Australia’s options for defending itself are in the news with the release of Hugh White’s How to Defend Australia. Will it shake up thinking? Or is it too hard to change the way we do Australia’s defence because there is no appetite for change?
Hugh White has distilled his career’s work as a defence strategist into a simple question: how does Australia keep itself safe in the 21st century?
When Australia’s habit of allying with a great and powerful friend is no longer effective, there are two broad options: either make a big investment in air and sea power (estimated at 3.5% of GDP or $70bn) or accept that Australia will lack the ability to defend itself and hope it will be OK. (A third option, swapping to another great and powerful friend within the region, is considered briefly but without much optimism). He has helpfully summarised his argument here, including his (inconclusive and controversial) discussion of nuclear weapons.
I’m interested in the likely response to Hugh White’s argument. Will this call to action provoke a new approach? What does the response to date suggest is most likely? Like the excellent After American Primacy before it, I suspect the book may have less impact than it deserves.
As part of his argument, Hugh touches on the reasons we don’t always get rational defence planning, all of which are likely to be at play in the response he receives:
1. Wishful thinking
Like the rest of us, planners have the tendency to want the world to be how they would like it rather than how it is. Policymakers have been aware for some time of the trends that White outlines but have been reluctant to accept the consequences. I remember James Curran’s evocative description of last year’s Foreign Policy White Paper that it “sees a new Asia but pleads for the old”. A key aim of How to Defend Australia is to show that this is untenable.
Hugh White has received unfounded criticism that he is “pro-China” or wants the US to decline. This is not the case; he is very clear that the world is more challenging for Australia without unquestioned American primacy in Asia. But if logic convinces that US will no longer be the sort of power in Asia it has been, this needs to be dealt with and our own desires or preferences are beside the point.
Responses to How to Defend Australia suggest that much of the security community is not yet with White on this issue. For example, ASPI’s Michael Shoebridge doesn’t accept the central thesis that the US lacks the resolve to maintain primacy in the region.
So far Australia has responded to changes in the region by doubling down on the US alliance and it seems likely that Australia will continue to tie itself to the US long after the nature of the benefits of the alliance have changed.
2. Inertia and sunk costs
As well as being reluctant to admit when circumstances change, many policymakers show an inability to change direction. With the long lead-times in defence contracting and build, once decisions have been made and defence projects started, they are hard to stop. Many defence contracts are hugely political so there are diplomatic and strategic implications in changing force structure and capabilities. This means a sudden major change of direction may be unrealistic.
Responses to How to Defend Australia have noted just what a massive change it would be to reverse recent decisions. Michael Shoebridge notes that implementing White’s plan “would see the air warfare destroyers retired, frigates cancelled, the two big landing ships sold off, and the purchase of lots more advanced fighters to bring the strike jet fleet to 200”.
3. Political and organisational priorities trump national interest
The political process also makes it difficult to get rational defence planning. White notes that politicians are often happy to go along with what the military suggests and can be swayed by a “fuzzy sense of national prestige… towards large, glamorous capabilities”. There are also political considerations such as creating jobs in marginal electorates. White is excoriating on how much Australia has lost in money, time and capability through defence acquisitions swayed by the aim of bringing jobs to South Australia. Allan Behm describes the book as “an epitaph for decades of lost opportunity, pulled punches and ministerial hobbyism”. It’s hard to see this changing dramatically.
The armed services themselves also have strong preferences, which may not link with strategic needs. White identifies factors such as “their image of themselves as a service, for example, the way their force is perceived by allies, their pride in having a particular kind of expertise or the very human urge to preserve the way things have been in the past.”
Some of responses to the book have focused on this. Brendan Nicholson spells out what it would mean for the Navy for White’s proposals to be accepted: selling off two giant landing ships and three air warfare destroyers and abandoning the program to build nine frigates. There is likely to be great resistance to this.
4. Tendency towards compromise
Finally, making hard choices about defence means that there will be losers as well as winners and that they will inevitably be vocal in their complaints. As White puts it, “it can be hard to resist the argument that we had better have this or that capability, because we never know when we might need it”. So you end up with a bit of everything, building something that can’t achieve any single objective well, and find a virtue by calling it a “balanced force”. (I admit I have some sympathy for this. There is much lived experience of politicians tasking the Australian Defence Force to deal with a problem, whether that’s what it has planned and purchased for or not). This suggests that, despite White’s forensic identification of Australia’s strategic interests, the tradition of muddling through seems likely to continue to prevail.
My feeling is that these factors will mean that Hugh White’s manifesto will not have as much effect as he might hope. While he shows that we can defend Australia, this does not mean that we will. His perceptive and damning analysis of the current problems with defence planning apply equally to his own prescriptions. The official response so far is not promising with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg not showing any appetite for the dramatic change proposed. Work by Danielle Chubb and Ian McAllister on public opinion shows less than 30% of citizens support spending more on defence.
I’m less alarmed than some are by this. Perhaps because I’m less convinced on the return of great power warfare (which White accepts has become rarer due to cost and taboo). As Sam Roggeveen suggests, usually there will be cheaper ways for states to achieve national objectives than military action.
It may be that Australia has to accept being a smaller power. It’s perhaps not as bad as it sounds: the vast majority of countries can’t defend themselves. As White puts it, “We would depend for our security on the goodwill of more powerful states, and on being relatively small, relatively remote, and relatively inoffensive”.
An analogy would be your home which is not secure against all threats, just the most likely ones. Your house can’t hold out against sustained mortar attack or probably even someone determined wielding an axe. Door locks and window bars will deter the vast majority of opportunistic thieves but won’t hold out against determined intent.
It’s similar in international relations. Australia used to feel it was secure: there was little chance of major threat because of US deterrence and the likelihood that the US would come to Australia’s defence. Without this, can we be 100% secure? No. So how secure is secure enough? As Mike Scrafton has argued, no amount of Australian spending on defence could deter a truly determined China.
As White admits, “money spent on defence is money lost” in the sense that it is an insurance policy. He suggests that “if we are not willing to spend much more than we are spending now, it might make better sense to spend a good deal less,” allowing money to be spent on areas like health, education, welfare and infrastructure that can improve our lives. As Sam Roggeveen puts it, it’s a scandal how much we’re spending for a defence force “that will be totally unsuited to the world we are entering”.
Money we don’t spend on defence buys a lot of diplomacy, including more effective regional engagement and greater regional security cooperation, influencing how others see us and helping create a world where we are less likely to be attacked.
Defence is not the only way to keep us safe. The biggest mistake would be spending money on defence that doesn’t.
Melissa Conley Tyler is Director of Diplomacy at Asialink at the University of Melbourne and a Presidential Associate of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. She tweets at @MConleytyler.
This piece was originally published on Pearls & Irritations. It is republished with permission.