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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 13:53 | SYDNEY
Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 13:53 | SYDNEY

My thoughts on 'The Edge'

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30 May 2008 12:49

My brief remarks to yesterday's defence combat capability edge seminar took a similar tack to Rory, but went a little further, arguing explicitly for the benefits of abandoning the edge. I don't fully subscribe to this argument yet, but I think it has enough merit that I wanted to hear more objections to it.

I began my presentation with the claim that our combat capability edge (let's call it CCE) has never been that useful to us anyway.  Our CCE has only ever existed against regional countries like Indonesia. We've never attempted to maintain an edge against a major power because that would have bankrupted us. Given the regional security environment has been relatively benign since the Vietnam War, I'd question what benefits the CCE has had. Would the region look much different today had Australia not maintained a CCE for the last forty years?

To move from past to future, I'd argue that the circumstances in which a CCE would be useful or decisive are probably becoming less conceivable. The economic and political trajectory of the region is positive, but even if there are reverses or crises, these are more likely to be in the form of full or partial state failure. The relevance of CCE in such circumstances is questionable, with a large constabulary force probably much more useful. Even if it is argued that we need to be able to deter a middle or major power from attacking us in circumstances where we don't have US help, it is still not clear that we need CCE for such a task. As one participant said yesterday, it is quite possible for a weaker state to deter a stronger one, if they can impose unacceptably high costs on the aggressor. In our geostrategic circumstances, we can easily do this without a CCE.

Finally, with the economic growth of our region, Australia's CCE has potential to cause us trouble. It hasn't up to now: we ordered the F-111 in 1963, and it would be very hard to argue that it provoked any acts of regional military 'balancing', much less arms racing. But that could be because regional states lacked the means to balance or race. It is questionable whether that is still true today, and it will become progressively more questionable as regional economies grow. As another participant at yesterday's event said, Australia has gotten away with murder in the past, making defence purchases that, had Indonesia or Malaysia made them, we would consider highly provocative and destabilising. The days when we could get away with such behaviour may be passing, and we might not like what replaces it.

It is overwhelmingly in Australia's interest that the region succeeds economically and is politically stable, and we should spare no effort to see that future come about. But the inevitable consequence will be that Australia becomes a relatively smaller strategic power in the process. We should think about how we can secure our interests and our territory in such a future.