Last week we saw three events that are merely symptoms of long-term strategic changes. The car industry announced its departure from these shores; a Chinese fleet deployed in the sea to our north, and our most crucial international relationship – the one with Indonesia – came under further strain.
Even before work has begun on the government’s new Defence white paper, the speed of developments in our region made the one produced last year obsolete and irrelevant. The next must be based on recognition that change is occurring fast; otherwise it will likewise quickly become nothing more than another contribution to the waste-paper bin.
Our world is rocking on its axis for three reasons. Individually they are simply challenges to be overcome; when combined, they force a complete rethinking of the way we conceptualise the state’s duty to protect our way of life. The white paper will announce whether the government is capable of grappling with these issues.
The most obvious dynamic is the external changes in our neighbourhood. Last week, for the first time, the Chinese fleet carried out a casual exercise in the waters around Indonesia. This is an area that we normally consider ”empty” – a transit route for our submarines. Only a small amphibious assault unit took part in the operation, but it’s a sign of things to come. As far as Beijing is concerned, it appears that the intended takeaway was twofold. Firstly, don’t think for a minute that the rising dragon will be bound by the so-called ”dash lines” or the chains of islands and atolls bounding the China Sea. The PLA navy will, increasingly, operate where it chooses. The second message is just as emphatic. Beijing is acquiring the capacity to challenge the international order that was established by the US and has served us so well in the past. These are no longer a collection of vessels that belong to the People’s Liberation Army. It is a navy in its own right.
That’s why the new challenge is not simply asymmetric. That would mean it was dependent on the ability of super-fast, sea-skimming missiles to slam into American aircraft carriers and sink them through kinetic energy alone.
While that’s one part of the story, China is also acquiring – at a dramatic rate – the ability to fight conventionally on its own terms. Although these developments are at least one generation behind developments in the US, the crucial point is the trend line. There may indeed be a huge difference between building stealth aircraft and being able to use them effectively in a tactical situation, but it won’t take long.
US dominance is eroding. Within a decade the dynamic will have changed completely. Instead of Washington dictating terms it will have to discuss issues as part of a dialogue with Beijing.
The second factor impacting on the new white paper is internal. Australia has always been internally resilient. In the darkest days of World War II, Britain desperately required our food to fuel its war effort far more than it needed the small volunteer force of AIF diggers and airmen who wore uniform. Petrol was rationed and blackout curtains were draped from windows facing Sydney Harbour, but basically life went on as before. Today our society is so actually dependent on imports (of everything from fuel to the cars that use it) that physical invasion isn’t even necessary to bring the country to its knees. In the past, missiles were so expensive and inaccurate that it didn’t make sense to use them without nuclear warheads. That’s not the case today.
The pinpoint accuracy of the new missiles, combined with developments in explosive technology, means precision targeting is the new norm. There’s no need to fly a thousand plane-bombing missions or engage in carpet bombing: we will soon be at a point where any target that’s identified before the war begins will be eliminated.
So forget about fuel refineries. They will, quite simply, cease to exist. Our top secret headquarters outside Bungendore would be swiftly and decisively taken out
with ease. The idea that Canberra would somehow retain the ability to co-ordinate military forces in a major war is farcical. Within days government would cease to exist. Society would fall apart within weeks.
The suggestion that a laughably small force of conventional submarines operating in the China Sea could alter this dynamic is ridiculous. And who cares if we did possess 72 shiny, invisible, Joint Strike Fighters, instead of the 50-odd we’ll shortly announce we’re buying? They’ll be grounded anyway, because there’ll be no aviation turbine fuel to get them in the sky. Oh, and there’ll be none for our tanks, either. This is all without resorting to the use of nuclear weapons that might trigger a US response.
The third factor that is shaping our strategic future is global. Climate change is now just part of a complex reality. It must be factored into every aspect of future planning. Failure to do so will render any strategies absolutely worthless.
The ”anglosphere” was a fine concept but unfortunately it’s totally irrelevant today. The only relationship we need to fix – immediately – is the one with our neighbour. Indonesia.
Until now defence planning has privileged so-called ”state-on-state” conflict, or wars between nations. These won’t represent the major threat in a changed world environment. Defence needs to address these new forms of security challenges as a matter of urgency. The flow of thousands of asylum seekers has already paralysed our political process and given the navy a new mission. Imagine if the problem was multiplied tenfold. Imagine if Indonesia simply waved these people on. We’d be swamped.
What about a sudden outbreak of a fatal epidemic? What about ”soft wars” or computer conflicts? There’s a lot for the drafters to think about.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.