defending Australia

Amfortas made this observation in a comment to my previous post.

“I have always held the view that we should use it before we are in imminent danger of losing it. We have far too few to even defend ourselves.”

That was in fact the logic behind Australian immigration policy for several decades after 1945. It was the major driving force behind the enormous in take of migrants in that period. The lesson of the Second World War (and of European history over the course of the centuries) seemed to be that in order to defend itself a nation needed a large population. Countries with small populations like Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark had been quickly overrun.

In 1945 it was a reasonable view.

Is it a reasonable view today? Would a population of 50 million, or even 100 million, make us more secure? The days when large numbers of men were needed as cannon fodder seem to be over. A larger population would theoretically mean a larger GDP which would of course theoretically allow us to buy more weapons, assuming that the population growth didn’t collapse our economy to Third World standards.

I’m inclined to think that we don’t need more defence spending. We need smarter defence spending. Why on earth did we buy M1A1 Abrams tanks? Are we going to refight the Western Desert campaigns of WW2? Is it really likely we’ll ever be fighting large conventional armoured battles on our own soil? If it ever got to the stage where we needed to do that we would already have lost. Our only chance of preventing an invasion by large conventional forces would be to stop them from landing. For that you need a credible navy and a credible air force. You don’t need tanks. But generals, like small boys, love the idea of playing with tanks.

We have an army that exists to fight as auxiliaries in someone else’s foreign military adventures.

We need a credible navy, and that means submarines. Nuclear submarines. As submariners like to say, there are only two kinds of ships – submarines and targets. What we have are a handful of submarines of dubious quality and lots of targets. In an actual shooting war with a real enemy how long would our frigates last? Half an hour? Of course you need frigates as escort vessels, except that we don’t have anything for them to escort.

If we scrapped the frigates and the tanks we could afford a dozen modern nuclear submarines which would be more than enough to deter any of our immediate neighbours. If you wish to deter attacks by major powers there is only one way to do that. You need a nuclear deterrent. If we spent our military budget wisely we could afford such a deterrent. Israel, with a third of Australia’s population, has a credible nuclear deterrent based to a large extent on submarine-launched cruise missiles.

We also have to consider the likely threats. Our immediate neighbours are not much danger. Indonesia’s army is intended for use against its own people, or for use against people who can’t fight back (like the West Papuans). Our only serious threat would be a major power. Russia has zero interest in our region. It’s hard to imagine India being a threat – they’re much too preoccupied with Pakistan and China. Japan is too preoccupied with China. That leaves China and the US. Only nukes would deter those powers.

We also need to consider that at the moment no-one regards us as a threat. An Australia with 100 million people would be a different proposition – we’d be a potential regional major power. If we went down the high population road we’d need a very serious military. If you’re going to put yourself forward as a major regional power you’d better be able to back up your pretensions with real military power.

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4 comments on “defending Australia

  1. >>In 1945 it was a reasonable view.

    Only it wasn't really. France was a big enough country to defend itself, and simply decided not to do that. Switzerland was nearly as small as the countries you mentioned, but its population was so very well armed and trained that Hitler decided it's not worth it.

  2. dfordoom says:

    France was a big enough country to defend itself, and simply decided not to do that.

    The French were in an awkward position once Germany was unified by Bismarck. They weren't strong enough to defeat Germany but they were strong enough to be regarded by the Germans as a threat. They were in the invidious position of being a weak great power. That's someone that neither France nor Britain has ever come to terms with. The British still fantasise about being a great power.

    And as you say, they lacked the will to fight which makes their decision to declare war rather curious. They still had the desire to be a great power but they were rotting away from within.

    I think you make a good point – being strong on paper is all very well but without the steely determination to defend your country at all costs that paper strength isn't much use.

  3. Amfortas says:

    Each point you raised has strong merit, and they are well expressed. I would not argue with any of them. There is a little of the chicken and egg conundrum in the nuclear sub issue in that with our very small population we cannot even man the token flotilla of conventional subs we have, let alone keep them ship shape. They are 'sub par' if you excuse the pun. And the enormous coastline defence (let alone shipping out to a few hundred miles) needs far more airfields and squadrons of attack fighters than we can afford and man at present.

    So, yes, a population of 100 mil would make us a 'great power' in the region, and attract greater 'respect and concern', but that is the consequence of growing up as a nation. At present we are a little rich boy in this part of the world, resentful of being ripped-off buying friends with furrin aid, paying Dane Gelt to Indonesia and smiling sweetly in a see-through dress in the UN gluttony-fest.

    The muggers await us as we step out of the restaurant.

  4. dfordoom says:

    There is a little of the chicken and egg conundrum in the nuclear sub issue in that with our very small population we cannot even man the token flotilla of conventional subs we have, let alone keep them ship shape.

    Agreed. Which is why I think we should scrap the frigates. The surface fleet should be made up of much smaller, much cheaper ocean-going patrol vessels with much smaller crews. We need a small cheap surface fleet for fisheries protection and border patrol. Essentially a coast guard. The actual navy should be all-submarine.

    That's also why I think we should scrap the tanks. They're a waste of limited manpower. If we need to reduce the size of the army to free up manpower for the navy and air force we should do so.

    That was the British strategy in the 1930s – they could not afford a large modern army as well as a large modern navy and a large modern air force so they prioritised the navy and air force. And it worked. They didn't get invaded.

    A larger population would be useful for defence purposes. The best way to achieve that would be to encourage the Australians we already have to have children. Of course that would require politically unacceptable measures such as making housing affordable.

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