Opinion Greg Sheridan: Defence – Tanks, but the maritime threat’s more important

13 Oct 2022

Defence Minister Richard Marles said one incredibly important thing on Monday. It couldn’t be clearer and it bears repeating: “In a rational world, defence spending is a function of strategic threat. And we are rational people.”

He also said the defence budget would increase, even as he catalogued some of the chronic dysfunction in defence procurement over the life of the Coalition government.

Anthony Albanese has said the same thing about the defence budget rising. The Albanese government has had as good a start on national security, defence and foreign affairs as any new government I’ve seen. The dominant triumvirate – Albanese, Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong – understands the problem and works effectively, and energetically, together. Having a Prime Minister from the sensible left who lives in the strategic real world enhances greatly Labor’s internal stability on these issues.

But the rubber really hits the road in March, when Marles will respond to the strategic review he has set up. Marles simply must produce much greater military capability over the next three to seven years. The Albanese government came to office well briefed on security. But it’s fair to say it has been shocked at just how challenging, indeed threatening, the strategic outlook is.

Marles this week outlined some of the calamitous mismanagement of Australian defence projects. There are 28 major defence projects collectively 97 years behind schedule. The Hunter-class frigates – in my view (not Marles’s) a colossal lemon – are already four years behind schedule and $15bn over budget.

Marles blamed it all on nine years of Coalition government and its ludicrous sequence of six defence ministers. Peter Dutton, the Coalition’s last defence minister, pointed to the mess the Coalition inherited from Labor. They’re both right. The Rudd-Gillard years were terrible for the defence budget. If anything, the Coalition years were even worse. It spent more money but wasted nine years doing nothing on subs and produced almost no extra defence capability.

The Morrison government did do some good things. It stood up to intimidation by the Chinese government. It increased resources for intelligence agencies and cyber. It negotiated the AUKUS agreement, which holds the distant promise of nuclear-powered submarines. But its inexcusable failing was to produce nothing at all for the decade ahead. Having the big AUKUS media announcement, it decided its job was done. It wanted to defend Australia with press releases rather than combat capability.

This was a shocking failure. Marles must now concentrate on getting hard, relevant, military capability quickly. Beijing wants to expel the US and establish itself as the dominant regional power. That would be disastrous for Australia, and at best would leave us with severely compromised sovereignty and at worst … Efforts to resist Beijing’s hegemony must be led by the US. At one level this is dangerous because ultimately it risks war. But while pre-emptive surrender may look safer, history doesn’t bear that out. Although the US is the most powerful military force in the world, there is no guarantee it can succeed in this case. But there is every chance, especially if key allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea maximise their own capabilities.

Therefore the Australian Defence Force must be ruthlessly configured to do three things.

  • One, it must have strike, lethal and long-distance strike, which can act as some measure of independent deterrent. If you want peace, prepare for war. If you want to make sure no one attacks you, make sure you could exact the biggest possible price. Scandalously, we have very little such capability right now.
  • Two, the ADF must be able to independently defend our maritime approaches. We can’t do that either.
  • And three, we must have capabilities that can meaningfully assist the Americans in combat in the Indo-Pacific. We have a very modest ability to do that.

Marles is an intellectually capable Defence Minister who understands all this. The signs generally from him are good. The early leak that the government is likely to turn our big offshore patrol vessels into lethal combat ships by arming them or buying their slightly different first cousin is extremely promising. We can effectively double our combat surface fleet at modest cost. Modern warfare needs many different missile trucks.

Other actions must concentrate on missiles, aeroplanes, drones and northern Australia.

I’m impressed with the government so far and more than willing to give it a fair go. Two things, however, have me worried. Marles entirely blames the former government for the almost criminal mess in defence acquisition. It’s right that the political class takes responsibility for outcomes. But it’s intellectually and morally fatuous to think the Defence Department and the ADF leadership itself do not bear some responsibility. Defence scholar Michael Evans explores the history of this in the October issue of Quadrant. In reappointing all the existing civilian and ADF leadership, Marles reinforced rank failure.

The Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell, is a good man but very conservative, very attached to the status quo, very protective of defence legacy, which frankly is pretty close to an unmitigated disaster.

The other worrying portent is the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Simon Stuart, being authorised to give his round of speeches and interviews justifying the utterly preposterous program to spend upwards of $30bn on heavy armour for the Australian Army. This is an insane program. We have not deployed a tank outside of Australia or anywhere near combat in more than 50 years. We are planning to acquire 450 of the heaviest combat vehicles in the world. We cannot transport them effectively inside Australia as it is. We are acquiring infantry vehicles twice as heavy as those of the South Koreans. Our ships can carry only tiny quantities of them.

The perfectly crackers plan to have virtually all our army as heavy armoured units is something we’ve never done before. It arises from experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s all about bidding to do work with the Americans in the Middle East, to be able to re-fight the battle of Fallujah more effectively. These capabilities have zero relevance to the maritime threat posed by China. We could not even use them in an apocalyptic defence of Australia against invasion because we could never transport them quickly enough or in sufficient numbers.

The US Marine Corps, which our army should emulate, has got rid of its tanks in favour of a more mobile strategy that includes deploying small teams in archipelagic conditions armed with portable, lethal missiles. If, after March, the Albanese government persists in the hallucinogenic madness of spending tens of billions of dollars on heavy armour for the army, we will have to conclude that the Defence establishment has defeated yet another government and resort instead to our traditional strategy: praying that the Americans sort it all out.


Foreign editor The Australain