It’s been a long time since Australia fought to win a war. Famed military historian David Horner has tied it down to a specific date: 1 October 1943. Horner writes that from then, “Australian troops were deployed primarily for political purposes that were not related directly either to winning the war or defending Australia.” At that point, with the Allies winning the war now assessed as only a matter of time, the political purpose to fight for was to strengthen the Australian government’s position in the forthcoming peace negotiations.
Since 1945, the principal political purpose for Australia fighting has been to strengthen the American alliance. In the vernacular, “paying our dues” for reciprocity is at the alliance’s core. Whether these distant wars were won or lost was considered the business of the Americans, not Australians. As long as Australia’s carefully measured contribution made Americans grateful for our support and the alliance improved, that was a victory. The measurement of improvement was obviously in the eye of the beholder.
Moreover, simply agreeing to participate became the benchmark of success. There was no real need for strategic or battlefield triumphs, just bilateral political agreements between friends. The enemy was in the main irrelevant, which was all to the good as since 1943 the quality of the victories steadily declined. Japan’s defeat was definite, Korea was a draw albeit an important one, Vietnam a loss, the 1991 Gulf War led to the 2003–10 Iraq misadventure, while Afghanistan needs no mention.
From Australia’s viewpoint, these wars were political successes, as long as the significant damage done to our great alliance partner each time is overlooked. Australians tend to look at just one side of the bilateral alliance scorecard.
Times have changed. The big worry is now a US–China war, with Taiwan seen as a likely flashpoint. The probability of such a great power war is vigorously debated. It’s reasonable to argue that no one seeks such a war but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upsets the calculus. It’s now apparent that national leaders can act in ways many consider irrational; their cost-benefit determinations may not be others’. China’s President Xi Jinping’s “no limits” friendship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin may be more than simple rhetoric.
Australia would not have to participate in such a war but no one can doubt the outcome would be geostrategically decisive. The future would sharply pivot one way or the other depending on who triumphed. It appears as though Australia would fight on the US side in such a war although there are, at least theoretically, options to remain neutral or fight so as not to lose.
Both these later options depend on the adversary. Their agency would determine if Australia was allowed to remain as neutral as Switzerland and Sweden were during the Second World War while Belgium and Holland were not. Not losing is the same. The enemy makes the decision to cease the war or not. Today, Russia is continuing fighting into the indefinite future, aiming to annex Ukraine. In contrast, during the Second World War, the Soviet Union ceased fighting Finland in exchange for a harsh peace treaty and much territory.
There are some implications from all this.
First, it’s arguably no longer good enough to outsource worrying about winning to others. The United States has done Australia’s war-making strategic thinking for it since 1 October 1943; back then in the shape of General Douglas MacArthur. In a great war between the United States and China, Australia winning will be important, with winning being defined as gaining a better peace after the war than before. Australia is out of practice with this. Colonel Michael Scott writes this is because of a lack of understanding about what strategy is, the absence of a tradition of military strategy and governmental organisational shortcomings.
Second, to reiterate, this imagined future is not the past. In the 1980s defence of Australia period, the imagined enemy was regional, and the solution was deterrence by denial – that is being militarily able to stop a smaller power succeeding in some limited ambition. The future now foreseen is a nuclear armed, great power with relatively limitless resources. The Ukraine war is a portent; the Ukrainians can’t by themselves deny Russia victory over the longer term. The Russians can just ignore the costs and keep fighting; so far, the Russian leadership and public seem unconcerned by their 180,000 dead and wounded.
Third, reorienting Australian thinking, force structure and force posture to focus on fighting to win wars will take effort and time. It is not the task that has been set by the Defence Strategic Review (DSR), which is being rushed through to fit in with the March 2023 nuclear submarine acquisition decision set by the previous government. Indeed, the two DSR decisions so far suggest a backwards gaze to the last 80 years. The Black Hawk helicopters and C-130J transport aircraft buys just announced first flew last century and, by coincidence, were flown in the 1980s and 1990s by Angus Houston, one of the two DSR independent leads.
The future is not the past. Australia needs to reset its strategic thinking and plan to win the wars it fights, not simply contribute forces to them. The country’s future may depend on a willingness to overturn the habits of the last 80 years.