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Defence: It's too risky to wait

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This post is part of the The military numbers game debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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30 April 2012 09:15


This post is part of the The military numbers game debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Three quick points in response to Sam on fighter numbers and timing. He suggests that we could wait until China has, or is much closer to having, the ability to project serious power to our shores before buying the large numbers of aircraft I have argued we'd need to defend ourselves from China independently.

First, we need to be clear about what we are discussing. On the one hand, there is a question about what forces we would need to exercise middle-power strategic weight on our own account if (for any one of several reasons) we find ourselves in a more contested Asia and can no longer rely on the US to play the same role in our security as it has played for the past few decades. 

There is a quite separate question about when we need to start to build those forces. Sam may be right that we do not yet need middle-power strategic weight, but if and when we do need it, we will require a lot more than 100 of whatever frontline aircraft we buy.

Second, the question of whether we yet need to start acquiring these and other 'middle power' forces depends how long those forces would take to develop, and how much warning we could expect before we needed them. All complex questions, of course, which take us back to the great debates about 'warning time', which were inextricably liked with the core force concepts Alan Wrigley has raised

I've always been conservative about warning time – unpleasant surprises are just too common in our business. For example, Sam's confidence that China cannot project serious power as far as Australia is not justified by China's lack of capability per se, but by his confidence that another big power, presumably the US, would stop it. If China was not opposed by another major power, it could already project very substantial forces our way. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not predicting this scenario is at all likely. But I do not think defence policy can simply dismiss it. The possibility that the US will no longer play its accustomed strategic role in Asia is precisely what mobilises questions about our future capability needs, so we should be very careful about assuming the status quo. The old shibboleth that intentions can change faster than capabilities is true, and it is relevant here: America's intentions can change faster than our capabilities.

Third, I think Sam's argument assumes that the only reason we need what I'm calling 'middle power capabilities' is to defend the continent. My conception of Australia's strategic objectives is much broader than that, and includes supporting the US against China, if Chinese strategic ambitions prove too aggressive to be tolerable. So even if China cannot project power as far as Australia, we would still have reasons — less compelling, perhaps, but still compelling enough — to want middle power capabilities. Indeed we might need them very soon.     

In case anyone wonders how this sits with the arguments I have made elsewhere for accommodating China's power, let me explain. I set the threshold for what is tolerable from China rather higher than many others, but I'm as convinced as anyone of the need to resist if that threshold is crossed, and while I think the risk of China doing that is relatively low, keeping it low will depend in part on the probability of an effective and united regional response to Chinese transgressions being relatively high. 

I think there is a strong argument that Australia should have forces that can contribute significantly to that. On current trends, we won't.

Photo by Flickr user Leandro A Perez.

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