Brian Toohey
Australia’s new arms race

Joe Biden and Anthony Albanese during the ASEAN summit in Cambodia last year.
Joe Biden and Anthony Albanese during the ASEAN summit in Cambodia last year.
Credit: Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

Australia has now joined the United States in refusing to discuss the ANZUS Treaty, let alone claim it is the foundation of Australia’s security. What was once seen as a virtue is now considered a drawback.

The perceived trouble is that the treaty bans the aggressive use of military force – something the US and Australia both use. Consequently, statements released during the Australia–US ministerial meetings on defence and foreign policy in early December did not mention ANZUS or its constraints. Instead, they refer favourably to the “rules-based international order” in which the US, not the United Nations, makes the rules.

In his subsequent comments on the need to build Australia’s military forces and welcome more American forces, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made no reference to ANZUS. This is part of a trend in which Australian leaders cannot bring themselves to criticise recent harmful US breaches of the international rules on trade and investment.

Article 1 of the 1951 ANZUS Treaty requires the parties to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or the use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations”. Aggression is clearly inconsistent with the Charter of the UN, which states, “All members shall refrain from the threat or use of force.”

Labor’s then External Affairs minister, Bert “Doc” Evatt, played a significant role in establishing the UN in 1945 and served as its president from 1948-49. Initially, Labor gave enthusiastic support to ANZUS’s prohibition on aggression. No longer. The preferred “rules-based international order” doesn’t ban aggression, except presumably for countries such as Russia and China. Unlike with the ANZUS Treaty, no text of the new rules or the AUKUS pact is available.

Albanese won’t explain why he wants a large and hugely expensive arms build-up. In a media interview published on December 19, all he said was that we need to spend a lot more on defence because the need for new capabilities is so great. He did not explain why. He refuses to nominate a potential enemy. He merely says we need to spend more on our military to “promote peace and security in the region”.

Participating in an arms race is not necessarily the same as promoting peace. Yet Albanese refuses to invest in arms control measures – unlike the Hawke–Keating governments. He says because of its values, Australia won’t attack any other nation. Yet it did in Iraq in 2003 and Vietnam in 1965. Although the invasion of Iraq was soon proved to be based solely on phoney intelligence, Julia Gillard as prime minister praised Australia’s participation with its American ally in numerous wars, including these two, in her address to congress in 2011.

Albanese takes for granted that there’s no need to explain where the threat comes from – although the implication is, of course, China.

China has been involved in only two wars since 1950. One was its reprehensible incursion into Vietnam in 1979. In the other, it defended itself against a real threat of invasion during the Korean War in 1951. Additionally, in a border dispute with India, it recently killed 20 Indian soldiers in a night-time clash in a contested mountainous region. Each side used clubs but not guns. In comparison, Brown University’s respected Costs of War Project estimates coalition forces killed about 37,500 opposition fighters and 200,000 civilians in Iraq alone.

Perhaps China will start a major war within a few years. No one knows. Alternatively, it may put renewed stress on its policy of living in “Confucian harmony” with its neighbours.

Albanese lacks an informed grip on defence issues. In the interview quoted above, he stated Australia must become more self-reliant in its defence, apparently unaware this is not possible because the US won’t give Australia the computer codes needed to operate American weapons systems and sensors. Nor will it show Australian technicians how to repair or modify any classified components.

This will get worse because of Albanese’s determination to buy eight American attack nuclear submarines for the Australian Navy. Because of the submarines’ extreme complexity, Australia won’t be able to operate them on its own. It may even have to let the US borrow them under the new “interchangeability” policy announced by Defence Minister Richard Marles.

Albanese also said the narrowing of an earlier 10-year warning of a potential attack means that we “need to make sure our defence assets are fit for purpose”. However, the Virginia-class subs he wants won’t fit into a 10-year period. Due to congested construction yards, the earliest the first is likely to be operationally available is 2040, and the last 2060. A realistic cost estimate is about $200 billion after inflation.

Based on the US experience, only two of these submarines will be operationally available on average. The bigger problem is that modern conventional submarines are superior to nuclear and safer because they are much harder to detect, contrary to what Albanese claims.

Unlike noisy nuclear subs, the latest conventional ones are much cheaper and can operate silently for three or more weeks. Nor do they release an easily detected infrared heat source, created by nuclear submarines constantly expelling the hot water produced by their reactors.

There is no indication Albanese has warned the Americans not to use their forces in Australia for military aggression, in breach of the ANZUS Treaty and UN bans. Similar considerations apply to electronic intelligence facilities in Australia, which play a crucial role in war fighting.

Close involvement in planning for a possible war can also create an expectation the ultimate decision will be “go”. Australian personnel, for example, were involved in the planning headquarters for the likely invasion of Iraq. A former senior official, Garry Woodard, says in a detailed study that having all the preparations in place creates a momentum that’s hard to stop.

Since then, successive governments have integrated Australian forces so tightly with their American allies – in the planning, training, doctrine, logistics and communications process – that the nation may find itself plunged into a devastating war between the US and China without parliament having the ultimate say after full consideration of the issues.

During last December’s ministerial meetings in Washington, the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, heavily praised Australia, which had just agreed publicly to an expanded American military presence here. Austin said, “We call the relationship between the US and Australia the unbreakable alliance for good reason: Australia and the US have stood shoulder to shoulder in every major conflict for more than a century.”

If he intended that World War I be included in that statement, it is a bit of a stretch. The only time the two countries stood shoulder to shoulder was in the Battle of Hamel, for a total 93 minutes. When welcomed by Austin, Marles seemed overwhelmed by the occasion. The transcript shows he said, “It’s really a thrill to be here and it’s great to see you again. As we would say, ‘Long time no see.’ Although we saw each other 10 days ago in Cambodia.”

Albanese downplays the importance of Austin’s announcement at the Washington talks, where the American said there would be an increase in the rotational presence of US forces in Australia, including rotations of bomber taskforces. Austin added that Japan would now be “integrated into our force posture initiatives in Australia”. How that is compatible with Japan’s “pacifist” postwar constitution was not explained, although it is about to become the third-most powerful military country on Earth.

Albanese says US bombers have exercised in Australia before. The difference now is that they will have a semi-permanent presence after new spending on a parking apron for six B-52s at an Australian base. These bombers, each of which can carry 40 tonnes of bombs and missiles, are designed for savage aggression.

At the same time as the Australian government is trying to improve relations with China, it is greatly increasing spending on offensive weapons for a potential war with China – without adhering to any published treaty explaining the ground rules. Perversely, it supports a forward defence doctrine that has failed repeatedly in the past.

The difference this time is that China has a powerful modern military. Yet as part of the new forward defence doctrine, Australia wants to deploy nuclear submarines close to China, so they can fire missiles into the Chinese mainland. Little thought appears to have been given to how fiercely China could retaliate.

Australia helped invade Vietnam in 1965, based on an unfounded fear about the downward thrust of communism. To his great credit, the Coalition Defence minister in 1969, Allen Fairhall, accepted there was no threat to Australia and scrapped the forward defence doctrine in favour of defending Australia closer to home, known as the “Defence of Australia” doctrine. Vietnam won the war at an estimated cost of up to three million lives. It shows no sign of invading Australia.

The Defence of Australia doctrine prevailed until 2003, when John Howard joined the illegal invasion of Iraq based on concocted intelligence. Under dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq was no threat to Australia. Howard also committed troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. Twenty years later, the Taliban won using clapped-out rifles and homemade bombs.

Even if China initially proved an easier adversary than the Taliban, an enduring victory would require a horrific land invasion or the even more horrific prospect of the use of nuclear weapons. If hundreds of powerful nuclear warheads were used, there could be no winners. As Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said, “After a nuclear war, the living would envy the dead.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 14, 2023 as "Australia’s new arms race".

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