By Robbin Laird
I am in the throes of finishing up my book on the evolution of Australian defence strategy over the past several years, from 2014 until now.
With the announcement of the new government defence strategy by Prime Minister Morrison on July 1, 2020, it seemed a good time to draw together the work I have done over the past several years in Australia.
The book provides a detailed narrative of the evolution over the past few years of how Australia got to the point where it currently is with regard to national defense.
Hopefully, the book will provide a helpful summary of that evolution. It is based on the Williams Foundation Seminars over this period, and highlights the insights provided by the practitioners of military art and strategy who have presented and participated in those seminars.
In that sense, this book provides a detailed look at the strategic trajectory from 2014 through 2020.
During my visits to Australia during this time, one of my interlocutors in discussing Australian and global developments has been Jim Molan, retired senior Australian Army officer and now a Senator.
I have included in the book, the interviews I did with Senator Molan in the appendix to the book as a good look into the dynamics of change being undergone over the past few years.
Recently, Senator Molan has launched a podcast series looking at the way ahead and how Australia might address the challenges which its faces.
This is the second podcast in his series.
Major Wars are a Thing of the Past?
We should never forget that in World War I, 15 million people died. And in World War II 60 to 80 million people died. In the Korean War, 5 million people died. In Vietnam, at least 2 million people died. In the Iran-Iraq War of the 70s and 80s, 1 million people died. In Syria, recently, about 500,000 people have died.
And in Iraq, 150,000 people died in the invasion and the stability operations that I was involved in before, of course, ISIS came into the equation.
Who knows how many people have died in Yemen, in African wars and in parts of the old USSR? And most of that was in the 20th century.
The 21st century has started similarly war hasn’t touched Australia recently for 75 years, except personally, for those that went away to fight distant wars.
We’re a long way from Australia and we’re considered by the Australian military that it was their wars, not societies’ wars, the military’s wars. Australian society didn’t play much of a role in it.
It was hardly noticeable to most Australians, a bit of terrorism here and there, a bit of nation building such as in each team war.
A bit of police actions such as in the Solomon Islands. Really the only exception where society became involved was firstly paying for it.
But secondly, protesting wars or national service and most people within involved.
Every war that we fought as Australian, certainly in my lifetime, but also since 1945, has been, as I said before, this idea of a War of Choice where you choose everything, when you go and, particularly, when you come home.
In those kinds of wars, we haven’t been committed to victory just to participate. That’s why we went to Iraq and Afghanistan, not to win the war, but to participate. This is 75 years of military experience.
And as I said in the last episode, the opposite of wars of commitment, where there are big issues at stake, we have to win, and we not have not fought one of those since 1945.
Where does Australia find itself today?
We just haven’t seen a major war for 75 years. And this is really an extraordinary achievement of the last 75 years in national security is that across the world, I should say, we have avoided major hot wars, world wars, wars between major coalitions or major nations. The Cold War was an example of avoiding the hot wars.
The reason that we’ve done this really comes down to U.S. dominance and mainly by the fact that strength deters. If you can be big and ugly enough and strong enough, you can stop people acting in a way which is aggressive. It’s not just actual regional wars or major wars that will impact terribly on Australia. It’s also that high-level of tension that normally occurs short of a major war. and this could drastically impact Australia.
I remember one example of this is that in the early 2000s, in Israel, Hezbollah fired two Iranian anti-ship missiles at an Israeli patrol craft off the coast of Lebanon. One of them hit the patrol craft.
The other one was diverted by the electronic warfare on the patrol craft. It went over the horizon and hit a cargo ship, which had just left the port of Haifa. Now, as a result of that, not one single ship moved in and out of Israel for over a month.
Not because of the missiles, but because those ships could no longer get insurance.
Should there be a problem in our part of the world, then immediately everything that’s coming from other parts of the world, our pharmaceuticals, our fertilizer, our crude, or our refined petroleum products would stop.
Funding the ADF is Not Enough
The ADF, as I cannot stress enough, is not responsible for national security. The whole nation is responsible for national security.
It’s an important point to make, and I need to make it as often as I can because we in Australia tend to think that if you fund the ADF, then the ADF will take care of national security.
We might still have to participate in the small wars that we have been participating for years, but the probability of a major war is increasing significantly, and we must prepare.
The Challenge of Modern Warfare
The digital aspect of this is very, very important. Everything that we use cyberspace for enables us to live the modern life, to transfer money between banks and to organize our nation in an incredible way.
It also allows us to fight better, to have greater information and pass data from one organization to another. But cyberwar is never an alternative to what we call Kinetic War. Kinetic War is fundamentally blowing things up. It’s not an alternative.
I just need to make that point first up because a lot of people say, “Well, wars nowadays will be cyberwars. There’ll be digital wars, and we’re not going to go around killing people.”
Well, as I say often, nothing could be further from the truth.
But the digital side of conflict is simply an aspect of the current situation.
No war between the United States and China, which is what I focus on, will be clean. It will also not be limited to only those two countries. It might be limited to battlefields politely away from civilian centers.
It will be massively violent and destructive and may even go nuclear. It will involve massive cyber-attacks that will close down modern nations. We’ve seen examples of that, particularly in the Baltics out of Russia. It will involve attacks in space.. And perhaps it will involve attacks on targets on the Earth from space.
I think that the war may be short and sharp, and someone may win and someone may lose. There may be a high technology fight, which is won or lost, or combatants, after maybe a month of very high technology warfare, may back off in a stalemate, both participants in the war would suffer a great loss and great height for each other for the next indefinite period of time, for 50 years or more, it would be appalling.
Such a war may involve one cataclysmic battle or might be a series of lesser battles and attacks.
And the fighting may be extended, but with breaks to recover and re-equip and move forces.
All of these options, this is why I say that what we face is a terribly uncertain future.
And if you have an uncertain future, you must prepare as much as you can for what you do know. Such a war might just be between China and the U.S. It may be between China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea on one side.
And on the other side, it might be the U.S. and its allies, perhaps what we call the IBCA nations, America, Britain, Canada, and Australia, and New Zealand. Plus, perhaps, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and who really knows who else?
And as I said before, it may even be a massive nuclear war. Such as might have occurred between the United States and Russia for 50 years after 1945. It might involve the use of tactical nuclear weapons at the local level, even without a massive, mutual nuclear attack. It’s appalling circumstances.
He added comments regarding the warning period so to speak.
We might be in the middle of a buildup for war now. And it’s not just open war, as I said before, that will impact on Australia. This kind of period of tension leading up to wars will really make COVID look like a picnic and, how depressing, again, is that to even think of that?
What I reckon is likely to happen in a period of tension short of open warfare is nations that might normally export critical items to Australia, might cease to send them to us because of their perception of their own uncertain domestic need, exactly what happened during COVID. In this period of tension, there might be limited local aggression, even conflicts, such as border incidents or the settling of old scores.
We’ve seen changes in the nature in Hong Kong and Taiwan, pressure on Taiwan, incredible pressure on Japan. The Indian border dispute and minor disputes against between China and Bhutan.
There is a characteristic in this period of tension of nations ignoring the rule of law. Examples of that, we’ve seen intimidation and violence against neighbors in sea border disputes over what the Chinese call their Nine-Dash Line justification. We also see in this period of tension attempts to influence internal politics, we saw a New South Wales Upper House member, Mr. Moselmane, in New South Wales being investigated by ASIO and IFP raids and it’s alleged that he may have been the subject of influence, and we’ll let that run its course. We’ve seen the Belt and Road Initiative in Victoria used by a state government.
And all of this diminishes trust in our national institutions because of the fear of foreign influence.
We will see in this period of tension trade used as a weapon and we’ve seen that towards Australia now in relation to beef, wine, and barley. We will also see incredibly in this 21st Century period of tension, the maneuvering of offensive devices in space with a view to later destroying enemy satellites, or even at some stage attacks on us from space.
We’ve seen diplomatic hostage-taking Australian citizens in Iran and in China. We’ve seen very aggressive language, not quite diplomatic by the Wolf Warriors calling us white trash and that’s not unusual, of course, as we all know.
We’ve seen in this period, the forming of threatening alliances, I speak often about the American assessment of the threats to liberal democracy being four nations and an ideology. And those four nations could, for convenience, come together in some way.
We’re seeing China and Russia work together with Iran, for example, to overcome United Nations embargoes on arms shipments to Iran. And that is very, very worrying. We’ll see gathering of information, intellectual property theft, such as we’ve seen with the Thousand Talents Program.
And we’ll see espionage. Most people in Australia don’t know that the FBI are currently investigating 2000 active counter-intelligence cases involving Chinese espionage in the United States now. And they’ve even closed down Chinese consulates for spying.
We will see the gaining of control of United Nations body. I spoke before about how coalitions of nations have stopped U.S. attempts to extend the arms embargo to Iran and then supplying around with those arms.
And finally, there’ll be an increase indirect threats and building up force capability.
And we’ve seen that against the U.S. incredible threats only in the immediate past against the United States saying that if you locate U.S. troops on Taiwan, then China will go to war with you.
We’ve seen continuous threats against Taiwan and military maneuvering all around. Threats against Japan. Conflict against India and Chinese nuclear capability is being increased.
Deterrence is Crucial
What our priority should be is to increase the level of resilience of this nation and to defend the homeland against what I call a collateral attack, a collateral attack from China, in a war between the United States and China.
Collateral really means a secondary attack, not the main attack.
We’re unlikely to ever face the might of China by ourselves, but we may have to prepare for attacks into our nation and the impacts of total trade breakdown caused by war without considering a major war, a major invasion, they are big enough.
The question we’ve got to ask ourselves is, “Are we self-reliant enough?”
The answer is, “No”.
And that is what a nationwide strategy should concentrate on….
In my view, it will take us, in Australia, 5 to 10 years to get past COVID, restart the economy, and then start building resilience in this nation. Even if we started the intellectual parts of it, that is the deciding on what our strategy is going to be.
Even if we started that tomorrow, it would still take us five years best, 10 years probable.
We are well behind where we should be.