[ This is part 2 of a series. Read part 1 here. ]
Amidst the foreboding context of a declining West and a rising China, the Australian Defence Force is historically weak and shows little sign of changing course.
The ADF is beset by a threefold disease of absent strategic direction, long-term funding inadequacy, and horrendous decision-making. It is a rude reality for Australia that, in the event of regional war, each country will fight only with its available weapons stockpile after the first shot rings out.
While Ukraine’s morbid privilege as the only democracy currently at war has seen it become the grateful recipient of the free world’s surplus weaponry, a broader war would see sophisticated weapon systems become the rarest and most sought-after commodity in the world.
If war broke out today, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) would fight with six old submarines, 11 regionally-inferior major surface combatants, five logistics vessels, and 30 helicopters. Many assets would be rapidly lost and unable to be replaced.
There are no plans to expand this minuscule fleet before 2030 when new frigates would, in theory and with heroic optimism, begin to arrive. Indeed, plans to replace the old Anzac Class frigates with the regionally-inferior Hunter Class are only in the concept stage and show every sign of mammoth blowouts in time and cost.
Even if delivered on time, the new Hunter Class vessels will be the opposite of what the RAN needs. They will be gargantuan – about triple the displacement of the Anzac Class – and have about one-third of the missile payload of the PLAN’s comparable vessel, the Type 055 Destroyer. In short, the RAN fleet will consist of a handful of impotent behemoths that contradict the principles of flexibility, mass, and force dispersion necessary to win a war of missiles and drones.
One can also rest assured that Australia will pay a king’s ransom for vessels built at a snail’s pace in Adelaide to secure votes rather than Australian sovereignty…
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) would go to war in 2022 with 100 fighters, including 25 old Hornets and 25 F-35s not yet delivered by the US. It would support ADF operations with about 15 patrol and 30 transport aircraft, including 10 small C-27 Spartans with such limited utility that they were recently relegated to humanitarian operations only.
The RAAF would also have no capacity to replace its losses.
Like the other services, the Australian Army lacks mass in possessing only 60 tanks, with plans to expand to a laughable 75 sometime after 2025. It can field about 250 exhausted light armoured vehicles that are slowly being replaced and 400 60-year-old armoured personnel carriers scheduled for replacement later this decade. It has 50 pieces of towed artillery and no self-propelled guns, but plans to obtain a grand total of 30 from 2025. The Army also has about 20 attack and 50 utility/transport helicopters, virtually all of which are defective or otherwise useless, but will only be replaced after 2026.
The above is not a snapshot of Australia’s military capability, but a comprehensive catalogue of its major assets.
This pitiful inventory proves the accuracy of former RAN submariner and Senator Rex Patrick’s recent satirical assessment that the government is ‘…talking very loudly whilst carrying a twig.’
Nothing of missile platforms or armed drones has been mentioned because, apart from a few Javelins and short-range ship or aircraft-borne missiles, Australia has none. The recent federal budget cancelled Australia’s acquisition of SkyGuardian armed drones, which defence expert, Peter Jennings, has labelled ‘mind-bogglingly stupid’ as it presented one of the few realistic opportunities to meaningfully improve Australia’s strategic posture in the near-term.
The cancellation of the SkyGuardian is illustrative of the appalling decision-making by defence bureaucrats and politicians.
Writing in The Australian on April 4 about the project’s cancellation, Peter Jennings describes the disease that has afflicted defence acquisitions in recent decades; ‘a rare Defence project that was going to deliver new combat capability in just a few years is shelved after a decade’s worth of planning and investment.’
This syndrome has killed many critical projects including, however necessary, the Attack Class submarines. The result is an ADF with little modern capability – truly an impoverished third-world force of antiquated equipment owned by the complacent taxpayers of the world’s 13th largest economy, who demand the world’s best standard of living, but are unwilling to defend it.
Even the lauded successes of the defence acquisition process are typically found severely wanting. The Hobart Class Air Warfare Destroyers (AWDs) have enjoyed the smoothest run of any major project, despite taking thirteen years from decision to final delivery, and even ticked the most important box – they were built in Adelaide. Ostensibly a new capability, the three AWDs actually replaced six Adelaide Class frigates and thus camouflaged a marked shrinking of the RAN fleet. This is an example of the ADF’s persistent inability to adhere to the principle of mass – the ability to concentrate combat power to decisive effect.
Another recent acquisition that has been a great success – on paper – is the Arafura Class Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV). This project to deliver 12-14 patrol vessels commenced in 2017 and will deliver its first vessel this year. Unfortunately, the OPV’s already pitifully-small main armament, the 40mm autocannon, was downgraded at the last minute to a 25mm gun, rendering these vessels little more than large tinnies with a cap gun and a helipad.
Even the Member for Kennedy, Bob Katter, has shown more strategic prowess than defence bureaucrats when he recently raged that:
‘…you’ve stupidly built patrol boats that has only got machine gun on ‘em. Jeez, that’ll terrify the Chinese…it should have had 40 missiles on it.’
In fact, the Chinese equivalent, the Type 056 Corvette, carries 12 missiles and several torpedoes. The Chinese also possess 60 small, cheap (estimated at $US15-50 million) and modern Type 22 Missile Boats that carry 8 missiles. This is an important comparison given the possibility of Chinese military assets operating out of the Solomon Islands – within the intended operating zone of the Arafura Class.
Ultimately, in the event of Chinese aggression, Australia’s appalling defence posture would see it suffer profoundly and rapidly.
The ADF, even with its projected funding and acquisitions, cannot hope to contribute meaningfully to a US-led stand against China. As NSW Senator and Major General (retd) Jim Molan has stated, the ADF is a ‘one-shot defence force’. Indeed, virtually all planned acquisitions are intended only to replace existing assets and, thus, no material increase in force size or lethality is expected. The government’s plan to expand the ADF by 18 500 personnel by 2040 is only evidence of a lack of appreciation as to the magnitude of the threat to Australia.
The ADF will not only need more new personnel than this by 2040, but more hardware capable to fight a 21st century war, of which virtually none is planned.
The presence of Australia as a US ally in war would, thus, be completely unnoticeable. It is, however, noteworthy that the USN will shrink by a net 11 major surface combatants in the 2023 fiscal year. This is equivalent to the entire RAN surface combatant fleet and is a statement of the ADF’s complete irrelevance to strategic thinking in Washington.
Simultaneously, the complete absence of strategic thinking in Canberra is proven by the whimsical plans to replace Australia’s fleet with new regionally-inferior ships from 2030 and pie-in-the-sky nuclear submarines by 2040, meanwhile Admiral Davidson predicts war by 2027 and credible stop-gap acquisitions are scrapped.
A Recipe for Catastrophe
Given China’s ambitions regarding Taiwan, the risk of war is increasing. Indeed, national security expert, Alan Dupont, asks in The Australian on March 25:
‘If an ‘unthinkable’ war can occur in Europe driven by one man’s delusions of grandeur, what is the likelihood of another’s igniting an even more destructive conflict in Asia?’
The growing perception of the West as in-decline only heightens this risk of Chinese adventurism, just as Hitler was emboldened by Western European decrepitude and appeasement in the 1930s. The West’s hands-off approach to the war in Ukraine could reaffirm this perception and persuade President Xi to chance a similar expedition in Taiwan. One can only hope that he has derived the opposite lesson, but hope is not a strategy.
In the worst-case event of war, a comparison of scale with second world war is enough to show how harrowing would be the outcome. Whereas the combined population of the three Axis powers in 1939 was just under 200 million, China has a population of 1.4 billion. On a human scale alone, this threat is seven times greater and it would be foolish to assume that the resultant carnage would be anything less than commensurate.
Despite current events in Ukraine, war in Asia remains fanciful to many.
It is then, perhaps, better to consider Australia’s future in a world in which China has filled a strategic vacuum left by a retreating US – something that is likely already occurring. Australia owes its position of prosperity and privilege within the RBGO to the benevolent hegemony of America since 1945. Conversely, as Russia is learning, those nations that displease America suffer under crippling sanctions. An entire nation can be brought to its knees merely by a US carrier battle group moving, like the Queen on a chess board, just offshore.
The relative world peace since 1945 is an anomaly in the millennia-long story of human civilisation, which is defined by war and power struggle. The unprecedented existence of one benevolent global hegemon has cultivated unmatched prosperity and human progress.
Before 1945, no nation in history had conquered other lands, let alone much of the world, with the aim of freeing, rather than subjugating, the conquered peoples. Since then, America has enforced peace at great expense to its own people.
Few Australians remember the violent times before 1945 and young Australians have only ever known the golden era of America’s ‘unipolar moment’ after the fall of the USSR. As such, Australians have little understanding as to the true vicious nature of human civilisation from which they have been shielded for 75 years.
Unfortunately, as America declines and China ascends, a reversion to the mean appears underway, with the millennia-old story of power struggle returning. As American hegemony ends, history’s glorious anomaly appears over and Australia is still living as if its 1992 and, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, the end of history.
In an Asia-Pacific absence of America, China will fill the void. In a Chinese-dominated Asia-Pacific, little democratic Australia will be a pariah state, much like Iran, North Korea, and Russia in a US-led world.
Just as the USN can strangle any nation it chooses, so too could the PLAN. The recent Chinese courting of the Solomon Islands may well be the start of a campaign of Chinese encroachment upon Australian territory. Peter Jennings expects that Chinese military assets could move to the Solomon Islands within weeks.
Given the ADF’s total impotence, China’s 14 demands tendered to the Australian government in 2020 hint at what will be required of Australia to stave off Chinese hostility – the voluntary sacrifice of our sovereignty.
Just as US-enforced world peace is an historical anomaly, so too is democracy, which is a relatively recent and synthetic idea that sprung out of the brutal mess of medieval England.
Other than a few flourishes of democracy in the classical world, violent autocracy is the norm over thousands of years of human civilisation.
It is taken for granted that Australia will always enjoy the artificial privilege of democracy. But, without America, the governance of defenceless Australia will be at China’s leisure.
When viewed in the context of human history, 121-year-old democratic Australia was only born yesterday. It is possible that its destiny for the next several hundred years will be as an autocratic Chinese vassal state and when the Gods are tallying scores at the actual end of history, its democratic origins may be a strange exception in its national story of tyranny.
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