The primary function of the nation state is to defend the nation’s borders against its enemies and to maintain internal order.
Australia’s first F-35.
The Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), established a regime of co-existing sovereign states, governed by international law. Interference in the internal affairs of another sovereign nation was prohibited. This settlement became the norm for relationships between sovereign states worldwide. The Thirty Years’ War was predominantly a German war over religion, but involved most of Europe.
The primary role of the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) is to assert the sovereignty of Australia when it is challenged. When the nation state does not fulfill these roles, the outcome is the sort of sanguine anarchy we see in large areas of the Middle East, where the whole notion of civility has collapsed.
When the Coalition government announced the release of the Defence White Paper 2016, the government committed itself to a sustainable defence budget of 2 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). One response of the chattering classes was, “How will this affect Gonski?” “Gonski” is the report on education funding tabled in the name of South African-born businessman David Gonski. David Gonski has impeccable Labor connections.
Did one of Australia’s busiest company directors actually write this report? “Gonski” became the public face of the push to “fix” education by throwing more billions into this financial quicksand. Or, would we make better use of our tax dollars by putting our defence funding on a sustainable basis? Persuading the public to answer “yes” is one aim of the 2016 White Paper. In a democracy such as ours, the ADF requires public support.
Defending six separate Australian colonies against external threats was a primary motivation for Federation. The Commonwealth of Australia would remain in the British Empire alliance. The new Commonwealth would not be technically independent of the United Kingdom. We had no self-directed defence or foreign policy until the adoption of the Statute of Westminster by the Commonwealth in 1942. The Statute of Westminster had been passed by the British Parliament in 1931.
The age and invalid pensions were the only social welfare measures anticipated in the Australian constitution. Government was not seen in those days primarily as a provider of welfare. Nor was the constitution aimed at facilitating the distribution of federal funds to the states. (The idea of state income taxes was revived briefly by Malcolm Turnbull.)
Until 1942, the power to raise income taxes belonged to the states. In South Australia v the Commonwealth 1942, in what is known as the First Uniform Tax Case, the High Court ruled that the Commonwealth has the power to levy income tax. Sir Thomas Playford, premier of South Australia from 1938 to 1965, candidly admitted that he was more than happy if the Commonwealth government took the blame for taxing the citizenry, if he got the credit for spending the money.
The ADF is primarily a deterrent force. In this regard, this White Paper is by far the most impressive of all those I have reviewed since the mid-1970s. All previous white papers have drifted off into la-la land, the direction of the fantasies depending on the senior defence officers and the minister in charge at the time. For example, the intention to build a railway line in the Northern Territory to carry fuel and supplies was always likely to be “a bridge too far”.
Australia by itself cannot counter a major threat. In 1914, Australia had a population of 6 million people. In 1939, we had a population of 8 million people. Now we have a population of 24 million people. And China has a population of 1.4 billion people. Our defence policy must be to deter potential threats, not to win major wars single handed. We should not maintain a costly, top-heavy command structure that can be “scaled up” in time of major threat. It won’t work.
Australia is good at building coalitions. We must manage our relationships with our alliance partners, in particular the United States. The “pivot” towards Asia by the U.S. has so far resulted in the deployment and rotation of elements of the U.S. Marine Corps through Darwin.
Since the MacArthur experience in World War II, Australians do not need reminding that having the forces of a great and powerful ally on our soil is a Faustian bargain. We are formally linked to the U.S. by the ANZUS treaty, but the “NZ” section is important too. We have allies in Asia, such as Singapore, and developing relationships with India and the Philippines. The “Five Eyes” intelligence cooperation agreement, linking Australia with the U.S., Britain, Canada and New Zealand, is a great boost to our preparedness.
The adversarial relationship we must manage is with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). North Korea is allied to China, but North Korea is not entirely within the control of the PRC. North Korea is a junkyard dog that could, with little provocation, attack someone it is not intended to attack, or even turn on its master. North Korea might even launch a ballistic missile against one of its enemies. In the face of such a possibility, the ADF might consider some variation on Israel’s effective “Iron Dome” and “David’s Sling” anti-missile defence systems.
Australia cannot assert its will by brute force. Our best hope is that the current rules-based international regime will endure. We must, of course, be ready to act with whatever forces we have at our disposal in time of threat. But military power not backed by the resolution to employ that power is an empty gesture – what the Chinese call being a “paper tiger”.
China manifestly acts in accordance with the rules only when it suits the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – which are not always the same thing; they often have different priorities. Creating artificial islands in the South China Sea and their conversion into military bases is clearly illegal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). “Islands” and “rocks” are clearly defined under UNCLOS. The ongoing challenge to Taiwan’s sovereignty over Taiping Island by the Philippines, which claims Taiping Island is a “rock” and not an “island” demonstrates this contentious point.
The White Paper cannot say what the government “really” thinks about China. Being realistic, one cannot expect that a power with a revolutionary heritage will always act with restraint. The CCP’s legitimacy comes from lifting China out of poverty and restoring the Middle Kingdom to its rightful place among the world’s great powers. This naturally carries with it the assumption that China will have, for example, a blue-water navy with worldwide reach. China claims sovereignty over the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Australia’s only likely potential military enemy is the PRC. The White Paper does not say this, of course. We depend on China for our continued prosperity. China also depends on Australia for raw materials such as coal and iron ore. Chinese consumers demand Australian products such as infant formula, vitamins, dairy products (including liquid milk), meat and grain for the simple reason that Chinese products are often tainted. Any invasion by the PRC is highly unlikely, but direct or indirect conflict in other theatres is likely.
Any potential aggressor against mainland Australia must traverse the island chain to our north. Australia and Indonesia had low-level armed clashes in Borneo during Confrontation (Konfrontasi) in 1963–66, and when Australia took a lead role in East Timor (now Timor-Leste) with the International Forces for East Timor (INTERFET) in 1999–2000. In both cases the conflicts were low intensity. The notion that Indonesia would attack Australia is fanciful.
We must have the ability to project force through and beyond the island chain to our north, either acting on our own behalf or in concert with our allies. Australia’s Special Forces will remain on standby should deployment at short notice be required. Coordinated action by the three ADF arms – Army, Navy and Air Force – will continue to evolve.
Sometimes we have to take second best. The F-22, the world’s top air superiority fighter, is out of production and the U.S. never allowed its export anyway. The F-35 is a multirole fighter. It is the equal of any fighter in the Asian region. The F-35 is not as expensive as the F-22, but that is a very relative term. The F-35 helmet alone costs $500,000.
We need the F-35 to keep our technological edge in our neighbourhood. Other possible suppliers, such as Sweden, have let Australia down in the past. Soldiers have long memories.
Australia has always relied on superior weapons and superior soldiers to compensate for our relative numerical disadvantage. In the future, the ADF will rely increasingly on UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”) – in offensive roles. Australia’s AWACS (airborne warning and control system) deficiency in battlespace management looks to have been met.
Some will find suppositions in the 2016 White Paper troubling. There are few trips into the la-la land of aircraft carriers and masses of self-propelled artillery and heavy tanks. As American baseball player Yogi Berra, known as the “wisest fool in Christendom”, said: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” The future never replicates the past exactly. Instead of having vulnerable assets that take months to deploy, we will have weapons and delivery systems that are agile and potent.
No mention of conscription. This is the first white paper to offer a blueprint that is both militarily and politically saleable. We have to accept, for example, that only by providing ongoing work for Australian shipyards can we maintain a skills base that is sustainable.
Our future is in Asia. It is a tough world and it’s getting tougher. We have to be prepared to look out for ourselves. The public must be convinced that the defence budget produces the required result. The aim of military forces is not to wage wars, but to deter them. Being defenceless invites attack.