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Defending the Lucky Country

September 1, 1994 Topic: Security Regions: Asia Tags: BusinessCold WarGulf WarSlavic Countries

Defending the Lucky Country

Mini Teaser: The conundrums of Australian strategy are long-term concerns, and ones of which the Australians are quite aware. With regard to defense policy, as with other aspects of its national existence, Australia remains the lucky country, but one whose luc

by Author(s): Eliot A. Cohen

On returning from Australia I asked my graduate students in strategic studies the following question: what is the relative size of the Australian and Indonesian defense budgets? They made the same, grossly incorrect answer that I would have given some months earlier--about three to one in favor of the Indonesians. The proportions are just about the reverse. Until recently, in fact, Australia spent more on defense than did all ASEAN countries, and today its military spending is still roughly equivalent to that of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore combined.

This central fact and all that it implies came home to me during a visit to Australia as a guest of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). I met with officials from DFAT, The Department of Defence, the Office of National Assessments (the Australian intelligence analysis organization), as well as academics and journalists. I also spent some time with the Australian military, including its growing Northern Command headquarters in Darwin. The charms of the country (and it has many) aside, the trip taught me something about the challenges facing a modern middle power. Like most Cold War-trained national security experts, my thinking on the subject rested chiefly on exposure to America's European allies, who operate in an alliance context quite different from that of the Australians.

Indeed, there was something cheering in the self-reliance of the Australians, which produces an altogether more comfortable attitude to Americans than the mixture of anxiety and resentment evoked by the traditionally dependent relationship between Europeans and Americans. To be sure, the Australians are a long way from potential threats. On the other hand, their soldiers shed their blood alongside Americans in two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam, their sailors and airmen routinely cruise and fly alongside their American counterparts, and they have their own memories of guerilla combat in Malaya and Borneo. The Australian government also has a physical reminder before it of the way in which military matters have shaped their country's history. The Australian parliament is perched on a hill with a direct view down ANZAC Parade to a magnificent and sobering War Memorial. Australia is an insular state in the geographical sense, but not in the geopolitical sense.

The Australian Establishment

One saw this immediately in the quality of government officials and soldiers, men (and women) of a very high caliber--as good as or better than their counterparts in the States. My first meeting was with Gareth Evans, the foreign minister. A brusque, intelligent, and literary man (a former law professor and fluent author), he had read a number of my articles, disliked them, and relished telling me so. More than most of my other interlocutors he stressed the rise of Australia's multilateral interests, and of international organizations more broadly, devaluing, by implication though not formal statement, the American tie. His parting shot to me was a request to give up my "reflexive jaundice" about the UN, which he saw as typically American. (I responded that the jaundice was considered, which would have provoked a longer discussion had the Defence Minister not been waiting.)

Evans is a hard-headed idealist--scathing about the failures of peacemaking in Somalia and Yugoslavia, although I suspect that he blamed American ineptitude for much of the former. His pride in the UN's success in Cambodia, in which he played no small role, was considerable, and his sense of his own importance as a regional statesman evident. I left with the feeling that he would like to be Secretary General, and that he would be an able and energetic head of the United Nations. Whether that would serve American interests would be a different and interesting question.

Senior Australian civil servants in the defense, intelligence, and foreign affairs bureaucracies were a small, capable and fairly homogeneous group--in their early to mid-forties, on good terms with one another, sober, experienced, and well-read. The Australian officers I encountered were uniformly impressive. On visiting the commander of Australia's Northern Command I entered an office lined with well-thumbed works on military history. American officers who have served alongside Australian soldiers, sailors, and airmen have nothing but high praise for their professional skills. And Australia has a small but keen group of defense intellectuals, centered on the Australian National University in Canberra and led by Paul Dibb, a former intelligence official and a continuing confidential advisor to the government. As author of the "Dibb Report" of 1986 he is, in some ways, the father of the modern Australian defense concept, although in many respects his writings simply accelerated trends already latent in Australian thinking.

In short, Australia has a foreign policy and defense "establishment," modest in size but of high quality and apparently in agreement on the broad outlines of the Australian security environment. Donald Horne's famous book about Australia calls it the "lucky country," and so it is. To be sure, there is some anxiety about competitiveness and a persistently high unemployment rate (over 10 percent). But the steady privatization of large parts of the Australian economy, as well as its fortunate natural endowments for both mining and agriculture, seem to engender some confidence in the country's economic prospects. There is also a sense that Australia's neighbors remain "Third World," and that it will take them some time to reach Australia's technological and living standards. It seemed to be taken for granted in government circles that Australia will soon become a republic rather than, as it is now, a commonwealth; this should be taken, I was told, as a self-confident assertion that Australia is now a country in its own right.

The most internationalist Australian view (that of Senator Evans) is fairly sober, even his insistence on the importance of the UN being tempered by an awareness of its limits. Others are more forceful on the importance of the American tie, which provides Australia with indispensable intelligence (a relationship still cloaked in secrecy, but of considerable benefit to both sides). As the Australians look about them they see a region headed for economic growth but also likely to experience considerable uncertainty over the next ten years or more. They worry about North Korean nuclear weapons, and the ways in which the Korean nuclear crisis could have repercussions (including Japanese rearmament) that could cascade down to Australia. They express more muted concern about the succession problem in Indonesia, although they have worked assiduously to develop good relations with that country. The explosive growth of China, the potential assertion of Chinese power to the south, and the eventual end of formal Communist rule there provides another reason for long-term concern. They reiterate the importance of being integrated in Asia, although I detected a realization that Australia would remain an essentially European--indeed, Anglo-Saxon--outpost in a very different cultural milieu.

Their greatest anxiety, at the moment, though, seems to be about the United States. They understand that the U.S. will remain engaged in the region (despite earlier fears to the contrary) but deplore American policy towards China and Japan. They fear that the former will simply make the Chinese obstinate and difficult, and are deeply concerned that the Americans take Japan's security dependence on the United States for granted. Under some circumstances, I was told, Japan might take a very different national security path, if the relationship with the United States were to be jeopardized by ceaseless trade-bashing. It must be noted, however, that the Australians have economic reasons for being unhappy with a hard American trade policy towards Japan, because they fear that they will end up paying for it. Australia has a current accounts surplus with Japan, in the kinds of agricultural and raw materials that would be displaced by preferential Japanese deals with the United States.

More broadly, the Australians appear to be dismayed--how much I couldn't judge--by the foreign policy incompetence of the administration, the bumbling and missteps that have attracted such critical comment in Washington. They are temperamentally inclined to like Bill Clinton, but worry that his absorption in domestic affairs has led to repeated blunders abroad.

Australia's Defense Strategy

To one accustomed to European mid-sized powers, the Australian strategic approach comes as a shock--and in some ways a pleasant surprise. Although they rely heavily on the United States for certain kinds of support--intelligence above all--their strategic concept is autonomous. Australia's security policy remains an essentially nationalistic one. Senator Evans' rhetoric not withstanding, Australia will not plunge in to the more vigorous forms of multilateral peacemaking. It has suffered only two fatalities in UN peacekeeping, both in accidents, and neither civilians nor soldiers in the Defence Department have any desire to expand their activities, which are strictly limited in size and duration. With typical directness, one Australian soldier remarked to me that, aside from all of the other problems associated with peacekeeping, it diminishes the ability of soldiers to fulfill their primary mission, which is to be killers.

After the Vietnam War, Australia rethought its defense policy, and as a result is probably a decade ahead of the rest of us in thinking through the problem of security in an absence of immediate threats but in the presence of considerable uncertainty. There is no obvious, imminent threat to Australia from any of its northern neighbors; they eye each other with more suspicion than they do Australia. In any event, they do not have the capability to do more than harass Australian shipping and raid the mainland. The "air-sea gap" to Australia's north is defendable by high quality air and naval forces, with ground forces serving as a "goalkeeper" and a base for mobilization in the event of an unforeseen crisis. On the other hand, the existential problem of Australian security is that of a sparsely populated (seventeen million) country with a vast land mass, near neighbors with much larger populations (approximately ten times the size, in the case of Indonesia), and very different cultures.

Australia has maintained an edge over its neighbors in the past in part by outspending them. For some time it has had a technological edge because of its possession of advanced weapons. These include F/A-18 fighter bombers of the kind flown by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, long-range F-111 bombers (which only the United States Air Force flies--and of which the Australians are buying more), P-3 Orion long range maritime patrol aircraft with Harpoon missiles to attack shipping, and in the future six new Australian-made submarines plus more than a dozen major surface combatants. All in all, the Australians have at least 120 major platforms (air, sea, and subsurface) capable of operating over long ranges and using precision guided weapons. The Australian military is a formidable obstacle to anything larger than pinprick raids against the Australian mainland.

This technological edge is fading quickly, however, as the rapidly growing Asian economies allow Australia's northern neighbors to buy the most advanced military technologies on the market. Malaysia, for example, is also buying F/A-18s, while other countries are buying American-made F-16 fighter aircraft. The Australians are now concentrating instead on their capabilities edge--superior operational abilities, resting on the quality of training, command and control, and intelligence. The Australians believe they must keep this edge even as the Australian defense budget slips relative to gnp to about 2 percent, and the Australian military to a force of about sixty thousand men and women.

No less important than the capabilities edge is a system of comprehensive and cooperative strategic engagement with Australia's neighbors, including a great deal of joint training and military-to-military diplomacy. Australian officers travel extensively to local countries (the commander of Northern Command has good Indonesian), and the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) has worked assiduously to develop joint exercises. The Singaporeans for instance, will have aircraft stationed in Australia for almost ten months a year. Australians are unusually sensitive to the impressions they make: I was told of a group of Indonesian officers visiting a base who asked who the Australians were training to fight. "You" was the jesting reply of their host, a brigadier general. He was relieved the next day.
Finally, the Australian defense concept relies heavily on intelligence for both tactical purposes and for long term strategic warning. The Australians I met were clearly confident that they had excellent signal intelligence and information derived from other technical sources. In the 1980s the Australians began working hard to develop over-the-horizon radars--radars that can look a thousand miles out or more to keep the air-sea gap under surveillance. I suspect that human intelligence collection is also taken very seriously.

The ADF is gradually redeploying to the north and away from the southeastern area of Australia where it has traditionally been based. Accompanying this has been the construction of some half a dozen "bare bases" around Australia's periphery. In the event of a crisis, aircraft could be flown from the Royal Australian Air Force's main bases (which are well-developed and in one case several hundred kilometers from the coast) to these forward locations. The ADF's evolving command structure is no less interesting. Northern Command, which I visited, is an operational rather than a theater command: that is, it has only small reconnaissance, surveillance, and cavalry (i.e. motorized) units assigned to it in peacetime, but would have much larger forces under its control during a crisis. The Command is small; a joint command with responsibility for the air-sea gap and northern Australia, a vast underpopulated area. Australians periodically test their operational abilities in large exercises, which involve between ten thousand and twenty thousand troops, and which include a month of deployments and a month to six weeks of exercises.

An essential part of Northern Command's job is a surveillance and protection mission, in which specialized units such as the Northwest Mobile Force play an important role. This battalion-sized unit, made up mostly of reservists (including a large number of tribal aboriginals), conducts long-range surveillance operations around vital installations such as air fields and major mines. Together with other units and motorized cavalry, it is designed to give warning of raids against the Australian mainland and cue other intelligence assets and reaction forces. These latter include small mechanized forces transportable by air or landing craft. The purpose of these units is, in part, to force potential opponents to send parties so large that they would be both easily detectable and logistically unsupportable. The harshness and vastness of the environment in northern Australia thus aid the defensive mission of Northern Command. The sheer physical challenges of operating in this environment keep soldiers keen. One of the Command's most interesting features is its integration of civilian and military assets. It works closely with police and customs offices (including a coast watching network) and goes to considerable lengths to integrate itself with local government.
In some respects this kind of integration with civil society goes beyond what is common in the United States. The ADF is experimenting with the creation of several Ready Reserve battalions composed of bright recruits who take a year off between high school and university, train, and go into reserve status for several years. The scheme has proven more expensive than expected, but some in the ADF favor it as a way of maintaining a link with Australia's leadership class. Beyond this, there seemed to be a rare degree of comfort in Australian civil-military relations, to include what looked to be a fairly amicable intermingling of military and civilian staffs in their Department of Defence. The new Australian Defence White Paper is being drafted jointly by civilians and soldiers, for example. Most interesting of all, Australian commanders assume that in a period of crisis leading to war there would be a long interlude during which very tight civilian control would inhibit military activity they might desire. Rather than rebelling against this, Australian commanders appear to exercise their ingenuity in coming up with measures that could be offered to political leaders in order to enhance security without provoking undesired political consequences.

The Australian military is a fairly high-technology force, although there are some interesting gaps. Australian heavy armor, for example, is primitive--1960s-vintage German Leopard I tanks, not very well-equipped for modern mechanized combat. Modern navigation and surveillance equipment, such as Global Positioning System receivers that allow soldiers to find their locations within a hundred meters or less are rarer than in the American military, as are some kinds of night vision devices. Still, on the whole, the Australians clearly intend to go the high technology route, and certainly have the quality of people they need to do so.

Australians welcome opportunities to train with their neighbors and with the United States. When I was at Darwin a number of Marine fighter planes were flying from there, and it was clear that there was considerable mutual regard. The ADF obviously had a high opinion of the Marines, with a somewhat more mixed view of the Air Force and the U.S. Army. In general, ADF soldiers pride themselves on professional keenness and basic tactical skills; they think highly of our intelligence, logistical and higher level command capabilities.

Conundrums and Prospects

Impressive as the people who make Australian strategy are, as sensible as their concept is, a number of uncertainties lie ahead. The Australian military currently relies on a severely limited number of high technology platforms, a policy that makes eminent sense. Those platforms are protected by distance (particularly in the case of aircraft, which apparently have not been placed in hardened aircraft shelters) and by the superior capacity of the ADF to operate them. An opponent who could destroy, damage, or nullify even a few of those platforms--by acquiring very effective long range anti-aircraft missiles, for example, or by acquiring the ability to strike pre-emptively at Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) bases with ballistic or cruise missiles--could suddenly place the ADF in an extremely awkward position. Moreover, as the Australian defense budget shrinks slowly but steadily as a percentage of GNP, it appears increasingly unlikely that the ADF will be able to replace these major platforms twenty years from now.

Regarding its overall security posture a tension exists between Australia's assertion of autonomy and its real, if muted, dependence on the United States for intelligence, high technology, and in a truly mortal crisis, logistical support. This may appear at first primarily an issue of rhetoric, but the problem goes deeper. In 1986 the report of Paul Dibb outlined an Australian defense vision quite independent of the United States, and provoked considerable anger in the Weinberger Pentagon. The Dibb Report may read better to American eyes now than it did eight years ago, but there remains a difficulty intrinsic in the Australian position. Australia wants to be independent, but without American intelligence sharing and American military hardware (and, in the event of crisis, American logistical support) it cannot sustain its strategy. Still, assuming that Senator Evans can restrain the temptation to poke a finger in the American eye too often or too vigorously, there is no reason to think the fundamental relationship is in any danger.

There is a latent, and more difficult, contradiction between Australia's desire to maintain a clear military edge over its neighbors (and indeed over a combination of them) and the importance it assigns to intimate training and aid relationships with them. To be sure, such practices provide opportunities to build valuable human ties and, let it be said, to gather intelligence. But in the end they also will serve to upgrade the quality of neighboring militaries. They will also make it harder for Australia to undermine or to oppose the sale (by the United States or anyone else) of advanced military weaponry to them. Moreover, it is clear that, as in the last stage of the Cold War, the practice of extensive military-to-military diplomacy can soften or blind one's own military vis-ˆ-vis its potential opponents.

The difficulty Australians face goes even deeper, however. Australia--English-speaking, adhering to norms of civil liberty and political process far closer to those of Washington or London than to those of Kuala Lumpur or Singapore--is not, and cannot be, a truly Asian society. But Australia's defense posture requires it to describe itself, and in some ways to act, as if it were. Its officials declare that the country has no enemies, and by and large, they believe it. But over dinner a couple of well-placed Australians note, with wary amusement, that the humble owner of the local Indonesian satay stand they frequent has an uncanny knowledge of their travels.

The conundrums of Australian strategy are long term concerns, and ones of which the Australians are quite aware. In the meanwhile, it struck this visitor that with regard to defense policy, as with other aspects of its national existence, Australia remains the lucky country, but one whose luck is at least partly self-made.

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