By Robbin Laird
During my August 2018 visit to Australia, I had a chance to meet with and discuss the question of the evolving approach to the defense of Australia with a member of the Australian National University, Andrew Carr.
Dr. Carr is working towards the conclusion of his forthcoming book on the defense of Australia and has looked back to identify key themes and key points in the evolution of policy over the post World War II period.
And he has done so with an eye with regard to the next phase of the evolution of Australian defense policy, one which is very likely to feature greater emphasis on Australian sovereignty and continuing the modernization of the ADF with this in mind.
Question: How would you describe the focus of your book?
Dr. Carr: It’s an effort to think through the question: “How do you actually defend a continent and land mass as large as the Australian continent?”
We have a very large landmass with a relatively small population.
“Throughout most of our history we have been part of a larger defense effort, first with regard to the British Empire, and then working with the Americans during and after World War 2.
Australians often see themselves as having to go overseas to achieve their security.
“This book addresses the importance for us to address seriously defense in our immediate region and to shape concrete ways that the continent can work strategically for us.
“In the book, I address how thinking about the continent and its role in defense has changed over time.
“With the Japanese in World War II, their primary interest in Australia was denying its use by the Americans. During the War Prime Minister Curtin started focusing on a strategy of holding the islands to our north in the post-War period. The British were on the way out, the Cold War was not evident, and the United States, although deeply engaged during World War II, was expected to go back to its post-World War I turtle strategy.
“Curtin’s focus was on preparing for Australia to play a key role with regional allies in taking responsibility for our part of the world around Australia and New Zealand and the South Pacific.
“There was a clear desire to carve out more capabilities for Australian sovereignty and independence as the post World War II period approached.
“But they like many later government’s did not want to pay for a force that could achieve the large task they had set.
“But it was not until the Menzies Government invested in the F-111, that we saw a commitment to resources to enhance sovereignty in the region.
“In the early 1960s, the Menzies Government invested in range of new strike capabilities. The F-111 is ordered at that point. They ordered the Oberon submarines. They make significant upgrades to the frigates. There is a significant increase in defense spending.”
Question: I assume that it was the emergence of the Indonesian threat in the 1970s, which was the next impetus to thinking about Australian defense capabilities in support of Australian interests?
Dr.. Carr: The Indonesian dynamic was a key trigger point, or to be specific Jakarta’s policy of Konfrontasi, including threats to Papua New Guinea.
“This meant that Australia had to defend against a direct threat to the then territory of Australia.
“Most of the history of the Australian military has been three independent services up to 1976. Each was very good at operating with their sister services overseas. That’s how they fought WWI and WWII, and that’s how they saw themselves.
“After 1976, you get this idea of an actual Australian defense force as a single, integrated force. Still keeps its three services, unlike Canada, but sees itself as having one larger mission, which is defending Australian interests.
“The new ADF still often wants to go back overseas, and do coalition operations, but much more as a larger unified national service, rather than being plug and play single service efforts within coalition operations.
“These efforts will lead eventually to the Defense of Australia doctrine. This process starts in the early 1970s but it is not until the mid-1980s, that greater clarity is achieved with regard to how to shape a more integrated force in service of the broader defense of Australia effort.
“But with the end of the Cold War, and the focus on global peacekeeping operations, and expeditionary engagement with coalition operations, the ADF as an integrated force for the sovereign defense of Australia does not really materialize.
“We clearly are focused upon shaping an integrated force which de facto clearly can serve sovereign purposes, but where do we take the force?
“With the kind of direct threats which a China or Indonesia can pose directly against the Australian continent, what should and could Australia do to defend the continent directly?
“This is the big question facing Australian defense in the period ahead.”
Question: You have worked what you see as key elements of the past Australian approach, which are part of the fabric of Australian defense going forward as the focus on the defense of continental Australia proceeds in the new strategic situation.
What are these basic key elements, which you have identified?
Dr. Carr: The first is that the threat emerges from the North; but our population lives in the East and South. This leads to a key challenge of geography, namely how to work the Australian geography to deal with a threat from the North?
“We are a country that doesn’t quite understand its geography in part because of where the people are clustered, and yet, Northern and Western Australia provide some of the most important geography in a defense sense.
“The second is that Australia is both a continent and an island. This reality goes to the fundamental division between the Army and Navy. A lot of Australian defense thinking actually came from the British, not just because of the kind of the cultural history, but as an island that is offshore from a heavily populated continent.
“The Australian Army thinks of itself in expeditionary terms and by that not operating on Australian soil but in expeditionary operations with allies. How might this change with a return to considerations of leveraging Australian geography to defend the continent from threats to the North?
“The third is that the defense of Australia can not begin with a narrow continental or fortress Australia focus. It doesn’t make sense to simply line up people and give them a rifle and tell them to stand on the beach and protect the continent at that point.
“Geography matters, but you have to have at least some understanding of what’s going on beyond your borders. The great fear has always been a hostile major power having control of an island base, or some significant piece of territory just off the Australian continent that can directly threaten the continent.
“The fourth is that Australia’s greatest security threat depends on how valuable it is to its allies. In WWII, the Japanese weren’t concerned by the Australian behavior. They saw us as too small, too irrelevant, not a significant security threat.
“But, because our continent was very valuable to the Americans, in trying to respond to their sphere of influence efforts, it then became attractive to the Japanese.
“I think this is something the Australians don’t always understand, when they think about alliance relationships.
“It’s not just about Australia and America as separate countries with distinct capabilities, but it’s also about the nature of the Australian continent and its significance within the region.
“I think this will probably play out again in the future.
“The Chinese won’t see Australians as a substantial direct threat, but they will see the Australian continent as substantial base for projecting power by Australia in an allied context.”
Dr. Laird is a Research Fellow of the Williams Foundation, Canberra, Australia
It must be remembered that the Japanese followed up their attack on Pearl Harbor a few months later with virtually the same force in a major attack on Darwin in the Northern Territories.
The featured photo highlights that attack and is credited to the RAAF.
An article by Damien Murphy published on February 18, 2017 in the Sydney Morning Herald highlighted the anniversary of the attacks brought and brought back the memory of what a threat from the North looks like to the continent:
Australia marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin on Sunday but for generations the country was kept in the dark about the true dimensions of the Japanese attack.
At 9.58am on February 19, 1942, just four days after the supposedly impregnable British garrison in Singapore collapsed, Japanese bombers escorted by Zero fighters appeared in the skies above Darwin.
The first wave attacked the CBD and harbour infrastructure, and sank 11 ships either at anchor or berthed. A second wave came for the RAAF base.
By noon, 243 people – including 53 civilians – were dead, 400 wounded. The wharf was cut in two, 30 aircraft were destroyed and the post office levelled; postmaster Hurtle Bald, his wife Alice, daughter Iris and six post office workers died when a bomb hit their slit trench.
The dead were buried in temporary graves at Vestys Beach near the meatworks. Later, their bodies were transferred to the Adelaide River Cemetery where they lie today.
Tokyo had no intention of invading – Japanese army leaders knew they lacked the capacity – but nobody fully informed the Australian people.
There was a brief report in The Age on February 20, but Prime Minister John Curtin subsequently banned media reports on the Darwin bombing.
“Unauthorised reports of this nature cause needless anxiety, especially to wives and children who have been evacuated,” Mr Curtin said in a memo to the Advisory War Council…..
The Darwin area took the brunt of the attacks, with the first in February and the last on November 12, 1943.
In between, there were scores of strikes on airstrips strung along the Stuart Highway, Batchelor, Adelaide River, Katherine and on Milingimbi in Arnhem Land.
Small towns and missions along the West Australian coast – Broome (where many died when flying boats with women and children evacuated from Java were sitting ducks as the Zeroes arrived), Derby, Port Hedland, Onslow and Wyndham, sustained a handful of raids.