Australia needs to bolster its military muscle with defence diplomacy and embrace its middle power status in the region, writes JOHN BLAXLAND.
With Australia’s security commitments in Afghanistan winding down and a new Defence white paper in the pipelines, now is the time to reflect on the future role of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
In particular, Defence’s main priority should be establishing Australia as confident and able middle power in the region by enhancing our defence diplomacy. And it’s through ‘boats’ that we can build bridges.
Since the mid-1970s, successive Defence white papers have varied little from the standard
formula of maintaining around 10 warships, a handful of submarines, 100 fighter aircraft and three land combat brigades with special forces.
This formula reflects a consensus which remains largely unaltered, with the exception of the new Air Warfare Destroyers (AWDs) and amphibious Landing Helicopter Dock ships (LHDs).
While the threat of near-term conflict in the Indo-Pacific is greater than for many years, there also remain significant prospects of environmental catastrophe requiring military intervention. The ADF must prepare for short-notice humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) related tasks.
For such tasks LHDs will provide an excellent platform enabling rapid response with medical, engineering, logistic and other support as required.
The American experience on this is instructive. US Navy-Marine amphibious groups routinely conduct humanitarian assistance operations globally. These operations are best described as ‘military diplomacy’.
The introduction into service of the LHDs will be a game-changer for Australia, particularly in the Pacific. The opportunity will enable the LHDs to emulate the US Navy-Marine approach to military diplomacy with a combined embarked Australian Navy- Army-Air Force team.
Such a team can generate goodwill and enhance regional security and stability as well as confidence in Australia as a reliable and well-intentioned middle power.
With the prospect of cyclones, floods, sea level rise, earthquakes and tsunamis, the ADF can hone many war fighting skills as a joint team while also making tangible and practical contributions to meet immediate needs across the South Pacific and Southeast Asia.
Indeed the swift response to such crises may well contribute to a sense of confidence and mutual trust that conceivably may reduce the prospect of conflict as well.
Australia’s neighbours need to be closely engaged through defence diplomacy as well, including Papua New Guinea, East Timor and the Pacific Island states. In Southeast Asia, engagement should capitalise on established links through the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) with Malaysia and Singapore, as well as New Zealand and Britain. Thailand and the Philippines also should be included, aligned with scheduled FPDA events.
Myanmar should also be engaged to encourage consolidation and extension of reform initiatives and to bolster ASEAN’s role. Much of this could be done alongside Australia’s principal ally, the United States. But the most important country for Australia to engage with in Southeast Asia is unquestionably Indonesia.
Australia’s security is intimately linked with that of Indonesia, so the relationship needs careful management, attuned to the different cultural predispositions and respectful of their mores and their proud and independent heritage. The ADF needs to enhance its level of cultural awareness and regional language skills. With modern technology and methods, much of this can be done economically on a distributed basis.
A sober reflection on the geostrategic realities should be the main determinant for funding. With so many contingencies to be prepared for, Australia still needs to maintain a balanced joint force adaptable to a wide range of possible eventualities, with sufficient air, sea and ground forces to respond to the challenges of modern conflict.
The budget decline needs to be reversed to capitalise on these new capabilities and to best position the ADF for foreseeable regional challenges.
A visionary, comprehensive and co-ordinated regional engagement plan is needed to mitigate some of the security and environmental concerns now faced. With so many challenges, Australia, as a middle power, must rise above its small power pretensions.
A former defence attaché, Dr John Blaxland researches defence studies and international relations at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
This article is edited from a paper in the Centre of Gravity series published by the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.