One of the benefits of appointing Peter Dutton to the position – something that has been predicted for ages – is that he has been a member of the National Security Committee of Cabinet for the past six years. He therefore should be well aware of our deteriorating strategic circumstances, which have one major cause – the increasingly threatening conduct of China, coupled with Beijing’s massive arms buildup during the past decade. At least the US can once again be considered a reliable ally with President Biden at the wheel – but if another Trump-like figure is elected in 2024 we risk being left on our own.
As Peter Jennings, the head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has said the most obvious current flashpoint is Taiwan. Australia has no direct security connection with the island – but the US does and undoubtedly would expect Australian support in the event of armed conflict. While deploying ground forces to the area seems unlikely, in the event of a looming invasion both the RAAF and the RAN will need to be ready to deploy alongside US and possibly Japanese forces.
The message from Australia to China needs to be this: rather than continually threatening to invade Taiwan, why don’t you concentrate on making your own country so attractive that neighbouring states will be clamouring to join it? The Chinese claim to the island is flimsy at best – and without recounting centuries of history, suffice to say that Beijing handed it over to Japan in 1895 at the end of the first Sino-Japanese War with the signing of the treaty of Shimonoseki. Since that time, it has never been part of China – though paradoxically as a consequence of the retreat of nationalist forces there at the end of the ghastly civil war in 1949, many Taiwanese politicians maintained for decades that they were the rightful rulers of the mainland.
Short of a declaration of Taiwanese independence – which most agree is a step too far – China should respect the status quo and accept the reality that the island has a complex history and separate identity. The very best thing that Beijing could do is encourage more cross-straits investment and tourism rather than invade Taiwanese airspace on a daily basis with nuclear capable bombers. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated in a number of speeches, without directly mentioning Taiwan, Australia has a moral duty to protect and defend fellow liberal democracies in the face of aggression from an amoral, heavily armed, bullying neighbour.
Minister Dutton finds Defence in good shape from a financial perspective with money available for new capabilities, but even that might not be sufficient given the rate of China’s expansion. In the event that he will take his cues from APDR, we set out these urgent priorities:
First – implement a crash program to develop at least four New Generation Collins class submarines equipped with lithium ion batteries. By all means proceed with France’s Naval Group for a longer-term option – though preferably with nuclear propulsion.
Ignore the bleatings of the RAN that neither can be done. Speak officially with Saab-Kockums about continuing the work on a new submarine that was abruptly and outrageously stopped by Defence in 2014 for no good reason. Try and get these in the water before the end of the decade. Speak with the Netherlands navy about their submarine procurement plans. Bring forward the life of type extension of the Collins class from 2026 to next week.
Second – churn out more Arafura class OPVs and dramatically increase their armament. As good as the Hunter class will be, they are a decade away. Get more hulls in the water – fast. Discuss with Civmec if they can increase the rate of production in Western Australia; ask BAE Systems if they have the resources to resume a two yard build. Equip them with canisterised missiles for self-defence and surface strike. Commit to at least 18 of them and lift RAN numbers from 15,000 personnel to 20,000.
Third – the RAAF is in good shape, though the time is now to commit to the extra three squadrons of F-35s that has been on the books for almost 20 years. Do not use them to replace Super Hornets and Growlers – use them to supplement those aircraft. The ‘Loyal Wingman’ autonomous combat aircraft project seems well funded but keep pushing that – along with sovereign guided weapons. Contract for at least another three Triton surveillance drones and increase the number of armed MQ-9Bs from 12 to at least 24.
Fourth – Army has pulled off one of the most extraordinary achievements in the history of Australian defence procurement by stealthily managing to scrap a perfectly good fleet of Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters and buy AH-64E Apaches instead for an extra $4 billion. Review the decision – and at the very least keep the Tigers and add the Apache fleet to the existing force, generating a major increase in Army firepower. Look at buying more long-range rocket artillery systems than planned.
Fifth – Progress is being made in developing a sovereign satellite capability – but direct Defence in no uncertain terms that Australia needs to have its own communications and earth observation satellites in orbit within five years. All of the local experts say that it can be done – it just needs the political will to make it happen. Nations such as Israel and South Korea developed their satellite sector very rapidly for reasons of national security. Ask for their cooperation, if necessary.
Sixth – Put more effort into regional alliances – and make the signing of a detailed security pact with Indonesia a high priority. Set yourself the goal of having all of these things in train by the end of 2021. After that have a rest.