Australia’s Dangerously Luxurious Defense Hedge

The current Australian Defense White Paper (Force 2030) sets a strategy for the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) modernization that does not correspond with the realities of Australia’s security situation. Force 2030 prepares the ADF for conflict contingencies that are least likely to happen, and ties up the ADF’s limited resources on missions that the ADF couldn’t fight alone.

Force 2030 reaffirms the defence of Australia doctrine, based on the perceived rise of China and raises questions over the reliability and utility of the ANZUS alliance. From a US perspective, the heart of the Australian defence debate centers on whether or not the Southeast Asia and Pacific region, including Australia, can continue to rely on the United States as the guarantor and underwriter of regional defense and security.

The ADF’s current major capability acquisitions for Force 2030 are largely high end maritime and air battle weapons platforms. In Canberra’s effort to shift from the predominant counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations of today to the higher end military operations of tomorrow, Australian defence policymakers have overcompensated.

They have allocated the preponderance of their defence budget resources to military capabilities that are the least likely to be needed between now and 2030. They have consequently generated capability gaps toward the lower and center portion of the military operations continuum. This focus on high end maritime and air capabilities will leave the ADF exposed with an atrophying capability for the kind of low end expeditionary operations it is most likely to conduct in its own region.

Australian defence planners have fallen into the same trap as U.S. defence policymakers of the 1990s —  assuming that capabilities suited for high-end war fighting will also be useful in ‘lesser’ lower-intensity conflict contingencies. They have designed Force 2030 to sit on the shelf until called on to conduct high end military operations. But the ADF will be too weak to conduct those higher end operations on its own, and to use Force 2030 for ‘low-end’ contingencies will require expensive, lengthy, and ad hoc force restructuring.

Decisions taken by Australian defence policymakers will make the ADF more dependent on U.S. military assistance in order to perform low and mid-intensity operations. Australia will need to call on greater U.S. military capabilities to resolve regional security issues that fall short of high-intensity warfare. The United States will need to either accept this increased defence burden within the Asia-Pacific region or otherwise reduce its regional military presence.

To maintain the ANZUS alliance, Australia will offer maritime and air contributions that are significant to the ADF’s order of battle. However, these contributions remain only token when considered as part of total US military forces. What the United States needs more (both to manage China and other regional security threats) is an ADF that can support regional cooperative security arrangements.

To make the U.S.-Australian alliance more effective in providing for both nations’ security needs, the U.S. Department of Defense should support publicly discarding the Guam Doctrine which leaves allies like Australia primary responsibility for their own defence.

The United States should also pursue establishing joint basing in Australia for submarine repair, maintenance, and training facilities. Both Australia and the United States should endorse a Southeast Asia and South Pacific regional multilateral cooperative security arrangement, to address regional security and stability challenges while pressing for constructive and transparent Chinese participation in regional security matters. Finally, the US Department of State should draft Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty rules to publicly create a seamless U.S.-Australian defense industry community and shepherd this concept in support of future joint U.S.-Australian operational activities.

Australian policymakers, for their part, must tie Defence 2009 and future Defence White Papers into a broader hemispheric system. This would clearly establish a framework approach for multilateral and cooperative security mechanisms to deal with regional issues like disputed island claims in the South China Sea; maritime resource claims; mass migration; and conflict resolution and conflict prevention. Corresponding confidence-building measures, capacity building, and defence modernisation transparency would also contribute to regional security. 

Australia should recapitalise unaffordable and excess air and sea capabilities into ground and amphibious capabilities to deal with the more likely regional conflict scenarios. A shift of Australia’s defence capabilities towards greater utility in the most likely regional contingencies would significantly contribute to stability and security in Australia’s primary operational environment, as well as make a valuable contribution to the U.S.-Australian alliance.

The ANZUS alliance is quickly emerging as the cornerstone alliance for continued security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region but it’s important that the United States not take its defence relationship with Australia for granted. To do so puts the alliance at risk. The United States must take the time to understand the implications future Australian defence planning will have on the alliance.

A greater understanding of one another’s defence and security needs will lead to mutually supporting capabilities to collectively manage the regional challenges at hand. By complementing each other’s strengths, the U.S.-Australian alliance will remain vibrant, adaptable, and capable — acting in concert with the other allies in the region — to jointly face any future challenges.