By Paul Barratt AO, AWPR President
With its 2020 Defence Strategic Update and its 2020 Force Structure Plan the Morrison Government presents us with the military dimensions of its response to a region rendered more turbulent and uncertain not only by COVID-19 and its consequences but by strategic competition between China and the United States, and rendered more threatening by increases in advanced military capability across the region. These military dimensions are at odds with other aspects of government policy, raise issues relating to our international obligations, and leave important issues concerning the ANZUS Alliance unaddressed. The flaws in the Government’s thinking only serve to strengthen the case for Parliament, rather than Executive Government, to have control of deployments of the Australian Defence Force into international armed conflict.
The proposed military response is a tighter focus on the defence of Australia by dominating our immediate surrounds, on recovery of our technological edge, and on being able to project serious force at greater range than hitherto. And there are nods in the direction of strengthening our independent war-fighting capability. So far so good.
To answer the question whether they are an adequate or an appropriate response to the challenging circumstances we face, we must look outside the documents themselves to the context in which they are written, and examine the adequacy of the totality of the Government’s response to the challenges. There are inconsistencies in the totality of the Government’s responses, and they fail to address the problems inherent in reliance on the US as the cornerstone of our defence policy.
An important problem with the Government’s world-view is that the solution to every military problem is to strengthen what Prime Minister Morrison referred to in releasing the documents as “our ever-closer alliance with the United States”.
There are several problems, however, with being, as Malcolm Turnbull put it, “joined at the hip” with the US. The first of these is that the formal obligations created by the ANZUS Treaty are quite weak, reflecting the lack of enthusiasm with which the US came to the party in 1951. It imposes on the Parties no more than an obligation to “consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific”, and then, having done so, to “act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes”.
And while we regard ANZUS as extending to us a “nuclear umbrella”, one would have to wonder why any nuclear power, confronting a nuclear adversary, would use or threaten to use nuclear weapons in any circumstances other than countering a direct threat to its own homeland.
Nevertheless, our political leaders have elevated the Treaty to a status in which, rather than serving the national interests of Australia, in practice it is used to determine where Australia’s national interests lie. We must participate in all American-initiated conflicts to show we are a good ally.
This attachment to ANZUS as the lynchpin of our defence comes into collision with the government’s direction to focus our defence preparedness on our own region. Old habits die hard. While the prospect of operations further afield will not be permitted to shape the ADF’s force structure (something Kevin Rudd said in his 2009 White Paper), the Prime Minister could not refrain from affirming the old thinking: “We remain prepared to make military contributions outside of our immediate region where it is in our national interest to do so, including in support of US-led coalitions”.
Given the regional uncertainties described by the Government, why on earth would we commit Australian forces to military conflict outside our immediate area of interest? Dominating the approaches to Australia will be challenging enough, without getting military assets stuck on the very sticky flypaper of avoidable military conflict. We committed troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and we are still there (Operation Highroad). The Navy has been conducting “maritime security” operations in the Middle East since 1990 (Operation Manitou), and we have aircraft and hundreds of support personnel engaged in operations in the Middle East (Operation Accordion).
A deeper problem with the alliance relationship is our technological dependence on the US, which can leave us quite vulnerable and subject to US coercion regarding our technology choices. We are not only dependent on the US for maintenance and resupply of sensitive components of our advanced hardware, we need access to US systems for the very operation of aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft. As long ago as 2001 a Parliamentary Research Paper observed
…it is almost literally true that Australia cannot go to war without the consent and support of the United States. This represents a substantial sacrifice of national freedom of action, and must be counted as a significant cost.
Coupled with that problem is the question of what our close military relationship commits us to. Consistent with the close alliance relationship, Australia long ago agreed to the establishment in Australia of US or joint facilities, including the Joint Facilities at Pine Gap, and Nurrungar. These facilities contributed to the strategic balance during the Cold War, but in his significantly named book Dangerous Allies former Prime Minister the late Malcolm Fraser expressed concern that in more recent times new technologies had permitted Pine Gap’s capabilities “to be used in new and aggressive ways” – namely to facilitate drone assassinations and targeted killings by pinpointing targets in real time. Fraser made the point that the longstanding insistence by successive Australian Governments that everything Pine Gap does happens with our “full knowledge and concurrence” means we can be taken to approve of American drone killings of the citizens of friendly countries with which we are not at war. Pakistan is a case in point – a fellow member of the Commonwealth and a country to which we budgeted for $32.2 million in Official Development Assistance in 2019-20. Yemen and Somalia are two other examples – we are not at war with either. His conclusion was that the facility should be closed.
In analysis which supports Fraser’s critique, the late Des Ball and colleagues in 2015 published papers that recounted in detail the militarisation of the personnel and administration at Pine Gap, and the changes to its higher management structure.After more than two decades in which there were no serving US military personnel at Pine Gap, from 1990 there was a steady increase to the point where by 2015 serving military personnel constituted 66 per cent of US Government employees excluding contractors. In parallel with and reflecting this militarisation, the higher management of Pine Gap, always an American affair, passed in the early 1990s from the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology to the National Reconnaissance Office, and Pine Gap became more oriented to direct support of combat operations. These changes, plus the evolution of both technology and the geopolitical situation, suggest that the relationship via Pine Gap alone brings us into a very different political and military stance in the world, from supporting the strategic balance during the Cold War, to a virtually automatic collaborator in US wars of choice anywhere in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.
Malcolm Fraser was a staunch cold warrior in his day, and had been Defence Minister prior to becoming PM. When a former Prime Minister of his stamp (and with his insider knowledge of the US facilities in Australia) says “The new uses to which the information it gathers can be put transforms Pine Gap into a critical part of an offensive weapons system. Australia should not be a part of it” it would be appropriate for any Australian Government to take heed and undertake a fundamental review of whether, to what extent and under what circumstances the facility continues to serve Australia’s national security interests. But this question is never asked.
Beyond the defence domain, Government policy settings are at odds with an appropriately wide concept of how we manage national security in a threatening and rapidly changing world. Diplomacy is the first line of our capacity to influence world events, and hence an important line of our defence – much better to manage our relationships so that we don’t come under threat, than to park the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff to pick up the pieces when things don’t go as we might hope. But for as long as I can remember governments have seen the Australian diplomatic service and the department which supports it as a suitable target for savings, to the point where a Parliamentary Sub-Committee, citing a 2011 Lowy Institute Report, noted in its 2012 report:
Australia has the smallest diplomatic network of all G20 nations, and only nine of the 34 OECD countries (all far smaller than Australia) have fewer diplomatic missions. …
The average number of posts for an OECD nation is 133. Australia has only 95, and sits at 25th of 34 nations in the OECD league table of diplomatic representation—numbers which are wholly incompatible with Australia’s standing in the world.
It is telling that the report was entitled Australia’s Overseas Representation – Punching below our weight?
The Sub-Committee’s report cited evidence that countries with much smaller economies but larger overseas networks had gained significant traction in the principal organs of the global governance framework: the UN Security Council, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the International Court of Justice, the UN Development Programme, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Economic and Social Council.
Yet in the face of this we read that DFAT is to slash 60 positions, including overseas positions, and cut its operational budget. We need to recognise that soft power – the ability to persuade rather than coerce – is an important part of our armoury, and accordingly, there is a necessity to strike a better balance between our reliance on hard (military) and soft power by dramatically strengthening our diplomatic capabilities, including strengthened representation in foreign capitals.
Other settings are at odds with the strategic picture painted by the Government. The Prime Minister spoke of “Defence forming even deeper links and trust with regional armed forces and a further expansion in our defence, diplomacy, cooperation, and capability and capacity building”. The Government’s war on the universities, and on the humanities in particular, seem at odds with this approach. Where are we going to find the personnel with the deep linguistic capability and cultural understanding that are required to engage with our complex region?
Similarly, the Government’s war on science – exemplified again by its war on the universities, and by savage cuts to research funding, is at odds with its high-tech goals for the ADF. This plumbed the depths of absurdity when in 2014 then Prime Minister Tony Abbott both promised Defence increased funding and directed it to spend less on science.
My concerns about the Government’s thinking are amplified by an apparent willingness to resort more readily to the use of military force, and by calls by some defence writers to strengthen defence cooperation with India and Japan as well as the US, as a response to the increased tensions with China.
The 2020 Defence Strategic Update states (p. 6):
It provides a new strategic policy framework to ensure Australia is able – and is understood as willing – to deploy military power to shape our environment, deter actions against our interests and, when required, respond with military force.
The problems with this “willingness” are developed by Victor Abramowicz in his A high risk, low reward defence posture, published in the Lowy Interpreter, 14 July 2020, in which he concludes:
By potentially engaging the ADF in disputes far from home, in an effort to prove our mettle, we could well lose our hard-won peace by becoming embroiled in otherwise avoidable entanglements where we risk much blood and treasure for little gain.
There is the additional problem that too great a “willingness” to “deploy military power to shape our environment” is at odds with our obligations under both the UN Charter and ANZUS to make every effort to settle international disputes by peaceful means, and to refrain from the use, or threat of use, of military force; so indeed is “our ever-closer alliance with the United States”, a nation that has not been distinguished by its willingness to settle international disputes by peaceful means or to refrain from threatening the use of force.
Those who urge strengthening of the US-Japan-India-Australia “Quad” include Peter Hunter, Senior Adviser, Air Power Strategy at the ANU in a feature article in Australian Defence Business Review, 13 July 2020, and Hugo Seymour and Gemma King of the Perth USAsia Centre, in an article in the ASPI Strategist, 15 May 2020. The problem with this kind of thinking is that the bilateral US-China, Japan-China and India-China tensions have deep and complex roots of very long standing. Why would we want to be drawn into any one of them, and, leaving aside the issues with ANZUS itemised above, what exactly would we expect Japan or India to do for us in the event that we were threatened? Indeed, what would we be prepared to do for them in their bilateral conflicts with China? If the answer to all of the above is “nothing much”, isn’t this just a China-containment strategy that is unlikely to work and very likely to make matters worse?
I have long believed that the way we go to war – Executive Government alone making the decision, as the inheritor of the traditional powers of the monarch – is both an anachronism and an anomaly. In a modern state, in which power is supposed to flow from the people to the Government rather than the other way around, the decision to commit the ADF to armed international conflict should be made by our elected representatives in the Parliament. The uncertainties which lie ahead, the government’s apparent over-reliance on military force, and the inconsistencies in its position only serve to strengthen the case for this.
“We’re all in this together,” said the Prime Minister, in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis. We are certainly all in it together when we go to war, and accordingly we, or at least our elected representatives on our behalf, should all have a say in when we go to war, alongside and whom, and for what reason.