Raoul Heinrichs is Sir Arthur Tange Scholar at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, ANU, an editor at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, and Deputy Editor of Pnyx.
President Barack Obama reviews Australia's Federation Guard, November 2011
How do you view the recent visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Australia? Do you feel it was a success from an Australian viewpoint? Should Australia be allowing U.S. Marines into Darwin?
President Obama’s visit to Australia was, I think, very significant. The visit included stopovers in Canberra and Darwin, the two places most pertinent to a new bilateral defense arrangement, and a speech in which Obama reasserted U.S. strategic primacy in Asia. Taken together, the message was clear: the United States would set and enforce the rules in Asia, and other powers – notably China – would be expected to adhere to them. To this end, Washington would use “all elements of its power,” including its alliances, to preserve an unambiguous hierarchy intended to leave Beijing in no uncertain terms about the costs and consequences of adventurism.
For many Australians, all of this is good news. I’m considerably more guarded in my enthusiasm. For one thing, I have serious reservations about Washington’s capacity to maintain primacy in the face of China’s growing power, not least because the economic dynamics at the heart of Asia’s strategic transformation seem more likely than not to continue over the long term. More immediately, as I wrote in The Diplomat, the atmosphere of veneration in which Obama’s visit took place obscured the fact that the region really is changing for the worse, and that the costs of Canberra’s alliance are going up both in terms of the commitments it accepts and what they mean for its long-term political relationship with China.
A small detachment of U.S. Marines doesn’t mean much in operational terms, but it’s symbolic of Australia’s early enlistment in a much more adversarial U.S. strategy – which is not, frankly, a self-evidently prudent course for Australia to take.
Dr. Ross Babbage wrote a recent article in The Diplomat advocating for U.S./British nuclear submarine purchases or leases. Do you feel this is the right approach? Would a home grown diesel submarine with advanced AIP capabilities work better?
With Canberra scheduled to introduce 12 new submarines over the next few decades, Dr. Babbage is right about the centrality of submarines to Australian defense policy. Submarines are, in effect, Australia's first line of defense. In peace-time, they serve as a powerful deterrent. In war, by prosecuting sea-denial operations within or beyond the archipelago to Australia’s north, they drive up the costs and risks of power projection in areas that could become staging points for an attack on Australia. Submarines also push up the scale of an enemy force – necessitating convoys, for example – which can be more readily interdicted by Australia's land-based airpower.
In terms of Australia’s future submarine capability, Dr. Babbage has spelled out some of the costs and risks associated with his two least preferred options: “off-the-shelf” submarines, most likely from a European supplier such as Germany, France or Spain lack an optimal level of range, endurance and speed. An indigenous design, on the other hand, risks testing the limits of Australia’s technical and managerial wherewithal, with attendant risks of cost overruns, delays, underperformance and onerous service requirements – all of which has afflicted the development and upkeep of Australia’s Collins Class submarines.
In this regard, large, nuclear powered attack submarines – the Virginia or Astute class, for example, which are fast, quiet, comprised of mature technology and limited only by the endurance of their crews – would be ideal.
There are three problems, however. First, they are not presently available, and there are few signs that Washington or London would be prepared to transfer their most cutting edge nuclear propulsion and defence technology to any country, even a close ally like Australia.
Second, Australia’s retains an abiding political allergy to all things nuclear, which, as Dr. Babbage acknowledges, constrains Canberra’s ability to even discuss, much less pursue the option. Indeed, Australia’s defense minister Stephen Smith has already categorically ruled out nuclear propulsion. That decision isn’t necessarily irreversible, but since some initial design choices will need to be made soon to avoid a capability gap as the Collins Class is phased out, it seems likely to be decisive.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the fundamental rationale for a powerful submarine fleet is to augment Australia’s independent strategic weight – that is, to fulfil Canberra’s longstanding requirement of being able to defend the Australian continent without relying on the combat forces of another country. In buying or leasing British or American SSN’s, Australia would find itself almost completely beholden to the goodwill of a foreign power for its basic defense, with potentially deleterious implications for its policy of national self-reliance.
That raises the question: If SSN’s are unavailable, an indigenous design is too risky and an “off the shelf” fleet doesn’t quite stack up, what should Canberra do? One option, recently mooted by ASPI’s Andrew Davies, is to build a new class based on an evolutionary design upgrade to the Collins. Using a development model similar to that which Japan has used to produce the Soryu Class from the Oyashio boats, this would rely on building new boats from technology that had been demonstrated and matured in successuve upgrades to the existing Collins fleet. Of course, it would still be an onerous undertaking.
Another option might be to explore a demonstrated off-the-shelf system, offsetting any performance deficiencies with a greater quantity – probably 18 to 22 boats instead of 12. Whether this is possible will obviously depend on specific design parameters of the platforms themselves, and in particular on whether they can operate far enough forward to thwart inter-archipelagic supply lines and fulfil Australia’s longstanding strategic objectives in Southeast Asia. In this regard, Air Independent Propulsion systems will be a salient consideration.
Australia seems to be in a rather strange and unique position. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, but just recently reaffirmed its strategic alliance with the U.S., if not strengthened it. Such an alliance seems to be aimed at only one nation, China. How does Australia reconcile such a position? Does Australia have to make a firm choice one way or another?
Interestingly enough, Australia’s strategic dependence on the United States and economic dependence on China isn’t all that unique. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, even the United states – each finds itself in the similarly peculiar position of being economically enmeshed with its major strategic competitor. What sets Australia apart is its geographic dislocation from Northeast Asia, the main area of competition, from which it is separated by long distances, an archipelagic screen and, beyond that, continental Southeast Asia.
Geopolitically, this should give Australia more room to move. Geography dictates that the U.S., Japan, India and the countries of Southeast Asia have a much more immediate stake in containing the reach of Chinese power. In this sense, Australia can and should take advantage of the opportunity to remain aloof from Asia’s power politics to the greatest possible extent. That would mean allowing others to do the balancing on our behalf, preserving the best possible relations with each major player without over-committing to any – thereby minimising the risks to ourselves of being dragged prematurely into conflict or intense competition.
As a relatively small power, Australia may one day be forced to choose between the United States and China. In the meantime, the chief purpose of Australian grand strategy should be to defer that decision for as long as possible. As U.S. primacy fades, Canberra could find itself either having to assume a much greater burden on behalf of the alliance or learning to expect much less out of it – or, perhaps, both at once. It’s time to begin planning for alternatives.
What are the needs of Australia’s navy going forward? Do you feel it needs to develop anti-ship missiles to keep up with other nations in Asia? Do you feel it should base its strategic thinking on China's growing capabilities? What type of vessels and capabilities should Australia invest in?
Culturally, the Royal Australian Navy is an heir to the Anglo-American tradition of sea-power: sea-control dependent on ever larger surface combatants remains the dominant – and, in my view, unfortunate – organizational preference. Bizarrely, at a time when Chinese submarine warfare and anti-ship missiles are improving at a rate out of proportion to Western forces’ ability to defend against them, Australia is undertaking a major upgrade of its surface fleet, with plans for three Air-Warfare Destroyers, two massive LHD amphibious assault vessels and a new fleet of over-sized frigates – all of which will require the Navy to concentrate its relatively small number of personnel rather than improving redundancy and survivability by dispersing them on a greater number of smaller, more stealthy platforms.
Canberra would, in my view, be far better served by emulating key aspects of China’s own sea-denial strategy, which blurs strategically defensive objectives with an offensive war-fighting doctrine to clear rival navies out of designated areas. That would mean using disruptive technologies to exploit Australia’s geographical advantages in ways that raise the costs and risks to hostile forces seeking to project air or land power in the vicinity of Australia’s air and maritime approaches or in the approaches to the archipelago to its north.
The basic ingredients, among other things, would involve: plenty of land-based air-power; a large, robust submarine fleet; advanced mine-warfare capabilities; a constellation of satellite, maritime surveillance aircraft and land-based radar; and, to the extent surface combatants remain secure and cost-effective, a fleet of Fast Attack Craft armed with high-speed anti-ship missiles.
Of course, a coherent force structure such as this would require a considerable increase in Australian defence expenditure. It would also demand a major overhaul of the administrative foundations of Australian defense policy, which is in a quite parlous state at present. So, while it’s very important, I’m not holding my breath.
This piece was origially published in The Diplomat