Lowy Institute

Debate: Ross Babbage and Australia's strategic edge

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Before serving on the government's advisory panel for the 2009 Defence White Paper, Ross Babbage opined that Australia needed the military strength to 'rip an arm off any major Asian power that sought to attack Australia'. Now the founder of the Kokoda Foundation has ripped aside the thin veil offered by that phrase 'any major Asian power' and produced his view of how Australia needs to think about gnawing on China's limbs.

Launching his report 'Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030' in Canberra, Babbage described the work as a response to the rapid growth in the scale, purpose and intent of the People's Liberation Army and the dilemmas this poses Australia. He says China is 'the most serious security challenge we have faced since World War 2...I don't use the word "threat", I use the word "challenge". I don't think it's a threat yet.'

Rapidly expanding Chinese capabilities mean that:

  • Assured access to space and to the air, surface and sub-surface operating areas in much of the Western Pacific is now under question.
  • China's new theatre strike capabilities threaten key US bases and forces in the Western Pacific.
  • Many of Australia's close allies and friends, from South Korea and Japan in the north to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea in the south, are in danger of falling into China's sphere of influence.
  • China's growing missile, air and naval forces will extend their reach to play a much stronger role in Australia's 'immediate surrounds' during the next 20 years.

The paper draws on four closed workshops with 'senior leaders in the Australian national security community' and a parallel research project by the US Naval War College. When Babbage had finished distilling his own stark conclusions, he went back to Canberra with a question: 'Do we really want to say all this?'

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The report has no status beyond the personal views of one of Australia's leading strategic thinkers ('I'm responsible – blame me', Babbage says) but it certainly offers a view of the dark corners of Canberra's Sino fears. Consider the way Babbage demolishes some of the fundamentals Australia has used to plan its security for the last 65 years:

  • The assumption that the US has an operational sanctuary in space: 'in serious doubt'.
  • The assumption that US bases in Guam and Japan have high levels of security in future crises: 'crumbling'.
  • The assumption that the US Navy and allied ships can operate with high security in all parts of the Western Pacific: 'no longer valid'.
  • The assumption that US and allied air forces have uncontested use of airspace in the Western Pacific: 'invalid'.

Babbage was intimately involved in thinking through the 2009 Defence White Paper, yet he casts aside large elements of the document. He wants to refocus planning and development 'for the next two decades on the direct defence of Australia to offset and deter the rapidly-expanding PLA in Australia's approaches.' The Babbage rethink would upend the Australian Army and completely remake the White Paper plans for the Navy. This approach would see Australia:

  • Abandon the plan to build a dozen conventional submarines, instead buying 10 nuclear-powered attack submarines from the US.
  • Build 20 stealthy arsenal ships capable of firing long-range missiles.
  • Reconfigure the Army to perform long-range special force operations.
  • Create an even deeper partnership with the US, with American forces based in Australia.
  • Make large investments in advanced cyber and space warfare capabilities.

All that would require massive changes. And almost as intricate would be the conversation Canberra has with Beijing. It would go something like this: Yes, Australia wants to have the closest and most intimate economic, technical, social, environmental, diplomatic and regional relationship with China. And, no, Australia's embrace of missiles and nuclear-powered subs is not about confronting the Chinese military; it's merely a prudent hedge against the huge capabilities of the PLA. The conversation Canberra has with the rest of Asia, especially ASEAN, would be equally fascinating.

Australia's Defence White Paper hasn't reached its 2nd birthday yet, but some of its key bits are being vigorously picked at. The importance of building Australian submarines in Australia, for instance, may be an article of faith more firmly held by the residents of Parliament House than many of the Defence hierarchy who work at the other end of Kings Avenue.

Ross Babbage's 'arm ripping' thinking is set to get the blood flowing in the Australian strategic debate. Already, he's got one big vote from Greg Sheridan in The Australian:

Babbage has written one of the most important, deeply considered and logically compelling strategic documents ever seen in Australia. It should be the starting point of a broad national debate.

 Photo by Flickr user Quasimondo.

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Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Ross Babbage's views on Australia's future military needs, and Graeme Dobell's reply, have provoked me. Babbage's view is legitimate and I congratulate him for putting it forward. If we are to admire Hugh White for leading the debate on China and security in Australia (and I do), then let's give Ross a good hearing for giving military substance to what Hugh said or implied.

The prevention of conflict has always been about deterrence. Managing the legitimate rise of China is best conducted from a position of strength. That was what underpinned the last Defence White Paper. I support most of the ideas of the White Paper despite its illogical bits and its lack of funding. I also support (with a few reservations) the materiel plan that comes from it, despite the fact that I can see even more money being ripped out of it to fund this or that, in the spirit of every Defence White Paper we have ever had.

The question remains: are we going to manage China's emergence as a great power from a position of strength, or are we going to hope that China is nice to us, our allies and our neighbours?

There has been a long tradition of minimalism in Australian strategic thought which is linked to the concept of 'do as little as you can, keep the US engaged while talking tough (particularly in private meetings), and fight to the last drop of US blood'. I wonder if the US experience of the failure of its allies to support it fairly in Iraq or Afghanistan will bring forth a modern version of the 1969 Guam Doctrine? As Graeme Dobell described the doctrine last year: 'We're getting out of Vietnam. Good luck, everybody. We suggest a Do It Yourself kit for defence.'

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So let's accept that we must manage China's rise from a position of economic, diplomatic and military strength, as the White Paper suggests. Ross Babbage's view is mainly about how much strength is needed. Let's learn from the UK experience where, following their Strategic Defence Review, which decided that the UK only needed armed forces for one war at a time, strategic circumstances and their Prime Minister immediately placed them in two wars simultaneously. I address the lessons for Australia here.

The only other point I would make in relation to my first skim of Ross' ideas is that asymmetry works in strange and multiple ways. Should China want to act as Ross indicates, and should we deter China from doing so with the asymmetrical maritime force that he advocates, then China's logic would have to be to also act asymmetrically, destabilising the region by supporting local elements to the point of insurgency, a strategy that can only be countered with someone putting lots of boots on the ground.

To not have a balanced force capable of handling a range of contingencies but justified on the grounds of narrow asymmetry (with a touch of hope) is just as dangerous as not having a force at all, and a lot more expensive.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

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Former Chief of Army Peter Leahy is Director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra.

First, Professor Ross Babbage wanted to do an Aunty Jack on China and rip their arms off. Now, in his Kokoda Paper, Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030, we are to be the mouse that roared and engage in asymmetric operations against China, host American bases, develop long range persistent strike capabilities and acquire nuclear attack submarines.

Yes, China is growing and in 2030 Australia's security environment will be different to that of today. Yes, we need to be prepared for a range of different futures. Professor Babbage is correct when he alerts us to Chinese advances in space and cyber capabilities. We need to respond. But there is a question of balance in what Australia might be able to achieve, what we can afford, and how an aggressive approach from us might just make the future Babbage fears become a reality. 

Our relationship with China extends well beyond the security dimension and we must work to ensure that all dimensions of our relationship with China — economic, diplomatic and security — remain in balance.

Ross Babbage attributes me with implying that the challenge of the rapid rise of China's People's Liberation Army and its more assertive behaviour is an unwelcome distraction from the demands of Afghanistan, East Timor and elsewhere. In fact, in the paper he refers to, I acknowledge that Australia needs to maintain high-end military equipment to defend Australia in the event of the most dangerous but least likely eventuality. 

At the same time, we must maintain capabilities to deal with stabilisation operations in failed and failing states, which are our most likely future missions. Australia needs a balanced force to deal with a range of futures. 

The overall response and capabilities proposed by Professor Babbage do not provide the right balance. It is a force designed, in cooperation with allies, to take on China in their air and sea approaches and to strike at the Chinese mainland. Is this what we really want to do?

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Professor Babbage is correct to point out the growing 'anti-access' and long range capabilities being developed by the Chinese. But why are they developing these capabilities? As a rapidly growing economic power and trading nation, one reason is that China wants to secure its sea lines of communication, including those that cross the Indian Ocean. With much of our current and future prosperity dependent on trade with China, Australia should also be interested in the security of these sea lines of communication. More can be achieved through cooperation than competition. 

The matter of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea and the strong stance towards Taiwan are of greater concern. These are more likely to be solved by patient diplomacy and engagement than by an aggressive approach bordering on containment and control. Chinese capabilities designed to operate to the east of Taiwan remain localised and focused on denying US support to Taiwan in the event of a conflict over Taiwan.

From an American point of view, ensuring open access to the Western Pacific and supporting allies in north, south and south-east Asia makes sense and can be seen as engagement. From a Chinese point of view, it looks more like provocation and containment. In March 2009, the USS Impeccable, a surveillance ship, was operating within 75 miles of Hainan Island, a Chinese submarine base. Chinese forces 'interfered' with the vessel which was towing a sonar array. How would the US respond to a similar incident with a Chinese vessel operating 75 miles off San Diego, the principal home-port of the Pacific Fleet?

While Professor Babbage covers advances in Chinese air and naval capabilities, there is a complete absence of any consideration of Chinese amphibious and ground force capabilities. The fact is that China is modernising these forces but is in no way developing a broad expeditionary capability which it could use to assault or occupy foreign territory, apart from Taiwan.

This fact alone allows a different and more balanced view of Chinese intentions and capabilities. It focuses Chinese activity almost solely in the air and naval realm, more as a response to US actions rather than a standalone expansionist strategy. Chinese actions can be viewed as defensive and local rather than offensive and global. Developing US doctrine such as SeaAir Battle, designed to ensure US access to the Western Pacific and to counter the potential for the Chinese to deny military access to the areas off their coast, may bring about the effect we are trying to avoid.

There is a new kid on the block. We are learning to deal with China in new ways in the economic and diplomatic realm. We need to think about new ways of dealing with China in the security realm. China has a place in the waters of the Western Pacific. America and her allies need to learn how to share the oceans to our mutual benefit. For Australia to become involved in the manner suggested by Professor Babbage is to over-balance the scales.

Photo by Flickr user ressaure.

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Nigel Brock responds to our debate about Ross Babbage's new paper, Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030. Nigel previously served in the Australian Army as an Infantry SNCO:

Thus far the debate started by the 2009 Defence White Paper and continued by the recent valuable contribution from Professor Babbage has still not materially addressed the elephants in the room: how would Australia pay for this material increase in capability; & how would Australia man it?

It is difficult to imagine the Prime Minister and Treasurer proposing a 'defence levy' or deciding to blow the deficit out of the water over the next decade to meet the tens of $bn's required to fund the 10-12 advanced submarines. Moreover, with the Royal Australian Navy's well publicised existing manning shortfalls, where are the skilled men and woman going to come from to man and maintain the expanded fleet? 457 Visas? Even more assistance from the Americans?

This is a critically important debate for Australia, but those arguing for their respective views must address in detail how Australia would pay for and man these proposed capabilities.

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A version of this post appears on the CSIS Asia policy blog, Cogitasia

Is Canberra about to revolutionise its military to confront Beijing, alone if need be? You would be forgiven for thinking so, if you had read Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030, the startling new report from prominent defence analyst Ross Babbage.

The reality is more complex. Yes, the rise of China is markedly altering Australia's security outlook and the shape of its future defence force. But this change is not as fundamental or as single-minded as certain dramatic newspaper articles and blog posts would suggest.

Babbage's report implies that China's growing military power could one day pose a direct threat to Australia's national security, even to its democratic way of life, and that therefore Canberra needs a complete defence policy overhaul.

It also leaves the impression that senior Australian security bureaucrats are comfortable with the thrust of its recommendations. Yet former Defence Deputy Secretary Paul Dibb and others have disputed this, and no representative of the Australian Government is on record as having endorsed the report's radical conclusions.

In recent decades Australia has developed a balanced, if overstretched, military, intended to adapt to diverse contingencies. Professor Babbage calls for much of this to be jettisoned in place of rugged attack capabilities designed somehow to cripple China, were this authoritarian great power ever to use its military to coerce Australia.

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This is extraordinary stuff, much of it outside the boundaries of normal Australian strategic debate. Australia, the paper argues, should seriously consider a range of drastic options. These include to:

  • Buy or lease from the US 10-12 nuclear-powered attack submarines, even though Australia can barely man two of its six conventional subs, will struggle to put together its intended new fleet of 12 conventional boats, and harbours viscerally anti-nuclear public sentiment.
  • Work with the US to develop a 'prompt global strike' capability, such as with conventionally-armed ballistic missiles.
  • Develop a massive cyber-attack capability, involving large numbers of civilian reservists.
  • Begin a long-term infiltration of Chinese society, and use this fifth column to severely disrupt the Chinese government in the event of a conflict.
  • Plan ways to threaten or incapacitate the Chinese leadership as a last resort in wartime.
  • Reshape the army almost exclusively for long-range special forces missions.
  • Build a fleet of 'arsenal' ships for conventional missile barrages — a concept considered and rejected by Washington years ago.

To be fair, some of Babbage's other proposals — such as increased US access to Australian bases, or Australian involvement in US-Japanese ballistic missile defences — are consonant with the way Canberra already seems to be moving.

In general, Canberra's security community has — rightly — become more focused on the way China is changing Asia's power balance, and what Australia and other US allies and partners can realistically do to cope with this changing situation. The 2009 Defense White Paper, driven by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, planned for a substantial and costly expansion of Australia's strategic weight against regional uncertainty, though it looks relatively low-key and affordable alongside Babbage's new maximalist wish-list.

It would be a mistake to conclude that Professor Babbage's report either represents Australian policy or the way that policy is likely to develop, at least in the near term. Professor Babbage led the external advisory panel for the 2009 White Paper, has considerable government experience, and was recently honoured, deservedly, for his long contribution to Australian strategic debate and education. But it is important that readers, domestic and foreign, appreciate that his report is the work of an independent scholar and policy entrepreneur, published by the non-government Kokoda Foundation.

Does it speak, instead, for the people? The paper asserts that Australian opinion could readily be persuaded to support something like the huge, currently uncosted upgrade of firepower it advocates. This remains untested.

It is true that Australians have traditionally been anxious about their unique strategic environment, and have at times accepted defense budgets considerably higher than the current 1.9% of GDP. And the 2010 Lowy Opinion Poll showed a rise in fears of Chinese military might, with 46% of respondents saying it was likely China would become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years, up five points since 2009. (Mind you, the poll also shows that most Australians feel about the same slight warmth towards China as they feel towards Russia, India and Indonesia.)

But are we ready to pay? Australian tax dollars are set to come under increasing strain from a growing welfare burden as the population ages and infrastructure degrades, and nobody yet knows what the future policy trade-off between, say, submarines, hospitals and a national broadband network will look like. Moreover, in the wake of devastating floods and bushfires, and with a government fixated on an 'all-hazards' approach to national security, the prospects of a defence budget boost devoted exclusively to high-end warfighting remain distant.

Still, perceptions matter, and any false impression that the Babbage paper equals policy will have ripples in the region. If part of the strategy for dealing with a rising China is to try to minimise the paranoia in the policy debates within China, then provocative public proposals for capabilities to sow civil strife and figuratively behead Beijing's leadership could have precisely the wrong effect.

Admittedly, the Babbage paper also acknowledges, even advocates, the need for diplomacy, engagement and a stance of not seeking to confront China. But these elements of the proposed strategy hardly seem to mesh with others.

The Babbage report also rightly notes that a strategy to deal with rising Chinese power and assertiveness should involve security and diplomatic cooperation with multiple regional countries, from Japan to India to South Korea to Indonesia, not to mention Vietnam. After all, these states have every reason — indeed, perhaps more reason than Australia — to be troubled by China's strength.

It follows that, in almost any conceivable scenario in which Canberra found its and Beijing's security interests at odds, Australia would hardly be alone, even if for no other reason than the deep reliance of Japan and India on Australian resource exports.

At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that Australian acquisition of 'game-changing' offensive weapons could have all sorts of unintended side-effects, not least in the way Indonesia might see things.

None of this is to say that Australia cannot or should not do more to support the US and other partners in the region as they seek to balance China's military modernisation. Babbage rightly poses the question of how Australia should plug into the Pentagon's concept of AirSea Battle (though I have difficulty with Babbage's assumption — shared by others — that conflicts would not escalate to the nuclear level and might drag on, World War Two-style, for years).

The question of how to prevent China from becoming destabilisingly dominant in Asia, without generating fresh instability, remains devilishly difficult. Of course, doing nothing is not an option (I emphasise this because page 58 of Babbage's paper mis-attributes to me the suggestion that Australia would be best off 'standing aloof' from a US-China conflict, a point that is made nowhere in my cited publication). And it is not impossible that some great future crisis might yet prompt Australia to put military priorities first.

Ross Babbage has at one level done his country a favour by confronting policymakers with a limited menu of unpalatable choices. Some of the ideas — for instance, nuclear propulsion for submarines, enhanced US access and logistics arrangements, and Australian cyber and space efforts — deserve a closer look. But Australia's Strategic Edge 2030 should be read as provocation, rather than policy.

Photo by Flickr user MATEUS.

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Ross Babbage is the founder of the Kokoda Foundation.

I am grateful for the range of opinions expressed concerning my recent Strategic Edge in 2030 Kokoda Paper. My view is that the strategic environment is changing rapidly and we should debate what needs to be done. It was, of course, the primary purpose of this report to highlight the challenges ahead and encourage active discussion on how best to ensure our security in coming decades.

While encouraging the debate, let me say that I am disappointed that many commentators appear not to have actually read the report or, if they have read it, they have done so exceedingly quickly and with insufficient care. In consequence, many comments attributed to the report are simply not there and others have been reported out of context. So my first plea to everyone who is interested in this subject is to please take the time to read the report and then come to your own conclusions.

A notable case of mis-reporting concerns those who say that I argue Australia should confront China. One commentator has even implied that I am in favour of fighting China! Frankly, these comments are the products of over-fertile imaginations. The Strategic Edge report actually argues explicitly that Australia should not confront China. Rather, as stated several times in the report, the focus should be on balancing and offsetting the PLA and deterring adventurism. This is explained in some detail on p.60.

Second, a word about who has written the report. The report itself makes very clear that, as with just about all Kokoda Foundation research reports, this one was a product of a series of closed workshops involving relevant senior personnel. In the case of the Strategic Edge report, there were four closed workshops and numerous other high-level discussions. However, again as the report makes clear,  I carry sole responsibility for what is written in the report. So if anyone doesn't like what they read in the report, blame me.

Third, a number of commentators have assumed that whatever is discussed in the report is being recommended. All who have read the report closely will know that on pp.81-87 a number of high-leverage capabilities are discussed as possibilities for Australia. What appears to have eluded some is that, on p.90, it is made clear that only four of the options pass muster when assessed against the relevant selection criteria. The high-leverage capabilities taken forward into the alternative force structure options are:

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  • Deep engagement capabilities.
  • Advanced cyber and information warfare capabilities.
  • Advanced underwater combat capabilities.
  • The basing of significant US combat capabilities in Australia.

Several other capabilities that are discussed briefly earlier in the paper are not, in consequence, taken forward into the four major options for Australia in 2030. These include:

  • Advanced space warfare capabilities.
  • Prompt conventional (missile) strike capabilities.
  • Special internal disruption capabilities.

Another feature of much of the commentary has been the debate about the preferred shape of the new submarine program. It may surprise many readers to know that, in the 118-page report, there is little more than one page discussing submarine options. That page suggests open-minded consideration of an off-the-shelf, low risk acquisition or leasing of Virginia Class submarines (USS Virginia pictured, under construction) from the US. The report clearly does not stand or fall on that one suggestion, but I believe it warrants careful assessment. Weighing the relative risks and costs of this option when compared with the domestic design and construction of a very large class of 'orphan' conventional boats produces some interesting results.

At its core, the Strategic Edge report argues that the scale, direction and pace of the PLA's military development, when combined with the more assertive pattern of Chinese strategic behaviour in recent years, poses serious challenges to the security interests of Australia and our close allies and friends in the Western Pacific. There is a need not only to consider how we should best respond now but, perhaps even more importantly, what we should develop and acquire so as to provide future Australian Governments with credible security options in the  2030-2040 timeframe.

Towards the back of the Strategic Edge report there are four alternative pathways described together with their respective strengths and weaknesses. Let me encourage readers to debate the relative merits of these alternative strategies and structures. It may be that some readers would prefer to develop other comprehensive packages of strategy and capability and debate their respective merits. Some might wish to spell out an Option 4B, as is briefly mentioned on p.107. If some readers believe a modernised version of the current national security structure – that is closely related to that of the 1960s and 70s — is somehow perfect for the challenges of 2030, let them also argue their case and justify the status quo for the vastly different security environment that is emerging. 

Finally, there are some who appear to believe that it is inappropriate, impolite or even provocative to raise these issues for debate. I have a different view. As citizens of a democracy we should consider carefully and with fearless honesty the major changes in our security environment, discuss and debate the full range of options, attempt to reach a broad consensus on the way ahead and then move out with energy, determination and confidence. That is essential if we are to ensure this country's security for 2030.

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I agree with Ross Babbage about what I take to be the three most important messages in his Strategic Edge report. The first is that China's growing power is fundamentally transforming Asia's strategic order and hence Australia's strategic environment in ways that substantially increase Australia's strategic risks over the next few decades. The second is that Australia's strategic and defence policies today are quite inadequate to meet the demands this will make on us. The third is that Australia needs an open, serious, responsible debate about how we should fix them. 

But I think he is too quick to assume that China will become our enemy, and too optimistic about Australia's options if it does. Three points.

First, the report assumes there is nothing we can do to avoid an intense strategic contest with China. If China seeks a much bigger leadership role in Asia as its power grows – and I agree that it probably will – then Ross concludes that intensifying strategic competition becomes inevitable. But that depends on how big a role China seeks, and how the rest of us respond.

If China insists on trying to impose a stern hegemony over Asia, then we have no option but to resist as forcefully as necessary. But we might be able to negotiate a new order in Asia which gives China some increased influence yet still protects our vital interests. Strategic Edge overlooks this possibility. It sees no difference between negotiating with China and surrendering to it, and quite wrongly accuses people like me of advocating surrender when we advocate negotiation.

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These negotiations would aim to reach a deal on Asia's future which avoids the dark future Ross predicts for us by satisfying China's ambitions for more influence without conceding hegemony to it. Of course, China might refuse to curb its ambitions. But we will never know unless we offer China the choice between a bigger role in a peaceful Asia where it must share power with others, or the immense costs and risks of confrontation with the rest of us.

There is at least a chance they will prefer peace, and if they do we would all be much better off. If they do not, then the need to confront China will be unambiguously clear. Strategic Edge would have us move straight to strategic competition without exploring the alternatives. That seems to run a big risk of taking a very hard road which we might be able to avoid.

Second, I nonetheless agree with Ross that we need urgently to start developing capabilities to maximise our strategic weight in a more contested Asia if that proves unavoidable. A lot of attention has focused on some of the specific proposals in the Strategic Edge report, but my main concern is the operational concept that underlies them.

The capability proposals in Strategic Edge are based on a concept of deterrence by punishment, which is an old favourite of Ross'. He has long believed that Australia should not aim to use its forces to counter hostile actions directly, but respond indirectly by attacking whatever the adversary leadership holds most dear. It is an attractive idea, and made a lot of sense in the 1980s when we wondered how to best fight Indonesia. But as I have argued elsewhere (A Focused Force, pp.31) there are real limits to its credibility as a core operational concept for Australia against a major power like China.

It is far from clear that Australia, using conventional capabilities, could ever inflict enough damage on a country the size of China to deter its leaders from action against us. Nuclear weapons may be different, but Strategic Edge does not argue that we should go nuclear. Even if it did, there would still be many questions about whether that would achieve what Ross has in mind. I'm not sure it would, against a nuclear armed adversary like China.   

Nor does Strategic Edge consider how China might respond to Australia's deterrent attacks on its most vital interests. Ross believes China would do what we ask, but it would have other options. Even leaving nuclear questions aside, we can hardly plan, for example, to mount a trade blockade against China unless we consider how effectively China might be able to apply a trade blockade back against us. Who then hurts most, and blinks first? It is very risky to adopt a strategy of escalation – which this is – when you do not have assured escalation dominance – which we don't.

So I think we need to explore more deeply than Strategic Edge has done the question of how Australia could plan to use armed forces to protect its interests in the Asian century most cost-effectively. I think there are other options which might be more promising — Ross mentioned my favourite, maritime denial, in passing – and we need to spend a lot more effort exploring these options before we can decide which would work best for us.

Finally, I think Strategic Edge is too optimistic about what all this would mean for Australia. It seems to assume, for example, that Australia could adopt the tough approach to China it recommends but still see our trade with China keep growing. It seems to assume that America will remain a staunch ally against China, even while warning that it might not meet China's challenge. Above all, it is confident that Australia will have the economic and demographic weight to support the forces which would make us a middle power in the Asian century.

I do not think we can take any of these things for granted. We have more and tougher choices to make than the ones proposed in Ross' report.

Photo by Flickr user cheesy42.

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I welcome the continuing debate about Australia's future national security priorities triggered by the Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030 Kokoda Paper. There have been some notable contributions in the Australian and international media during the last few days.

In particular, I welcome Hugh White's contribution to The Interpreter. He makes several interesting and valuable points. There are, however, some assertions in Hugh's commentary that cannot be allowed to pass without a response. They will all be fairly obvious to those who have actually read the Strategic Edge paper, but may not be so apparent to others.

First, Hugh argues that Strategic Edge is too quick to assume that China will be our enemy. In fact, the paper never describes China as an enemy and certainly does not assume that we are destined to have that sort of relationship.

Second, Hugh says that the report assumes there is nothing we can do to avoid an intense strategic contest with China. Again, this assertion is incorrect. There is a substantial discussion about the importance of Australia lifting its game in what the report calls 'Deep Engagement' with China and other regional countries. The core goals of such efforts would be to greatly strengthen our understanding of China and other key regional countries, to deepen personal contacts with key government and other personnel in those countries and to lift Australia's diplomatic and broader political leverage in negotiations. 

Indeed, these efforts received such strong support in the closed workshops conducted as part of this project that Deep Engagement was selected to be a foundational element of all three new capability development options (ie. all options other than the status quo) that are proposed towards the end of the report.

The paper's position is that China's very rapid and sharply focused military expansion puts Australia in a difficult and most unwelcome set of circumstances. We should certainly do everything we can through diplomatic and other initiatives to avoid intense strategic competition in the Western Pacific.  However, we must also ask ourselves how successful such diplomatic manoeuvres are likely to be, given the behaviour of Beijing in recent years.

I, for one, am not prepared to bet the country's future on diplomacy alone being able to deliver a new era of peace and stability in the Western Pacific. We clearly need to reinforce our more active diplomacy with carefully tailored military options.

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Even if diplomacy fails to persuade China to play a 'responsible stakeholder' role, the Strategic Edge paper argues at length that we should not confront China, except in extremis. Rather, the paper argues that Australian security policy should be directed at balancing and offsetting the rising PLA, deterring adventurism and encouraging regional confidence. That is a rather different approach to that implied by Hugh.

Importantly for the core thesis in Strategic Edge, Hugh agrees that, in selecting the national security capabilities the Australian Government should have in 2030, there is a need to build our strategic weight, including through accelerating selected military capabilities. Hugh raises some interesting points here about Australia's future operational concept and the strengthened military capabilities that might be of greatest value.

The research process behind the Strategic Edge did, in fact, consider several alternative operational concepts and campaign strategies. A key conclusion was that the heart of strategy in any major crisis in the Western Pacific is likely to revolve around the battle of wits between opposing decision-making elites.

For Australia and its allies and friends to 'win out' in any future crisis in this theatre, it will be essential to convince the opposing decision-making elite to change its collective mind on some key issues. The operational concepts that hold greatest promise for doing this are not linear or frontal. That pathway may appear simple but would be very dangerous, especially for a country whose forces are almost certain to be outnumbered. Rather, preferred operational concepts involve the application of asymmetric leverage, often in surprising and unexpected ways and in undertaking highly innovative operations.

Hugh has also expressed concern that effective strategic operations to defend Australia's vital national interests might trigger far more powerful countermeasures from Beijing. Well, if we are going to be serious about defending our vital national interests, we need to choose our instruments and modes with this in mind. We need to ensure that whatever we do in an extreme crisis can be sustained, even in the face of powerful counter-action. Our national security capabilities and our resilience need to be exceptionally difficult for any opponent to overcome. Ideally, our approach should carry sufficient deterrence to dissuade any country from challenging us in the first place.

Hugh also says that Strategic Edge tends to assume that the US will remain Australia's staunch ally against China. This is not really the case. Of the four optional pathways proposed towards the back of the paper, two are built on the assumption of greatly reduced US involvement and support.

My view is that Australian national security planners need to consider a range of alternative contexts for future crises in the Western Pacific, including the possibility of Washington being distracted or choosing not to be heavily involved. We need to ensure that the approaches we select can cope with those variables. The analyses conducted in preparing the Strategic Edge report suggest it is feasible to build in adequate flexibility to manage those variables.

I encourage all those interested in these matters to read Strategic Edge in 2030 carefully and reach their own conclusions. This report is certainly not meant to be the last word on these important issues, so I look forward very much to the thoughts and insights of others.

Photo, of the launch of what will be HMAS Canberra, courtesy of the Defence Department.

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Well, thanks to Ross Babbage for his response to my earlier post. His points help to clarify some key issues in his Strategic Edge report, but I don't think they dissolve my two principal reservations. Let me explain them in turn, and offer some thoughts about how to move this important debate further forward.

Will China become an enemy?

Strategic Edge does not describe China as an enemy, but it promotes an approach to China's growing power that makes no serious effort to avoid a sharp escalation in strategic competition, and therefore makes it much more probable that China will become one. Ross does say that we should do 'all we can' to avoid strategic competition, but he does not clearly explain what we should do. I read Strategic Edge to say that we should not do anything to accommodate China's ambitions. Instead we should insist that China continues to accept the existing US-led regional order in Asia.

This is a common enough view. Many people believe that we should engage China as long as it respects the US-led order, but refuse to accept any Chinese attempt to change that order in its favour. This approach has worked well for many years, because while China was still relatively weak, the costs and risks of confronting it would not have been very high. But China's new strength makes those costs and risks much higher in future, as Ross makes very clear. So we need to ask whether preserving the current US-led order in Asia is still worth the much higher costs which that policy now entails.

Of course, that depends on what the alternatives are. Strategic Edge seems to imply that the only alternative to American primacy in Asia is Chinese hegemony. We can all agree that Chinese hegemony would probably be very dangerous for Australia, and therefore worth the high costs of confronting China to avoid. But that leaves a vital question: are there other alternatives that would be less dangerous than either Chinese hegemony or confrontation with China? My Quarterly Essay argued that there are, and that we should explore them seriously.

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I do not think Ross agrees with that, but perhaps I misread him.  So just to be clear, let me pose a direct question to him. Do you believe that American primacy in Asia is essential for Australia's security, or do you believe that we should explore options to reshape Asia's order to accommodate China to some extent, even if that means accepting that America will no longer exercise primacy? 

Or we could pose the question another way: do you propose that we should prepare to fight China to preserve US primacy, or to prevent Chinese hegemony? Because they are not the same thing.

The way we answer these questions directly affects the probability of war with China. If we decide that US primacy must be preserved at all costs, then the only way to avoid confrontation with China is for China to continue to subordinate itself to US primacy, even as its economy grows to equal and perhaps overtake America's. Ross would agree that China is very unlikely to accept that. The implication is therefore that confrontation with China becomes, if not inevitable, then very probable indeed. 

Will deterrence work?

Ross reaffirms his confidence that the best way for Australia to prepare for the possibility of war with China is to build forces that can hit the Chinese leadership's core interests so hard that they would have no choice but submit to our will.

He calls this an asymmetrical and indirect approach, but I do not see what is indirect or asymmetrical about it. The kind of actions he suggests — attacks on trade, cyber-attacks, perhaps even direct strikes on mainland Chinese targets — all seem to me to be exactly the kinds of things that the Chinese could do back to us, and much harder. And it appears certain that they would indeed retaliate very hard to such direct attacks upon them. 

Ross' recent post seems to acknowledge this, and suggests that we just need to build forces big and potent enough to dissuade them for retaliating — in other words, to establish escalation dominance over China. But his vivid account of China's future power makes one wonder whether even the US will be able to do this. I'm sure we could not.

Perhaps it would help to clarify these issues if we look at a scenario in which an important Australian strategic interest was under challenge from China. I'd be happy to offer one myself, but I might be suspected of framing it to suit my own argument, so I'd encourage Ross to suggest one — perhaps one of those explored in his high-level workshops. I'm sure it would be possible without endangering national security to explain in broad terms how the deterrence concept would play out in a hypothetical situation, and how problems of symmetry and escalation could be managed. In return, I'd be happy to sketch how my Maritime Denial concept would work in the same scenario. 

Photo by Flickr user Today is a good day

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