AGE OF THE DRAGON

It's time the armed forces focused on the current threat

The Australian government has ordered 75 Abrams tanks. Picture: Department of Defence

The Australian government has ordered 75 Abrams tanks. Picture: Department of Defence

And so it goes on. Self-propelled guns last month; tanks this month.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton keeps feeding the defence budget into preparing the army for anything but facing the threat from China.

Worse, the government is to varying degrees letting all three armed services get away with self-indulgent behaviour that's affordable only when a country is in deep peace - that is, when it faces no serious military threat.

As this column explained last week, we're now in anxious peace, not deep peace. Watching China's arms build-up and obvious ambition to dominate this side of the world, military analysts have become seriously worried.

Dutton this week announced a $3.5 billion order for 75 Abrams tanks and 46 similarly massive support vehicles. Last month the government ordered 30 big self-propelled guns and 15 ammunition vehicles for $1 billion.

These acquisitions feed the army's guiding obsession to get a mix of equipment like those that bigger armies have. The air force and navy, meanwhile, pursue different obsessions.

In decades of deep peace, Australian military policy established a principle called "balanced force", which said our armed services should have a good variety of capabilities, not focusing much, because we were unsure of what kind of fight we might become involved in.

Under this principle, each of the services had cover to attend to its traditional obsession. None needed to concentrate hard on defending this country, because for that they just had to protect us from Indonesia if it became unstable. That was an easy job.

In an age of anxious peace we must overthrow the balanced-force principle and compel the services to focus on our chief problem, the threat from China that's rising in the 2020s.

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The army's obsession can be roughly summarised as "heavy combined arms": an array of ground forces that support each other with different, costly equipment. As developed in the 20th century, this includes artillery in various forms, tanks, well-equipped infantry, wheeled combat vehicles, tracked infantry fighting vehicles, and attack and transport helicopters.

The army doesn't have the whole kit and caboodle yet, but it's spending tens of billions of dollars to get there. When it reaches the ideal, it will be perfectly set up for the 2003 Iraq War - and just as useless as it is now for protecting this country from China or helping the US to defend Taiwan.

The army refuses to accept the need to reshape itself - for example, by becoming heavily equipped with missiles for long-range ground strike, naval attack and knocking down aircraft and other missiles.

Air forces, including ours, are obsessed with high technology, including technology that doesn't exist yet. That sounds good, but it can get in the way of urgent preparations.

Our spending plan for the air force vaguely describes intriguing, unidentified new types of aircraft that are supposed to be bought in the 2030s and 2040s.

Fine. I'm sure they'll be gee-whizz. But we face a danger of war before then, so we should quickly get more aircraft of the not-so-intriguing types that we already have.

We should have more tankers, for example. They're highly valuable because they make other aircraft more effective.

Ours are based on Airbus A330-200s - and such airliners are now available cheaply on the second-hand market, though they would need modification. This is an ideal time to increase the size of a tanker fleet that in war would never seem numerous enough.

To my knowledge, the air force is making no case for buying more tankers now.

We use Boeing Growler electromagnetic attackers and Poseidon maritime patrollers. Neither type is likely to remain in production for much longer, so now is the time to stock up on more, and we can divert army money to do so. With our vast maritime approaches, there is no practical limit to the number Poseidons we could use.

Defence money could be better spent buying more wedgetail radar planes. Picture: Department of Defence

Defence money could be better spent buying more wedgetail radar planes. Picture: Department of Defence

We should have more than our six Boeing Wedgetail air surveillers, radar planes that watch what the other side's aircraft are doing. Wedgetails cannot be as good as the air surveillers that the air force imagines using sometime after 2030, but they have good current technology - good enough for the US Air Force to be interested in them.

The traditional naval obsession is getting numerous surface ships of the largest possible size. Because most naval officers have served in destroyers and frigates, they tend to be less interested in submarines.

Since 2009, first Labor then Liberal-National governments have worked to rebalance the navy towards submarines (with no results so far). But there are serious questions about whether surface warships are worth building at all, because they're increasingly vulnerable to Chinese missiles.

The government may be able to force the navy to rapidly begin the rebalancing. It could see whether we could buy good second-hand diesel submarines from Japan, which habitually retires subs before they're worn out. We might get one boat a year beginning in 2023, building up a fleet of seven by 2029.

Adding our current Collins class, we could indeed have a total of 13 submarines by that year - 25 years earlier than we would have had 12 under the leisurely diesel-sub plan that we abandoned in September.

This idea isn't outlandish. We're already examining the possibility of buying overage nuclear submarines from the US Navy.

Running underage Japanese diesel boats would be much less challenging, especially if we relied on Japan's existing maintenance establishment for them.

And we could get them really fast. That's the sort of thing a country does when it's anxious.

  • Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.
This story It's time the armed forces focused on the current threat first appeared on The Canberra Times.