Early reactions to the election of Donald Trump told us much about our leaders, and ourselves. The day after his win, former prime ministers Paul Keating and John Howard were interviewed on the ABC’s 7.30.
“With the election of Donald Trump,” Leigh Sales asked Keating, “can Australia continue to depend on the United States alliance, the way that it has?”
Keating responded that “the idea we should get around like Uriah Heep, like we’re some subordinate outfit that has to get a signal from abroad before we think, is of course a complete denial of everything we’ve created here”.
So then, inquired Sales, how do we respond? Keating said we should act “like grown-ups, like we should have always responded all the years through ... I mean what we have to do is make our way in Asia ourselves with an independent foreign policy”.
To most people, independence reeks of risk. Sales pressed on the practicalities and Keating lamely returned to “the alliance”. I suspect Sales was hoping for assurance that we would be secure. Keating was unable to address this key question – our ability to defend ourselves, or not, was not in his equation.
Howard felt that our security would not be affected by Trump. Perhaps, even, it would be enhanced. Because safety would be assured under the eagle’s wing – if we behaved – Howard found no need to wonder about our own defence capability. “I think one of the things we can look forward to is more money being spent by America on defence, and that is likely to end up strengthening the involvement of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region.”
In 1976, a revolution in defence thinking was introduced to Australians through the first Defence white paper. It ties together the key factors shaping our defence, especially risk, timeliness and allocation of scarce resources, in plain enough language to render its neglect inexcusable. Our forces were not long out of Vietnam, defeated. Australians had been warned of communist hordes rolling onto our shores. People could not be certain of anything but a risky existence.
Abruptly, the government had a different message. Have no fear; there is no threat of invasion. “Major threats (requiring both military capability and political motivation) are unlikely to develop without preceding and perceptible indicators,” it advised. “The final emergence of a major military threat to Australia would be a late stage in a series of developments.”
Even more, we were told that we would aim to be self-reliant – to be capable of defending Australia without requiring assistance of the armed forces of others. A giant step. The paper went on to define practical defence measures planned to provide the nation with insurance against any unfavourable developments.
The logic of the 1976 white paper survived changes of government and was reinforced by the white papers of 1987, 1994, 2000 and 2009. But none of these subsequent white papers showed any interest in how we were progressing towards the goal of self-reliance. Instead we learnt of “shortcomings” and “gaps”, always requiring additional money.
Small wonder Australians still feel insecure. Without knowing where our security stands, governments flounder in foreign policy relations, with the US and anyone else. Whether we feel secure enough in our own defence capability is as fundamental to Keating making a case for independence in foreign policy as it is for Howard’s acceptance of reliance on the US.
I think our own defence is capable enough for us to sleep well. This assessment will be contested, undoubtedly – many claim expertise here. My credibility rests on 20 years as a public servant in the department, mostly responsible for advice on capability development, technologically based. In 1976 we had no ability to detect intrusions into our vast northern airspace. Now, after setbacks of many hues, the defence of Australia is now underpinned by a network of over-the-horizon radars known as Jindalee. This technology enables us to be highly confident of detecting incoming aircraft and shipping. It is a refined amalgam of innovations, squeezing information out of reflections of radiowaves via the ionosphere. This breakthrough has enabled effective defence to be constructed economically. Knowing what’s happening in our air and sea surrounds multiplies the effectiveness of all assets and infrastructure, whether we talk about patrolling our approaches, interdiction, strike or land combat and so on. I expect that any competent analysis will be positive about us nullifying armed attack.
The 2016 white paper finally states as much. It acknowledges for the first time that self-reliance has been achieved: “The government is providing Defence with the capability and resources it needs to be able to independently and decisively respond to military threats.”
We have reached the point where we do not need the involvement of US forces to defend Australia from armed attack.
So what’s the ANZUS alliance for? The crafters of ANZUS in 1952 wanted Australia to grow up, by becoming self-reliant. They wrote: “... the Parties separately and jointly by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack”.
Hence, ANZUS was the spark for the policy articulated 24 years later in the first white paper. Attaining self-reliance is the goal of the alliance. Of course, attack from a major power could be beyond our individual defence – a risk we share with most of the world. Here ANZUS provides some insurance: the declaration of each party that it would act to meet common danger in the Pacific. We would look to the US, and the US would act, provisionally – no guarantees exist, as the late Malcolm Fraser argued in his book Dangerous Allies. But such an attack is also unlikely, the more so because it would be an act against the US’s interest.
There is no requirement under ANZUS to spend more than we need on defence to enable us to join militarily with the US in its global aspirations. However, going as far back as the 1976 white paper we find an ambiguous reference to “contributing … to the US global effort”.
The Hawke government pushed the envelope by sending forces to the Kuwait war in 1990. Howard’s invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with ANZUS, and it eroded the global rules-based order. The rotation of US marines through the Northern Territory, agreed by Julia Gillard, is not needed for our security – the influence of their heavy fighting doctrine will distract and degrade our own defensive capability.
We are now on a slippery slope taking us away from our central interests. The 2016 white paper quietly identifies a new objective: “meaningful contributions to global responses to emergent threats to the rules-based global order that threaten Australia and its interests”.
It is no surprise that much more taxpayers’ money is sought by Defence to meet this objective. Naval capability is to be expanded for more distant operations with US forces. New air warfare destroyers offering only a minor increment in our defensive capability over other plentiful maritime assets and land-based air defences are to cost $9 billion. These vessels enable seamless operational integration with the US naval aircraft carrier groups in high intensity warfare.
In the new submarine project, at a cost of $50 billion, we obtain another modest increment in defensive capability over land-based, air and other maritime assets. These submarines will enable offensive strikes at distant inland sites, precisely and undetected, and faraway surveillance and interdiction at choke points of little relevance to our direct defence. However, submarines are slow, requiring a fortnight’s notice to get anywhere. Regional observers find it irrational that Australia should bear such heavy cost to be able to deliver conventional munitions well beyond its neighbourhood, and will note that the submarines’ cruise missiles possess warheads interchangeable between conventional and nuclear.
We are sliding up the scale of dangerous geopolitical involvement.
The US is pressuring us to spend ever more on defence. The elevation of defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP, dating back to Julia Gillard’s leadership, has nothing to do with our direct security needs. Urging that GDP goals be set for defence has been a US tactic directed at its major allies. Progressively, Australia’s defence has become entwined in US geopolitical objectives, tenuously presented as alliance necessities. How far US global ambitions should influence our fiscal and international policies is what the 7.30 debate was really about. Resolving such issues reduces to a clinical weighing of our national interests. But until now the scales have not registered confidence in our own capability.
Defence has escaped the pervasive cuts to expenditure governments have made as they prioritise the reduction of the nation’s fiscal imbalance. It has been allocated a 71 per cent increase on $32 billion in 2016 over the next five years. One expects extraordinary reasons for this anomaly, but none have been presented, beyond the “meaningful contributions to global responses to emergent threats to the rules-based global order”. This unbounded, unexplained objective appears to be driving dedicated investment in unnecessary military responses ill-suited to progressing our interests.
Even a pedestrian finance minister would advise cabinet that, having just withdrawn from a couple of wars, Defence offers personnel and operating efficiencies. An informed finance minister would question the costly peripheral expense of joining operations with the US beyond our direct sphere of interest, and beyond the requirements of ANZUS. An alert minister of any kind would have noted that the 2016 white paper acknowledged, for the first time that we have achieved self-reliance.
Alas, most ministers go comatose at the word “defence”, those in finance especially. Governments cannot have it both ways. As we are now self-reliant, due to a purposeful program costing a trillion dollars over 40 years, Defence spending should have little budgetary priority. Defence should be required to do more with less, like everybody else in the nation. Developing technologies mean more capable defence can be delivered even with a reduction in Defence spending.
If, however, the government were to deny that we have attained self-reliance, the question then is why are we spending with such largesse on lesser priority defence areas, when our basic need remains unfulfilled?
The narrative on the US alliance – through ANZUS – has become inverted. Rather than comprehending that the alliance aims for Australia to be independent, commentary assumes we are inescapably reliant upon the US for our security. This is a distorting anchor to periodic debates about where to draw a line in joining with US geopolitical ambitions, and in shaping our foreign policy and the economy.
Not by accident, we have reason to be confident of our defence. Regardless of the casino of federal elections, it is time for our foreign, fiscal and defence policies to reflect our own strength. Howard’s undiscerning sanguinity and Keating’s half-cocked passion for self-belief show that the nexus has long eluded the nation’s leaders.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 18, 2017 as "Defensive behaviour". Subscribe here.