run-up to the federal Budget, Senator Jim Molan, a former chief of operations for coalition forces in Iraq, said military threats to us come from:
- Grey-zone activities – paramilitary forces, militarisation of disputed features, influence and interference operations, coercive use of trade and economic levers – by China and Russia against countries like Australia.
- Expansion of these activities to disrupt sea and air lines of communications, given “the Navy has very limited ability to keep even a single port open, much less escort ships at sea”. Former Air Force deputy chief John Blackburn has warned that “98 per cent of our trade, imports and exports depends upon foreign-owned shipping systems, so we are actually in a pretty fragile position”.
- A war between the U.S. and China, either started accidentally or intentionally.
- Disruption of oil supplies by a war in the Middle East.
Molan said that in the event of a conflagration with China, it is uncertain that the U.S. would win. Anything less than a U.S. victory would leave Australia vulnerable.
Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian, told the 2021 NCC National Conference that Australia has been over-reliant on integrating with U.S. defence forces and, while we have “very capable high-quality bits of military equipment”, they are way too small in numbers. “Can we really defend a continent the size of the United States with 72 Joint Strike Fighters?” he asked.
Sheridan said that, while the Government has expanded the defence budget to almost 2 per cent of the economy, “we need to … have a great big, strong, powerful ability … to bite an arm off even a superpower if it tries to interfere with us”.
What’s more, over four decades, Australia has embraced globalisation at the expense of the strategic industries necessary for national security. This was borne out in a 2019 Department of Defence war games exercise that brought together 17 engineers to evaluate how a global conflict (or pandemic) would affect our international supply chains and then critical sectors of the economy.
The exercise found that an attack could begin with infiltration of telecommunications and cyber security systems. From day one, there would be public hoarding and shortages of specialised medicines. By week one, there would be mass worker layoffs and water treatment facilities would begin to fail. Week two, mining exports would cease and there would be diesel shortages.
By the end of the second month, liquid fuel supplies would be exhausted, causing freight and passenger transport services to cease, and food supplies would begin to run out.
By the third month, there would be high unemployment and social unrest. Software security, undersea communications cables, and water and electricity supplies would be degraded.
Jim Molan, the Defence Department’s war exercise report, John Blackburn and Greg Sheridan all argue that Australia must greatly expand its strategic industries to build a resilient economy to withstand the shocks from a major conflict.
To that end, alongside Peter Dutton and the Defence Industry Department, a super department for strategic industries is needed to identify and help build industries Australia needs to maintain a resilient economy in a crisis. It needs to be backed by a development bank and policies to keep newly established industries in the country. The necessary policies are outlined in the NCC’s recent White Paper, Manufacturing: Double Production by 2035.
U.S. Brigadier General Robert Spalding (retired), author of Stealth War, was asked at the NCC National Conference, which crucial strategic policies Australia should be adopting?
He replied: “Decouple [from China], have industrial policy, invest in your people, science and technology, STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education, infrastructure, manufacturing and, for heaven’s sake, build a secure, encrypted internet for your people where you can protect them from outside influence from authoritarian regimes.”
Compared with where Australia needs to be, the Government has made small, slow steps in the right direction, but has a long way to go.
Patrick J. Byrne is national president of the National Civic Council.