STONE the crows! The ideas armoury is empty.

The venerable Robert O’Neill put the possibility of an invasion of Australia on the agenda the other day. But it was lost in the blizzard of blather following the election announcement. Most main media merely ran an AAP brief.[i]

Ignoring the issue is understandably easy, given an invasion is considered less unlikely than impossible and given the way nations whose interests are not inevitably the same as ours are benign. But, as defence historian Albert Palazzo puts it, “a national security policy that is based upon the kindness or limited ambition of your opponent is a hollow one.” [ii] In contrast, Dr O’Neill suggests the Australian continent could be attacked because of climate change and competition for resources.

The major powers may well seek to strengthen their own bases for competition with others by, in effect, taking over and exploiting medium and smaller powers. Australia could face threats rather like those which confronted weaker states of the 18th and 19th centuries.[iii]

Nor is the fate of Poland or Bavaria the only risk we face. The movement of people fleeing poverty and/or persecution in unstoppable numbers could undermine our title to the continent.

This may seem unlikely, but the idea that the people of Australia will always see themselves as a western democracy with immutable cultural connections to Britain and the US is not chiselled in stone. In any case, tablets erode over time.

Stuart Macintyre made the point a decade back when he compared settler society Australia to Roman Britain:

Eventually the imperial capacity declined and the province was left to defend itself. … It lasted for more than four hundred years and its traces are still apparent in historic sites and place-names, a thin-slice of the island’s multi-layered past. Will the British colonisation of Australia be sustained so long? Will it too be overlaid by the languages and practices of other people.[iv]

If either, or both, Dr O’Neill and Professor Macintyre are right Australia will one day be in a deal of strife, facing the possibility of invasion by states and occupation by waves of settlers who pay no heed to visas.

The Crows cannot imagine an occupation of southeast Australia but certainly wonder what we would do if a maritime power seized the northwest gas fields, or for that matter decided to annexe Darwin. Nor is this a repeat of the implicitly racist invasion scenarios popular a century back. As Hugh White argues, our region will change over the next 40 to 50 years (well within the time frame of equipment programs that are now, or should be, in place):

If Indonesia fulfils its potential to become a major power, distance will do less to protect us than it has done. Other powers will be much stronger than they have been, and more inclined to compete with one another, so it follows that the risks of us being drawn into major-power rivalry and conflict must also be higher.[v]

So the question becomes what scenarios should we prepare for?  The 2013 Defence White Paper makes, for politically obvious reasons, defence of the continent against “hostile states and non-state adversaries” the top priority. And it explicitly addresses O”Neill’s argument that “an effective, visible force posture in northern Australia and our northern and western approaches is necessary to demonstrate our capacity and our will to defend our sovereign territory, including our offshore resources and extensive maritime areas.”[vi]

But, while the wish exists, the will to do it doesn’t – which is understandable A blue water Indian navy seems unlikely for as long as New Delhi focuses on fighting Pakistan and/or China.[vii] While Beijing is building a deep ocean fleet it seems unlikely that China would want to include Australia behind any “great wall over the sea”, as James Goldrick puts it.[viii] And we are obviously included in Indonesia’s “million friends zero enemies doctrine”.[ix]

Even so, defence planning necessarily covers decades to come. While nobody, except the Americans could occupy Darwin or seize the gas fields now – who knows what will happen at mid century. The strategic circumstances that shaped the decision to buy the Joint Strike Fighter and the submarines to replace the Collins class may not apply, or be enough, then – but both assets will still be around, with the fighter having an estimated life expectancy of 52 years.[x]

These are dilemmas all defence planners face. The particular problem confronting Australia is that no one in government appears to take seriously the possibility of changing circumstances. The gung-ho assumptions of the 2009 Defence White Paper, which called for Australian sea power to confront an aggressive China, were reversed by the conciliatory peace in our Asian century tone of this year’s effort, produced before Kevin Rudd returned to office.[xi] Consistent strategy this is not.

Nor is government spending up on defence. The Australian Defence Force are required to fund new capital equipment from its existing budget, including aircraft and naval transport. This financial year outlays are below 2009-10 levels.[xii]

And the Crows can’t see this changing; whichever side wins the election, for as long as Canberra is running deficits. Imagine the outcry if aged care or disability funding was cut while there was more money for defence.

The problem is that the voters don’t worry about defence, which means MPs won’t.

This is probably a relief to service chiefs. As White puts it,  “few people in government or Defence think that Australia faces any credible risk of major military attack, and fewer still believe we could defend ourselves if we did.”[xiii]


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[i] AAP, “Australia could be invaded: analyst” Sydney Morning Herald, August 3

[ii] Albert Palazzo, “Australia and the neglect of defence: echoes of 1942 in the formulation of present security policy,” Australian Army Journal 9 (2) 2012, 15-31, 28 @ recovered on August 11

[iii] Robert O’Neill, Preparing to face our next enemy,” Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, July 2013

[iv] Stuart Macintyre, A concise history of Australia, Melbourne 1999 275

[v] Hugh White, “A middling power: why Australia’s defence is all at sea,” The Monthly, September 2012

[vi] Australian Government, Department of Defence, Defence White Paper, 2013 @  24, recovered on August

[vii] Balajli Chandramohan, “India’s defence budget: implications and strategic orientation,” Future Directions International, July 16 2013 @ recovered on August 11

[viii] James Goldrick, “China’s navy:urgent need for a new mindset,” The Lowy Interpreter, February 6 2013 @ recovered on August 11

[ix] Jessica Smith, “Australia’s strategic security: beyond the great and powerful,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, June 2013 @  recovered on August 11

[x] Dan Oakes, “Plea to build subs now or risk gaps in defences,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 15 2011,  John A Tirpak, “Make or break time for the F-35,” Airforce Magazine, 94 (8) August 2011 @ recovered on August 11

[xi] Rod Lyon and Andrew Davies, “Assessing the Defence White Paper 2009” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, May 7 2009 @ recovered on August 11

[xii] John Kerin, “Coalition says defence deprived of $4bn it had expected,” Australian Financial Review, August 7

[xiii] White, ibid