Facing an uncertain future: Hugh White discusses the choices Australia faces in defence provision and what they mean for New Zealand.

AuthorWhite, Hugh

Can Australia defend itself independently? If I am right about the future of American power, yes, maybe we can. It is difficult for it requires a very rigorous analysis of what we would need to do, and how we should best do it; of what we would really need our armed forces to be able to do for us; of how they could do that most cost effectively, and what capabilities would be required to do that; and of how much it would cost.

On the first of those questions--what does the Australian Defence Force need to be able to do--the first thing is to defend the continent independently from a major Asian power. By defend I mean something very specific that raises the costs and risks to an adversary of attacking Australia to the point where they give up. That is the most a country like Australia would be able to do. It is a bit more like what Finland did to the Soviet Union, for example, in the Winter War of 1939-40. Secondly, we need to also be able to help defend our neighbours: our neighbours in the immediate neighbourhood, and our neighbours in maritime South-east Asia in particular. That conception of how our strategic objectives and interests might be seen reflects the concentric circles model which has been developed in Australian defence policy.

When we ask ourselves how could we do those two things, which is really the task of developing a military strategy, what I focus on is the obvious vital, but still somehow easy to overlook, fact that we have the most maritime strategic environment of any country in the world except New Zealand. Any war that Australia is going to fight is going to be a war at sea. When you look at war at sea over the last few decades and over the decades to come, one thing is very clear: the very long-term trends, going all the way back to the late 19th century but accelerating now, with current developments in technology, generate a very big asymmetry between the task of projecting power by sea, on the one hand, and the task of stopping someone projecting power by sea, on the other.

The first, what the naval strategist calls sea control, is the business of making sure you can keep your ships afloat as they traverse the water. The second, what the strategists term sea denial, is the opposite task: sinking the other guy's ships. Over the last hundred plus years, it has become easier and easier to find and sink an adversary's ships and, therefore, harder and harder to stop an adversary finding and sinking your own ships. That does make a very big difference to the way Australia could approach the task of those two strategic objectives, because those objectives can be met effectively and because both Australia and its neighbours are all islands.

Denying the air and maritime approaches, either to our continent or to our neighbours' territories, to the power projection forces of an adversary is a less intimidating, less difficult, less demanding military task than might be thought, although still very, very demanding. It would require forces on the scale needed to achieve that task against the forces that a major Asian power could deploy and sustain in Australia's neighbourhood or against Australian territory. It would require forces that look very different from the ones we are building at the moment. Because at the moment a very big focus of Australian force development, going back a decade or fifteen years, is actually on the opposite approach. It is not on sea denial, but rather on sea control. It is on trying to build Australia's capacity to project power by sea against other people, something which I consider a major strategic error because I do not think we will succeed in it.

We need to change the focus of our force development very sharply away from forces for sea control and power projection towards forces for sea denial and...

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