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The men who would minister war (II)

The men who would minister war (II)

Part 1 of this profile of Labor's prospective new defence minister Mike Kelly MP and shadow Defence Minister Senator David Johnston appeared yesterday.

For men who will have responsibility for administering war if their party is elected tomorrow, neither David Johnston nor Mike Kelly want to talk much about the prospect of violent conflict.

But I'm interested to tease out their views on what I see as the big issues in the defence portfolio: Australia's changing strategic environment, the US alliance, and military strategy. Just for good measure, I'm also interested in their views on why Australia is developing an amphibious assault force and what they think it will be used for.

Asked about Australia's strategic environment, David Johnston sees 'cells dividing a bit' and 'countries that are feeling a bit bullied'. He concludes that Australia's security environment has worsened since 2009 because of energy dependence, particularly in North Asia: 'the security of our sea-lanes has to be something that's a given, and I think we're a long way from that at the moment'. We talk in detail about the energy infrastructure of Australia's north-west coast and the obligation for Canberra to provide security for these platforms, though Johnston is mindful that this will not be done cheaply.

Mike Kelly's concerns are more immediate: transition in Afghanistan, ongoing Islamist extremism, terrorism and asymmetric threats as well as 'always bubbling concerns' in the Korean peninsula and Iran. [fold]

Like most of their parliamentary colleagues, an invitation to discuss the security consequences of the rise of China engenders a perfunctory dismissal of Australia's need to choose between China and the US. For Johnston, interdependence will prevail: 'China desperately needs the US market' and Australia must develop a military-to-military relationship with China. Kelly sees Australia in a 'good constructive role between the US and China'.

It's a subtle difference and is best explained by their political ancestry. Like Julie Bishop, Johnston is drawn from Western Australia, where China was an enticing trade partner long before it emerged as a possible military-strategic competitor. Kelly was drawn to parliament by Kevin Rudd, and very much carries Rudd's view of Australia as a bridge between the major Pacific powers.

When it comes to the US alliance, what can Australia provide? Kelly confidently replies that 'our big strategic value is in having submarines', particularly in an anti-submarine warfare role. Johnston too talks about the utility to the US of having quiet diesel submarines able to operate in shallow warm waters. But the primary role for Australia in ANZUS is in the provision of intelligence, Johnston believes, particularly within the neighbourhood (which he defines as Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and the South West Pacific). The Joint Strike Fighter, which both see as critically important, does not seem to factor into Australia's alliance equity.

I ask Johnston about the possibility of a future US naval presence in Western Australia and he suggests it will be 'no more or less than they've had in the past'. He doesn't perceive the development of a greater US strategic footprint in Australia, but sees access to Australia's training ranges as of greatest importance.

In explaining Australia's military strategy, Mike Kelly talks about 'the natural air-sea gap advantage that tends to drive capital acquisition' as well as the ever-present need to defend the nation, protect sea lanes, and project force. Johnston is more specific: 'my focus particularly is a naval, maritime focus'. He also emphasis the importance of readiness for the ADF. But neither articulates a clear military strategy or discusses alternative strategies that Australia might pursue to secure its wide national interests. Kelly notes this is a problem within the Australian Defence Force too: 'we need to grow and groom our people, broaden their horizons, deep select them and develop their strategic analysis.'

Both prospective defence ministers are keen to talk about humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the region. This is one of the principle tasks David Johnston cites for the Australian Defence Force, and the first task he sees for the newly developed amphibious force. But as I remind them, these are amphibious assault ships, chosen specifically for their ability to deliver lethal combat power to a foreign shore. Though Johnston mentions that we should aspire to emulate a US Marine Expeditionary Unit, he concedes that the ADF is '5-10 years away from having a really meaningful assault capability'. Kelly agrees: 'they are a massive challenge', he says, but he notes the ships will give Australia a three-block war-type capability for the region.

I don't see either prospective defence minister having an easy time securing additional funding from Treasury in the next government. As sequestration bites the US military, much is being made of the concept of military innovation. Kelly mentions to me that the Royal Australian Air Force is the only service that formally rates innovation in its personnel appraisals. Johnston is hungry for good ideas too: 'I want to acknowledge people who are prepared to say, "I've thought this through, I think we can do this, let's have a go"'. As the aphorism goes, when the money stops the thinking starts.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

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