Australia Finds Itself on Dangerous Ground

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Is Australia a serious country or not? On so many issues, there is an increasing focus on the comfortable short term at the expense of the difficult long term. No less defence. Apart from controversy over today's wars, the main issue for the Australian Defence Force revolves around the equipment we buy for future wars.

White papers are primarily political documents reassuring voters that defence is under control. Soon after publication, money is then removed, generally in a way the wider population does not notice - a situation not helped by the Defence Materiel Organisation making a mess of almost everything it touches. The 2009 defence white paper was incoherent, illogical and amateurish, but it did imply that the good strategic times might be over and, because of this, Australia should move to what was called Force 2030.

Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, advocated assisting the US to manage the emergence of China without conflict. Ross Babbage, head of Kokoda Foundation, a strategy think tank, says our military must be strong enough to deter any credible threat. Niall Ferguson, a British historian who specialises in financial and economic history, and John Mearsheimer, an American professor of political science at the University of Chicago, say that superpower conflict is inevitable. Commentator Robert Kaplan agrees that the benign strategic environment for Australia is over.

Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie says China would not be satisfied with a US-dominated status quo and Chinese actions in the South China Sea have clumsily reflected this view, creating apprehension in the neighbourhood. And Australian political party leaders have acknowledged that strategic uncertainties lie ahead.

So what happens in this serious nation Australia? The Defence Capability Plan is supposed to allocate real money to buy real equipment to give Australia real military capability to fight during the next few decades to defend you and me. The plan, which emerged from the 2009 white paper, was not too bad.

There has been controversy over more subs v surface ships; whether we can win with the chosen fighter; and whether the country was prepared to spend the funds to create Force 2030.

Its appeal was that it provided some surety of funding and it promised that at some stage Australia might have a military force that could do better than provide very small single-service contingents to our allies for token participation in distant wars of choice.

But like most funding plans from defence white papers, it did not last. The last budget ripped the guts out of the proposed Force 2030. Babbage writes that the cuts have crippled "Australia's capacity to cope with a serious security crisis during the next quarter of a century". This is an astounding situation that has been noticed by only a few specialist blogs and, I am sure, the US embassy.

When everyone is saying that our strategic future is more than just a little uncertain, Babbage states that the government has taken a deliberate decision that Australia will not have the key defence capabilities required to defend this country in a serious crisis until about 2035.

But we will always have the US to defend us, right?

Indeed, the US has verbally committed to a greater involvement in our part of the world.

But whenever the US needed us in the recent past, we provided only token forces and restricted even that commitment.

Having just spent three weeks travelling the US during which I spoke to many American military comrades from my time with the US in Iraq, I came home with two impressions. The first was that the US is sick of war but is determined to finish Afghanistan with another success at least as good as Iraq.

The second is that the US is sick of its allies. Too polite to directly criticise Australia in my presence, the criticism of the US's European allies by these serving and retired senior and junior US officers was vehement. And now it comes publicly from outgoing US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, who said that leaving the US to bear a disproportionate share of defence was unacceptable.

He described the NATO allies as split between a few who were "willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments" and conduct "the 'hard' combat missions", and the majority who "specialise in 'soft' humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks" and "who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership, be they security guarantees or headquarters billets, but don't want to share the risks and the costs".

To think that this is not also the US attitude towards Australia is to be deeply delusional, but that is what is so dangerous about Australia's strategic thinking. We did not stand with the US in Iraq when it desperately needed us. We were slightly better in Afghanistan but still could not make the full commitment that our ally needed.

The ADF has been incapable of any level of sophisticated warfare for decades but has been lucky, yet we are now removing any chance of real combat capability from the ADF for the next 25 years. And we do this when commentators such as Kaplan are suggesting more of a robust defence posture for Australia itself, to provide more of its own defence than it has in the past.

Without an effective defence force, we had best hope that China and the US are gentle with us during the next 25 years.

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