Enhancing Australian Options in a Crisis: Shaping a More Sustainable Force


By Robbin Laird

The latest Williams Seminar held in Canberra on April 11, 2019 focused on the strategic shift for Australia within the context of the evolving global situation.

Facing the rising challenge posed by the 21stcentury authoritarian states, and by the changing nature of alliances in the Pacific and in Europe, Australia needs to enhance its capabilities to operate within a regional or global crisis.

And this requires, Australia to have more capability to sustain its evolving integrated force and to do so in the service of the direct defense of Australia.

The Williams seminars over the past five years have focused in detail on the reshaping of the Australian Defence Force as a more integrated force, one which can operate as integrated Australian force packages to work with allies or on their own.

The acquisition of the F-35 is seen as a trigger for accelerating the kind of force integration which Australia is seeking, namely a very capable force package within which fifth generation enablement enhances the lethality and survivability of modular force packages.

But to have such capability both for the direct defense of Australia and to work with allies.

It was clear from the latest Williams Seminar that this is not just a technical force packaging effort. It is part of a broader reset within Australian thinking about how to move ahead as the global competition changes.

As Williams Research Fellow, Dr. Alan Stephens put it, Australia needs to focus on Plan B:

“A military posture based on the premise that Australians will assume the burden of combat of defending their own country.”

“For most of our history, Australia has been unwilling to confront the imperatives of a defence posture which would require us to assume the burden of responsibility. Consequently, when faced with our only existential threat, in World War II, we were left dangerously exposed; while on other occasions, the apparent need to pay regular premiums on Plan A has drawn us into morally dubious wars of choice.

“In short, Plan A has distorted our strategic thinking and compromised our independence.

“If Australian defence is to be credibly self-reliant – if we are to have a Plan B – we can start by looking to the examples of those individuals and local industries that have challenged traditionalists and science-deniers, and have instead embraced innovation and transformation.”

Dr. Andrew Carr then followed by highlighting what this means in terms of the strategic reset for Australia in dealing with the direct challenges from China and the changing dynamics of the American Alliance. Carr argued that Australia needed to focus on its regional interests rather than following American proclivities over the past three Administrations to pursue conflicts significantly removed from direct defense challenges to Australia itself.

“This is not to suggest an isolationist or inward-looking turn. Far from it. Nor is it about returning to the 1980s Defence of Australia concepts.

“Rather, it is a position which takes seriously the idea that we may be early into a half-century or more of strategic competition. This means knowing what we will fight to protect and how we can do so. And then being able to go forward from a secure continent. That is what a return to fundamentals means.

“To do otherwise, to keep focusing on what we can do at the furthest limits from our core interests, attempting merely to hold firm to the status quo is to risk our own version of a grey zone style crisis.

“A world where we are making commitments to our allies abroad that we can’t be sure future government’s and the Australian public will want to keep.

“Nor does this extended approach make sense in the face of our specific adversary on the field today. A strategy of simply trying to give ‘110%’, year in and year out, by tired and debt-ridden Western nations, finding ourselves always on the defence against a better resourced and fresher People’s Republic of China is not a winning approach.”

He posed a key question: What are the fundamentals of continental security for Australia?

I would add that his question can be placed within the context of a broader question: What is the future of globalization in the context of the return of great power politics?

The China challenge is two-fold – Western societies have clearly benefited from a globalization approach within which the Chinese economy has contributed but at the same time the one-party state is able to project its global agenda and to leverage its economic outreach to get inside the infrastructure and systems of the liberal democracies.

Carr underscored that Australia needed to deal with the new strategic challenge and to do so by rethinking it defense and security strategies.

“Unfortunately, this is a question we will need to think through afresh, rather than hoping that past generations have done the work for us. The Defence of Australia policy, which was in place from roughly 1972 to 1997 took shape in a very different world, politically and technologically. This was an era where our continent was secure – something that is not obviously true today.”

The well-known Australian strategist Brendan Sargeant then contributed his thoughts on the way ahead in this new historical era. Sargeant has had many policy positions in the Australian government and spoke from that experience to facing the new period of history.

His focus was upon how best to take the capabilities Australia has built and are building and how best to marry them to how best to use them in Australian interests

“The development of capability is important, perhaps the most important element of defence policy, but also important is understanding how they capabilities might need to be used in the future.

“How should we shape the force to respond to future crises?

“How we think about that question will in part determine how we want to evolve capabilities, and how powerful and sustainable we will want the force to be.

“Have we thought sufficiently about how we might need to use defence capability in the future, and are we building for that day or days?”

The remainder of the seminar focused on what one might call the eco system for a more sustainable ADF.  A key element of shaping a way ahead clearly is to shape a more sustainable force which can endure through a crisis. This meant taking off the table the capability of the Chinese to disrupt the supply chains into Australia and choking off the sustainability of the ADF. This clearly needs to be dealt with by crafting “buffer” capabilities to sustain the force.

Another key aspect being worked is enhanced local industrial support to ADF forces, as well as new approach to stockpiling parts and skill sets to sustain the force.

There are clear security issues as well. There needs to be enhanced security of Australian civil as well as military infrastructure, in terms of IT, C2 and energy security.

Put in blunt terms, with a focus on direct defense of Australia comes a broader social recognition of the long-term challenges posed by its powerful neighbor in the region as well as finding ways to rethink crisis management tools. An integrated ADF which able to operate in flexible force packages as a key enabler for sovereign options in a crisis is a different trajectory than envisaged in the last White Paper.

But to enable; you need to survive and be sustained. This is why active defense measures are being stood up and rethinking about logistics and industrial support under way.

It is clearly a work in progress.

But such an approach will have significant implications for Australia’s allies and industrial partners as well.  A focus on sustainable direct defense will clearly mean a shift in focus and reorientation of how Australia will work with global partners and industry.  And this has direct consequences for programs such as the British frigate, the French submarine and US produced 21st century air combat assets, such as P-8, Triton, Growler and F-35.

Dr. Carr highlighted how different the way ahead is from the recent past.

“We should find a new language instead of the term self-reliance.

“This term has always been used by Australians to mean an exception to usual practice. Self-Reliance was we did in the worst-case scenario, or did on the margins while normal allied cooperation was the mainstay.

“Instead we should think of this issue as most other countries do. Defending ourselves is our task and our primary responsibility. We will build alliance cooperation on top of this, we will seek to use our geography to support and sustain a regional order that has been very valuable to us. But what we do alone is not the exception, but a fundamental part of a re-invigorated, and resilient approach.

“So let us take this moment to rethink and regroup. The siren calling us back onto the pitch is sure to blast very soon, and the next half is going to be even tougher. But with a better plan, based on the fundamentals, I am confident the game’s momentum.”