Came across an article today from a fellow at the Cato Institute lauding the latest piece of bizarre politics to come out of that funniest Commonwealth – Australia’s Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is proposing a massive increase in defense spending as part of its May White Paper envisioning a “Force 2030“.  Wasn’t so long ago that Force 2010 was the target of wishful thinking.  2010’s a bit grittier than expected.

A lot of white papers have come out of various Western governments in the past few years as their militaries fight dramatic postwar cutbacks.  Australia’s is interesting because it proposes re-armament, perhaps for the first time.  (America has certainly been “rearming,” but then we’ve been busy.)  However the Cato article takes a tone that is at once too sanguine and loses something of the broader strategic picture.  I’ll get there.

The defense white paper, like the Cato write-up, assumes a resurgent Japan a domineering China and an increasingly-disengaged, if not declining, United States.  All of these assumptions, like most such strategic considerations, are pretty badly flawed.

Despite the CATO author’s brushing by Article IX in fairly brusque terms as an American invention – which it fully was – he fails to realize that it is in fact a deeply-ingrained assumption in Japanese politics and the Japanese psyche that the Second World War won’t happen again.  And no mention is made of an economy deep into a ten-year recession with a 0% interest rate, a declining population and ballooning elderly demographic.  Where, precisely, does such an economy find the money for a broad rearmament program?  Where does it find money for something incremental?  This would perhaps be less pressing if the long-term, pro-US Liberal Democrat government wasn’t about to be turned out.  (Though, stay tuned.)

Now in terms of China there isn’t yet any evidence to back up the supposition that they are going to be flexing their strategic muscle.  The Taiwan problem has been left to wither on the vine as a succession of internal uprisings grips the country (which the author does mention) and most importantly China’s power projection capability is not yet serious.  Even with the intervention of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force it’s not clear that their main fleet could seriously challenge America’s local naval forces, much less any major American task force.  Assuming they did so successfully, and the conflict remained non-nuclear (as it almost surely would, at least as long as China’s strategic forces are puny compared to the United States’), the United States could quite simply dispatch a new fleet.

(Would this be likely?  Maybe not, but I can’t really forecast the effect of a Chinese victory over American policy.  My sense is that there would be no other choice – and the defeat of Third Fleet’s single carrier battle group would merely unleash Seventh Fleet’s five, assuming no chance to deploy them sooner.)

This might seem a bit insane.  The Chinese Air Force, and Navy, against a single American carrier?  But consider the context.  Any flashpoint would be over Taiwan, Japan or the Koreas.  This would mean the benefit of local assistance (and the fleet Japan and South Korea do have is of high quality, while Taiwan’s is entirely American product) and most importantly local air support.  The Chinese would have to fly out over the South China Sea and risk the loss of downed pilots.  A significant portion of their Air Force is either old or not particularly suitable for a fleet engagement, and their Navy – such as it is – is home to only a few native designs and a lot of old Russian hardware, including the Kusnetsov, if memory serves.  (Close.  Ironically, it has purchased several carriers to study various designs.  One of them?  The British-built HMAS Melbourne. Australia no longer operates a carrier.)

There is also a question of experience.  Much of America’s naval aicorps have seen some sort of action in their careers, the benefit of constant engagement in so-called “brushfire wars.”  The PLAAF has had little of the same experience.  Many of the pilots involved in an attack (not to speak of the seamen, if China were foolish enough to even introduce their fleet) are likely to be fairly green, if not totally inexperienced, and pound-for-pound their hardware is not going to offer them an advantage.

I generally think the abilities of an air force are somewhat overstated as against a modern fleet.  The victory of the British in the pre-AEGIS era Falklands War, using relatively antiquated vessels and equipment but superlative training against a relatively well-equipped but inexperienced Argentine Navy and Air Force, should be taken as a warning against alarmism.  The US Navy would have all of Britain’s advantages, but enhanced, and China all of Argentina’s handicaps magnified.

That introduces the element of America.  We’re really not going anywhere.  Even if Australia, Japan and South Korea all wanted us gone, we probably wouldn’t do.  (How many American forces are still in Germany?)  In its deployments after World War II American policymakers were actually subtly, sublimely clever – they knew where the new threats would come and laid the groundwork for what were essentially long-term watchtowers.  Since we were the ones responsible for kneecapping the British and French, we knew too when and how to react to the ebbing of their power.  (Judging, at least, by the relative lack of American interest at Britain’s withdrawal from the East of Suez and later Hong Kong.)  America’s interests are not necessarily strategically malevolent, but the message is clear: if there’s a war it will be far away, even at the risk of making it harder.

At the moment, as I said, China seems not to mind this.  It’s getting rich.  Its leaders’ foresight rivals their advanced age and they realize that a major rearmament would unnecessarily drag down their breakneck development.  The military advances you’re seeing out of China are not directed really at anybody – they’re directed at putting China properly in the frame at a level appropriate to their size, economy and geopolitical importance.  (As opposed to ours, which are dedicated to locking in an inflated and ossified geopolitical status.)  They are not Germany in 1910 (or indeed in 1936) – they are not bedazzled by the impression that in a few short years they could outbuild, outcrew and outgun the US.  In a land war – well, okay.  But the land war won’t matter.  It didn’t in Europe and it didn’t in Asia.

So to Australia.  Australia is like China in one key way (similar to Japan, South Korea, and indeed local powers like Singapore): their military power is undersized.  Despite a small population they’re relatively prosperous and their military deployments have been increasingly-robust and generally successful.  (Especially as they develop an Italian-style immigration issue.)  So what do they plan to do?

Not much, actually.  Heavy vehicles for the Army; costly fighters and fighter upgrades for the Air Force; and new-generation submarines.  These aren’t bad ideas in and of themselves, but if we’re to suppose they’re enhancing their power-projection capabilities, as the Cato editorial does, it’s a puzzling set of choices.  Australia has a very limited sealift capability, so its ability to get its new heavy vehicles anywhere is going to be tricky.  (And this despite the white paper’s assurance that “it is not a principal task for the ADF to be generally prepared to deploy to the Middle East… in circumstances where it has to engage in ground operations against heavily armed adversaries.”)

By the time Australia would ever need them, its expensive new F-35s (total cost something like $15 billion US) may be antiquated, while the F/A-18F is a capable and cheap platform but lacks the range necessary to cover Australia without large numbers, much less project power.  Even the government admits these will probably only get 10 years or a bit more out of their life.  In choosing the F-35 they appeared to be looking for a good multi-role platform, which is a fine choice.  But it’s probably going to run $150,000,000 a piece, if not more.  You can get a nice little Saab Gripen for a third of that – or indeed a Eurofighter Typhoon with some cash to spare.  (Buy an F-35 you you’ll know when you get it but not how much it’ll cost.  Buy a Eurofighter and you know what it’ll cost but not when you’ll get it.)  More than anything it’s questionable whether Australia needs an aircraft with the F-35’s capabilities.  By that standard it’s a diplomatic, wishful purchase – not a serious one.

A good ship

A good ship

As for their fleet, submarines with cruise missile capabilities aren’t a terrible idea, but it’s not a “power projection” platform so much as a “sea denial” one.  (Submarines don’t really “hold” an area.)  The money might be better invested in the Anzac-class frigate platform, which can better project Australian power, engage in peacekeeping tasks (which the white paper predicts will be crucial in the short- and medium-term) and best of all avoids a costly new design program.

The upshot is this: you can plan for the future or plan for today.  Australia is attempting to do a little of both.  It’s unsurprising – democracies always try to split the difference.  We’re doing the same thing, but we have enough money and defense research establishments to pull it off.  Australia and the nations the Cato Institute is encouraging to up their game don’t.  So they can either decide that China is going to be a problem and arrange for that or they can engage in a realistic military assessment and build or buy weapons platforms that are useful today and whose obsolescence isn’t immediately foreseeable.  Australia is doing neither, and encouraging this sort of schitzophrenia in its policy-making will not help them become self-sufficient or build them up vis-a-vis emerging threats.  It will leave them even more reliant on American technology and support.  This outcome is the worst of all worlds.

[UPDATE: It appears that my numbers were wrong about the cost of the F-35 – by almost twice what it actually costs on a per-unit basis. It may be more when the cost of the concept, design and initial construction is taken into account, but the actual cost is actually $83,000,000, which is competitive with the Eurofighter Typhoon. I think the point stands but it’s worth correcting the error. – 21 July]