I may have to concede Hugh's point about Australia never having to fight a major power without the US by our side. Yes, I did say that would never happen, but on reflection, I argued a different case back in 2010, suggesting that Australia could resist a major power alone by adopting a version of Sweden's defence model. I agree that Australia should think carefully before ceding the capability to stand up to a major power by itself and thus give up on being a middle power.
Having conceded the point, I now want to split hairs a little. When I said Australia would never face China alone, I had in mind scenarios like a crisis over Taiwan. There are other scenarios in northeast Asia in which Australia could become involved by America's side against China: Korea, for instance, or even a China-Japan territorial dispute.
So here's a more limited claim: it's hard to imagine Australia getting involved in those disputes if America did not. It would be interesting to know if Hugh agrees.
From the RAAF's perspective, what's significant about that kind of contingency is the proximity to China's landmass and thus the bulk of its air power. As I said in the earlier post, the RAAF would be hard pressed to make a strategically significant contribution in those circumstances, given the size and growing capability of Chinese air power. Nothing the RAAF could offer would tip the balance.
Granted, I made a broader claim about any fight involving a major power, and I read into Hugh's post the possibility that we may have to face China further from its home shores, and closer to ours. But that possibility is surely some years or even a decade or more off, given the immaturity of China's maritime power projection capability. And that, in turn, leads to a question about the JSF acquisition: what's the rush?
Hugh has said that if we want the capacity to fight a major Asian power, we need JSF. But if it's a matter of contributing to a coalition effort in northeast Asia, I would stick to my argument that it is better to invest in submarines than fighters. My guess is that a handful of quiet and expertly crewed SSKs would be more valuable in such a contingency than one or two squadrons of fighters.
If we're talking about contingencies further from China's landmass in a period in which the US can no longer be counted on to help us, then a fleet of 100 fifth-generation fighters could be decisive. But that's not a pressing need. So why not hedge with Super Hornets and wait for what comes after JSF, which is probably some kind of uninhabited combat aircraft?
Photo by Flickr user Aust Defence Force.