Spending more on defence won’t save Australia from China

by Chris Becker

Should Australia “dramatically increase military spending” due to the temporary perceived unreliability of Trump’s Presidency and hence the collective defence of the continent?

From the ABC:

Former Defence Department official and intelligence analyst Professor Hugh White said he believes China’s inevitable rise as this region’s dominant power means Australia must urgently rethink its military posture.

“I think [a] really fundamental shift in Australia’s strategic situation is taking place,” Professor White told the ABC.

“For the first time really since European settlement of this continent we can no longer assume that we’ll have a great and powerful friend [Britain first, then America] as the dominant power in Asia, as the strongest military power in Asia.”

In his newly-released book How to Defend Australia, Professor White suggests overall defence spending will need to leap from 2 per cent of GDP to 3.5 per cent.

Among Professor White’s radical proposals is the scrapping of the $50 billion program to build 12 French-designed future submarines, and to replace them with at least 24 more affordable boats, based on Australia’s current Collins Class fleet.

To help pay for a massive build-up of submarine capability, Professor White argued Australia should scrap the $35 billion Future Frigate program, because the British-designed “big, expensive warships” are not “cost effective”.

The ANU Professor also warned the Australian Defence Force will need to buy more than double the current 72 planned Joint Strike Fighter aircraft if it wants to properly defend the country from air and sea attack.

“The Joint Strike Fighter plays a critical role in that, so I think overall we’re going to need a bigger frontline fighter fleet, whether it’s just Joint Strike Fighter or a mixed fleet.”

The Professor has the shift correct – America is on the wane, albeit slowly, as China rises – without another “Big Brother” to step up and keep the Asian hordes away. To suggest that Australia could become its own big brother by nearly doubling defence spending is short sighted and should be assigned to the same flawed analysis as trying to fit 100 million more people so as to “stop the boats”.

It’s true that Trump’s gross mishandling of foreign policy and straining relationships that have taken decades to their near braking point has seen once-traditional allies consider their own independent military interests, but America’s time as World Police is not yet over.

The real problem for Australia is that the threat from China has passed. It’s here already – not PLA soldiers on the street, but domination of the economy and body politic. No longer the 51st State, Australia is more Great Southern Taiwan with delusions that it is a master of its own fate. Australia’s export industry is linked inexorably to the Middle Kingdom, its State and Federal Governments beholden to soft policy, especially on immigration and property development, let alone harder issues. China has learned, like Russia, that as true middle powers, influence matters more than parking an aircraft carrier off the coast.

Countering the conventional military threat of a Chinese behemoth when you’re a middling Pacific power without any external help requires super-effective force multipliers and that means technology and hardware that must be sourced locally for strategic security. This is where the true defence spending should be aimed at – increasing local manufacturing capability not to build tanks or other conventional weapons, but long term and constant research and development. Using hard currency to purchase submarines from France or the short range JSF from the US doesn’t make strategic or common sense when those funds can be employed by the Defense Science and Technology and CSIRO in conjunction with local defence contractors.

Given that the nation faces record low interest rates, that’s an investment in infrastructure that would be very easy to sell to the voting public.

Professor White is correct that increasing the RAN’s submarine fleet to become a true force multiplier to secure our lines of communications and thwart any blue water PLA-N ambitions makes more sense than going the conventional route of more surface ships, but even the current force can’t be fully manned due to personnel shortages. And without a secure energy policy with very low oil and petrol reserves, let alone a host of other real world security problems like climate change, funds should be shifted to the boring, but winning side of military success – logistics.

This can be done without a doubling of the defence budget, first by scrapping the surface fleet element upgrades as Professor White suggests, except perhaps the amphibious forces, but also cancelling the remaining F-35 JSF purchases and pushing those funds into CSIRO and DST.

Hopefully his book can lift and broaden the conversation around defence and military spending, let alone the direction that Australia wants to take in an Asian 21st century. Sadly, his off the cuff suggestion that nuclear weapons could be part of the mix will likely shut that down and more media time will be spent on Pyne’s nepotism.

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