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 fourth podcast in his series.
He starts each podcast with this introduction:
“Sun Tzu, the Chinese strategist tells us that strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
“But tactics without strategy is just noise before defeat.
“My name is Jim Molan and welcome to our Noise Before Defeat podcast.”
Everybody Loves Australians
we tend to think that everyone loves us. And as a middle power, a liberal democracy, we are not a widely unpopular nation, but not everyone loves us and respects us. And I jokingly refer to this as the Bali syndrome. Now as a general public, we go to Bali, everyone loves us.
And we think that the rest of the world loves us as well. But I guess I only say that to be contentious. But of course in my own experience, every time I go overseas with the military someone tries to kill me. So I guess there is a bit of a different view of all of us….
But as a liberal democracy which is allied by common beliefs to the US, Australia does represent something to particularly focus on by authoritarian groups or by authoritarian countries. And if you can’t give the US a kicking, you might be able to give a small ally a bit of a kicking.
We are seen as a threat to such authoritarians’ governments because of what we are, because we offer an alternative to authoritarianism. We’ve seen this with Islamic terrorists and with aggressive comments made by China’s department of foreign affairs and China’s controlled media. We’re also an object of attention, as I said before, as a strong ally of the US. We may also attract aggression because we’re a resource rich country….
But when we look at the next step up from gray zone, that is truly assertive or aggressive behavior, threats or real challenges, we do need to mention China, but not only China. We need to mention China because for years we lived at the edge of the world, long way away from most crises and most conflicts.
Now we don’t. Now we are in the region where the biggest crisis could occur. So it might be healthy to focus only on China, as so many do. And I’ve said a number of times, the US considers that the threats to what is generally referred to as the West consists of four nations and an ideology.
And I’ve listed those four nations as being Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, and the ideology being Islamic extremism. Now, we’re allied to the US, and we live in the priority region for the United States, what they call the Indo-Pacific. In the region that they are making the assessment that this threat exists. So it’s fair to say that this is our threat as well. And the US, back in their national security strategy of 2007, talked about those four nations in real detail.
And I’m advocating that we do a national security strategy. So when we see the American version of this, that is truly relevant. And they spoke about Russia, which we should never forget is an Asian power, but a challenger to the US across the world. Russia has got interests in the Baltic and in Ukraine, and in the Southern Caucuses.
And the effect of this is it disperses the amount of US power that we might like to think exists to come and back us up. China, of course, is the rising power. It has been aggressive. Militarily and economically it’s extraordinarily powerful. It’s wealthy, and it’s got a high degree of central control. So unlike democratic nations, if China wants to do something, its population is normally the last people that they consult about it.
The biggest problem in the Middle East at the moment is Iran, 90% of our oil comes from the Middle East, and we’re making very, very good moves to establish our strategic reserves. But in this area we are particularly vulnerable. And North Korea, of course, is nuclear armed, it’s unpredictable.
But I don’t think it represents as such a particular threat, it is just unpredictable. And of course, I speak about Islamic extremism, which is still across the world. It’s in our region, in the Southern Philippines, and it’s waiting for a chance to rise again. It certainly exists in the source of all our oil in the Middle East in a very frightening way.
We are totally dependent for our prosperity on sea trade. This is a vulnerability which is forced on us from outside the nation. We accept a bit of responsibility because we have got ourselves into a situation where most of our trade comes from one country. But as tension builds much less, if conflict occurs our ports are a single point of failure for Australia. I put ports and sea transport in the same category.
It’s a major vulnerability. And of course, people forget that Australia, we own about a handful of ships. But normally we don’t own shipping which we can rely on to move our exports if we need to. It’s very easy to close us down from an economic point of view, or from access to essentials, and to stop our export of resources which is our wealth….
What defines defense capability is the ability of a nation to do things. That is, win wars or conduct operations. All we have to do is look back over recent history. Clever countries often achieve superiority over the mighty US because the US has global responsibilities, as I’ve mentioned.
And challengers only have local interests and can focus their forces on a local area, or use different techniques, I should say, denying US strength. The classic example being Vietnam. I could see that so obviously when I was in Iraq. The US had 150,000 troops in Iraq, but Al Qaeda was never more than a few thousand.
And they tore that nation to bits because they used extreme violence from the middle of a population. And of course we know that ISIS was even worse. We could not be everywhere, and they’d played on this weakness.
The US produces, every two years, a national security strategy. And Congress mandates that. It is the law. This looks at all the tasks that the US has in national security, and the strength of its military and its economy, and its people and its states. And it says what the US can actually do. Not what it spends or what it has, and that’s the difference. An example is that in 1991 the US had a Navy of 600 warships.
Now it has less than 300, and the Chinese Navy is larger than the US Navy. Now I suspect that the 300 US battleships are better than the larger number of Chinese battleships, but they’re not much good if they’re in the Mediterranean and the problem is in the Pacific. No, but even more important than just counting ships or planes or tanks, what a nation can actually do is the real test.
And in 1991 roughly, at the end of the Cold War, the US had a strategy which it called it’s two and a half war strategy. It had a capability in that extraordinary nation to win, fight and win two major wars. One in Europe, perhaps, one in Asia. As well as fighting and winning a mine war, maybe in South America or in the Middle East, wherever, at the same time. Now when you think about that, that is just extraordinary.
But now their national security strategy has changed significantly. In 2017 their national security strategy aims for them to win one war, and that’s against China. And to hold in a second war. Now, that really is, by any measure, a 30 to 50% diminution of US power since 1991. That is a terrifying thought for all the US’s allies around the world.
The lesson that we should take from this is that the US cannot come to all its allies aid as it could during most of the post-World War II period, because it was the biggest kid on the block. But still, there is a strong belief in our society that US power is infinite.
And I had that belief when I went to Iraq and I worked in the belly of the beast. I worked in the midst of the US military for that year, and I realized how limited its real power is. It is not infinite. And the US is sick to death of spending on defense, especially when it thinks that its allies are not assisting to carry the burden of world defense….
Could Australia ever defend itself against China, even with the right strategy and its implementation over time? I think that we have an enormous defense potential in this country. We’ve just decided not to realize it at the moment. Despite COVID, we’re still a fabulously wealthy nation. And we certainly have something worth defending. Therefore we must ask ourselves, do we have a choice? To talk about that in detail, I would rather wait for the next podcast. But the answer to your specific question, is that at the moment, no, we couldn’t successfully fight China.
Even the US is having doubts about whether, in certain circumstances, it could win against China. Nor could we at the moment, which is part of our big strategy, nor could we at the moment deterred Chinese aggression because of our national security power. But to be positive, if we applied ourselves, as I’ll explain in the next podcast, we could become a regional superpower. So all is not lost. This is not a deeply disappointing or frustrating situation. We could do it, we just need to decide to do it.
And the point I make though, is that we are unlikely in the real world to ever be trying to deter or defending ourselves against the full might of China. What we should use as our planning scenario is to defend ourselves against what I call a collateral attack from China during a US and China war. And I think that is the realistic test. This is what we should be stress testing ourselves and the entire nation against. And we could do it, Sarah, we just need the will and we need the time….
We must assume that we will be on our own. This is a psychological step that we must take. Because we’ll be on our own, self-reliance across the nation to maintain our security should be our entire focus. Australia must be prepared as a nation, and not just the IDF. And we must be independently strong. We will not be able to depend on the US, if we ever could, of course. We can do this, we just need, as I said, we need the will and the time.