Down Under

 Defence must arm up for ‘Asian threat’

Mark Dodd | March 25, 2008

A MASSIVELY restructured Australian Defence Force equipped with a fleet of 400 advanced combat aircraft and 30submarines could be needed to provide for the nation’s security and counter the rise of Asian powers, a former senior defence official has recommended.

In a paper published in the latest edition of the Kokoda Foundation Security Challenge series, Ross Babbage – a former senior defence official and now adviser to Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon – recommends a home-grown military capability that could “rip the arm off” any threatening Asian power.

The paper, based on comments made at a forum late last year, warns that Australia’s most pervasive challenge is likely to be the rise of major Asian powers.

Professor Babbage says the primary challenge for the Rudd Government’s coming defence white paper – designed to map out Australia’s defence needs and possible threats – is how to shape the nation’s security approach for the next 40 years.

Australia would need to be able to stand its ground among its Asian neighbours, he warned, citing the rise of Indonesia, India and China.

“Nevertheless, despite the myriad uncertainties, the seemingly irresistible strategic tide with which Australian defence planners will need to come to terms is that the country will be walking among giants, some of whom may not be friendly,” Professor Babbage says.

One option would be a modernised version of the current ADF, capable of modest independent operations in partnership with the US.

Professor Babbage says that makes sense only if the strategic environment of 2025-40 is similar to that of today.

“A strong case can be made that, in the markedly altered future we seem likely to face, Australian governments will want rather more from the defence organisation,” he says.

In the post-Vietnam War 1970s, Australia’s military doctrine was one of self-reliance, with an emphasis on protecting the country’s northern maritime approaches.

But the 1999 intervention in East Timor – a half-island territory lying just 600km from Darwin – highlighted the ADF’s acute logistical problems, notably the inability of the air force and navy to move large numbers of troops and military equipment.

It spurred a sharp response by the Howard government and a welcome revamp of the ADF’s depleted military inventory, including the purchase of new warships, planes and tanks.

The current strength of the all-volunteer ADF is about 71,000, including reservists, with plans to expand the full-time force from about 51,000 to 57,000.

The Government has ordered 100 Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to fill the role of the soon-to-be retired F-111 bomber fleet and F/A-18 Hornets.

At a cost of $16billion and rising, they are not expected to arrive until 2018, and 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets have been ordered to bridge the looming defence capability gap.

The Babbage plan for 30 submarines comes at a time when the crew-strapped Royal Australian Navy can barely keep three Collins Class subs operating out of a fleet of six.

Mr Fitzgibbon said Professor Babbage’s article highlighted “the complex questions we need to ask ourselves as we develop the new white paper”.

Additional reporting: AAP

Source: The Australian

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