Defense must secure Australia’s north amid the gravest risks since World War II
In the New Cold War, Southeast Asia is becoming a contested zone where China, the United States and their allies are fighting to maintain access and influence.
This matters deeply to Australia because the superpower that dominates Southeast Asia controls our northern approaches.
The Obama administration has dismissed Beijing’s island-building in the South China Sea as a third-order issue over “rocks and shoals” claims.
It is clearer now that these new airbases and new fortified ports extend China’s military power south to the Indonesian archipelago.
When Beijing sent two of its most modern naval vessels across the Torres Strait and along the east coast in February, the message was clear: the People’s Liberation Army intends to project its force whenever she can.
Beijing last week signed an agreement with Cambodia promoting closer military cooperation. Chinese work to expand a naval base at Ream will maintain a PLA presence in the Gulf of Thailand.
This sets the context for the troubling discovery of a secret Chinese deal with the Solomon Islands, providing a blank slate for “visiting ships, performing logistical resupply, and porting and transitioning to the Solomon Islands.”
Chinese military planners are scrambling to position their forces around the Indo-Pacific. It hurts everyone, complicates US defense planning, and forces smaller countries to either acquiesce or resist.
The outcome of the presidential elections in the Philippines in May could be crucial for the strategic balance in Southeast Asia. Incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte wanted a closer relationship with Beijing, although more recently he has moved away from that position, which is widely unpopular in his country.
Most of the presidential hopefuls in the Philippines disavow pro-China policies, with the exception of frontrunner Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, who is promising a conciliatory approach to Beijing.
A Philippines choosing to rebuild closer defense ties with the United States would seriously complicate China’s plan to dominate the region. Beijing will do its best to shape the political outcome it wants in Manila.
Disturbingly, the outlines of Chinese strategic thinking in the region are more observable than our own political approaches. Defense Minister Peter Dutton is right to openly discuss Beijing’s malign behavior, but what are Australia’s defense policy responses?
The Department of Defense knows that we face a strategic crisis of 1930s proportions, but its efforts are largely focused on building a renewed force structure by the end of the 2030s.
Acquiring nuclear-powered submarines and increasing the Australian Defense Force by 20,000 are good moves, but they will take two decades to deliver. Meanwhile, budget estimates hearings last week revealed Defense was inexplicably canceling a $1.3 billion project that would have delivered armed and remotely piloted MQ-9B Reaper drones in the mid-2020s.
It is, to use a strategic term, incredibly stupid. A rare defense project that was expected to deliver new combat capability in just a few years is abandoned after a decade of planning and investment.
Defense’s description of this project was that it would “provide Defense with a persistent airborne intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, electronic warfare and precision strike capability for land and littoral environments”.
It would be hard to think of a more timely and relevant capability for the ADF as the PLA sends more ships around our shores and potentially operates out of Honiara. Why was the project cancelled? I understand this was on a list of potential “sacrifices” to cut costs, but Defense thought no one would touch it.
Moreover, the Reaper deal had been approved by the US Congress. Our decision to call it off at the last moment makes us look like ignorant amateurs as we try to persuade Washington that we have the smarts to use their closely guarded nuclear propulsion technology.
Ukraine has shown how much damage even simple armed drones can inflict on armored vehicles. Everyone from Azerbaijan to Yemeni Houthi rebels have embraced drones and shown how effective they can be, but the ADF does not have a single armed drone in service and, with this cancellation, no plans to have one.
As Defense focuses on building the perfect “networked and integrated” force structure for the 2030s, we are losing the opportunity to build a stronger ADF for the mid-2020s, the likely period of greatest strategic risk for the region since the Second World War.
When there is no more time to change the structure of the army, it is necessary to look instead at the posture of the forces; that is, what we do with the equipment and units we have. There are clearly big changes afoot regarding Northern Australia.
Included in the budget documents is a “$1.5 billion plan to build new port infrastructure, such as a wharf, an offloading facility and the dredging of the shipping channel, to enhance import and export capacity. export from the region”.
Although this is discussed as an initiative to boost exports, the strongest use case for a new port in Darwin is military. There are a few important points to add here. In 2020, the government canceled Defense plans for a ro-ro dock in Darwin, saying it would be offset “with US Force Posture Initiative commitments”.
In 2021, the AUSMIN communiqué agreed to ‘create a combined logistics, support and maintenance enterprise to support high level combat operations and combined military operations in the region’. The location was not specified, but look at a map. It won’t be Hobart.
Just south of Darwin, the United States is setting up a fuel farm planned by September 2023 to hold over 300 million liters of military jet fuel. Although the government is reluctant to say what is in store, it is clear that Americans will soon be here in far greater numbers.
All of this points to the need to radically rethink Darwin’s role in Australia’s defense and what we need to do to rebuild our worn-out military infrastructure in the north. The PLA threat is pushing south, and we need an answer.
I understand that the Prime Minister does not want a new defense white paper or a national security strategy. Some believe that written policies limit freewheeling decision-making. So be it, but something must be done to instill a disciplined focus around Defense strategic planning, moving it away from its fantasies of the late 2030s and toward the harsh realities of today.