- The Indo-Pacific has emerged as the main theatre of escalating Sino-US strategic competition, and this is likely to superimpose itself on a raft of underlying Asian rivalries and insecurities with unpredictable consequences. As such, this new era of regional volatility has provided significant impetus to reviving debate on the security of Australia’s vulnerable northern recesses.
- Given this geo-political reality, the correct strategy for Australia in the 2020s is a clearly a maritime one with an integral role for the Army in a joint force. While the ADF has long considered itself a ‘two ocean force’ its capability and concept of operations would benefit from a land force that conceives of itself in terms of a wider strategic philosophy of land power. Such a strategic philosophy needs to cover not just contingencies in the Pacific but also those that may involve the Indian Ocean.
- As an instrument of statecraft, the Army must be ready to undertake a suite of missions in the Indo-Pacific region emphasising confidence-building measures such as military diplomacy, combined training exercises, international military exchange programs, security force assistance programs, mentoring-training and stability activities up to, and including, the possibility of engaging in simultaneous combat missions, and littoral manoeuvre operations.
- To accomplish this mosaic of tasks, the Army needs to be a larger establishment by some 4000-5000 soldiers and, given the acceptance of the Indo-Pacific strategic concept in Canberra, there is a case to be made for a greater land force presence in Western Australia. One option would be to station a regular battalion capable of amphibious operations in the Perth metropolitan area with the reserve 13th Brigade providing support.
If the Indo-Pacific geo-political concept is to amount to more than strategic rhetoric, Australia needs to consider Southeast Asia as a convergent maritime hub that constitutes not a ‘sea-air gap’, but a ‘sea-air-land’ bridge into the Malay archipelago that runs from Java to Fiji. A joint and balanced ADF is required with Australian land power reconceived within a ‘two-ocean’ maritime strategic context.
The Great Rampart
On 10 September 1919, then Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes made one of the foundational statements on Australian strategy when he told the House of Representatives ”in order that Australia be safe, it is necessary that the great rampart of islands stretching around the north-east of Australia should be held by us or by some Power in whom we have absolute confidence”.
A century later, Hughes’ warning is more relevant than ever, especially as Sino-American strategic rivalry intensifies and Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands appear vulnerable to Beijing’s coercive diplomacy and economic expansion.
Yet, securing the ‘great rampart’ of the northern island chains directly challenges an evolving myth in contemporary Australian strategic discourse – namely, that the changing balance of power in the Indo-Pacific area will reduce the importance of the Army in the conduct of statecraft.
Today, as Sino-American strategic rivalry intensifies across the Indo-Pacific oceans it seems that sea and air power are more significant to Australian security than soldiers. This is a view that runs contrary to the central reality of Australia’s strategic history: the continual reliance of statecraft upon expeditionary land power elements from Europe to Asia and the Middle East.
The concept of land power can be defined as ‘the ability in peace, crisis and war to exert prompt and sustained influence on, or from, land’. In Australia’s case, because the Army has been drawn from a relatively small population base, land power has always been related not to quantity and mass but to the quality and effectiveness of the deployed military forces in achieving disproportionate strategic effects.
It is this qualitative force equation that has governed the use of the Army (1st Australian Imperial Force, AIF) from Monash on the Western Front in 1918, through Blamey and the 2nd AIF in the 1942-1945 Southwest Pacific campaign, to the Australian Army’s ‘wars of diplomacy’ – from Korea in 1950 through Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam to East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan more recently.
The Army in the Indo-Pacific
For those who discount the future role of the Australian Army in the Indo-Pacific, it is worth noting that, with the exceptions of Iraq and Somalia, every large land force deployment since the formation of the Australian Army in 1947 has been in Asia – the area in which former Prime Minister Robert Menzies said that Australia must assume ”primary responsibilities and primary risks”.
Indeed, one can make a strong case that the wars of the 1950s and 1960s in Asia shaped much of the outlook and ethos of the Army, both as an instrument of national power and as a fighting force.
The Army’s deployment to Korea in 1950 was a major component in Percy Spender’s diplomatic success in forging the 1951 ANZUS Pact as Minister of External Affairs and then Australia’s Ambassador to Washington.
Moreover, Korea was the arena where the Army cut its professional teeth – in the battles of Kapyong and Maryang San in Korea. Similarly, fighting insurgent movements in Malaya and Borneo throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s helped develop the land force’s jungle warfare and counter-insurgency skills.
Finally, much of the modern expeditionary skill of the Army was forged by the 7000 strong Australian Task Force serving in South Vietnam from the mid-1960s until the early 1970s.
Today, the seminal experience for a generation of Australian diggers is less the niche operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, than the major intervention in East Timor in 1999 which Australia led and, in doing so, fielded 5500 troops.
Apart from the Army’s relations with its English-speaking peers, it is in the Indo-Pacific where the Army retains its most important 21st century military-to-military links with key countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
A cursory glance at the public statements of Army chiefs over two decades – ranging from LTGEN John Sanderson who led the peacekeeping operation in Cambodia in the early 1990s to the present incumbent, LTGEN Rick Burr, reveals the primary importance that the Army’s senior leadership assigns to Asia.
In the years ahead, it is more than likely that the Army will perform as an instrument of national statecraft in the Indo-Pacific. This is likely particularly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. Australia is situated adjacent to the Malay Archipelago which contains the largest group of islands in the world (13,000 in Indonesia, 7000 in the Philippines with 85,000km of waterways).
Given this geo-political reality, the correct strategy for Australia in the 2020s is a clearly a maritime one with an integral role for the Army in a joint force capable of operating across the ‘sea-air-land’ bridge to the north.
A properly articulated Australian maritime strategy needs to be able to draw on the Army’s long history of deployments in Asia – stretching from the Southwest Pacific campaign of 1941-1945 to the East Timor deployments in the new century.
We need to remember that ‘maritime’ is an environmental term and not a naval service definition. Unlike naval strategy, a maritime strategy aims at control of the sea as a means, not an end.
To paraphrase Sir Julian Corbett, a prominent British naval historian and geo-strategist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this is because goals and missions are always governed by the capacity of joint forces to achieve political effects on land.
A major characteristic of the evolving Indo-Pacific region will be that Southeast Asia will become a key intermediate strategic archipelago and a ‘convergent maritime hub’ between India and China. It is here that inter-state rivalry and non-state security threats may intersect with fragile governance, Islamist and separatist insurgencies, terrorism and piracy.
The rise of Sino-American competition in the Indo-Pacific should not blind us to the volatile cocktail of potential armed conflicts that loom in the northern archipelagos in the years ahead. As during the Cold War, a bipolar contest – in this case Sino-American contest – is likely to superimpose itself on a raft of underlying Asian rivalries and insecurities with unpredictable consequences.
As a result, the Army must be ready to undertake a suite of missions in Southeast Asian and South Pacific conditions.
These involve: regional engagement measures (military diplomacy, combined training exercises, international military exchange programs, and confidence-building measures), cooperative regional intervention operations (security force assistance programs, mentoring-training and stability activities up to, and including, the possibility of engaging in simultaneous combat missions), and littoral manoeuvre operations (involving projecting amphibious forces into the northern archipelago in entry from the air and sea missions).
Indo-Pacific Force Posture
To accomplish this mosaic of tasks, the Army needs to be a larger establishment by some 4000-5000 soldiers and, given the acceptance of the Indo-Pacific strategic concept in Canberra, there is a case to be made for a greater land force presence in Western Australia. Former Army chief, LTGEN (Rtd) Peter Leahy has advanced the notion of an ‘Indo-Pacific Army’.
Similarly, former Defence Minister, Kim Beazley, has observed that there is what he calls “an unimpeachable case” for a larger land force presence in the west, to provide greater security for the mineral-rich North West that adjoins Sumatra and Java in the central Indonesian archipelago.
It is certainly the case that we need to review what a coherent Indo-Pacific joint operating doctrine would mean for the ADF in future years. As part of this process of review, consideration needs to be given by Canberra strategic policymakers to the possibility of enlarging and deepening the land force’s footprint in the west.
One option would be to station a regular battalion capable of amphibious operations in the Perth metropolitan area with the reserve 13th Brigade providing support
The idea of a larger land force in WA is unlikely to commend itself to current strategic policymakers in Canberra grappling with a major submarine project and a defence budget not yet at 2% of GDP.
Yet, if the Indo-Pacific strategic concept is to amount to more than mere rhetoric, there needs to be serious geo-political analysis of what it may mean in the future for the ADF to operate jointly across a convergent maritime hub characterised by an archipelagic geography.
While the ADF has long considered itself a ‘two ocean force’ its capability and concept of operations would benefit from a land force that conceives of itself in terms of a wider strategic philosophy of land power. Such a strategic philosophy needs to cover not just contingencies in the Pacific but also those that may involve the Indian Ocean.
We should remember that the ADF has deployed into the Indian Ocean littoral on several occasions previously, including a major operation in Somalia and relief missions into Indonesia.
A larger Army, in conjunction with the Navy must continue its amphibious focus and seek to integrate littoral-archipelagic ‘narrow seas’, estuarine and riverine concepts of manoeuvre into a coherent mission repertoire, carefully embedded within a comprehensive framework of joint expeditionary warfare.
Moreover, given the demographic realities emanating from the rapid urbanisation of Indo-Pacific littoral areas, the Army needs to consider the uncomfortable implications of future urban operations in parts of Southeast Asia.
The prolonged 2017 battle for Marawi in Mindanao in the Philippines is an uncomfortable reminder that Asia is home to rapidly urbanising populations which may confront land forces with cityscape conflicts in the future. Indeed, Marawi was the biggest urban warfare encounter in Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War’s battle of Hue in 1968.
Future Expeditionary Army
In the 2020s, the Australian Army must view itself as an operational force capable of exerting land power for strategic effect across the Indo-Pacific spectrum of peace, crisis and war – from humanitarian relief through peacekeeping to the ultimate test of warfighting.
The weight of Australia’s military experience instructs us that we can never rule out certain kinds of conflict in advance, no matter how unlikely these may seem at any given moment. In 1910, the likelihood that Australia would send thousands of troops to fight in France within five years would have seemed ludicrous.
In 1947, anyone who suggested that within three years Australian soldiers would be fighting North Korean and Chinese forces on mainland Asia, would have been dismissed as a fantasist. Closer to our own times, no Australian strategist foresaw the crises of East Timor, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq or the Arab uprisings.
As we consider the menu of possibilities for future conflict in the Indo-Pacific strategic theatre we should remember that until strategic assumption translates into accurate strategic forecasts, our only recourse to uncertainty must be to keep swords sharp, powder dry and historical memories clear.
To paraphrase Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, strategy, like life, is lived forwards but it is always understood backwards.
It is imperative, then, that Australia maintains an ADF that possesses a strong and vibrant Army that straddles a two-ocean geo-political construct, and one that is always capable of fulfilling its historic role of conducting expeditionary operations to uphold both our global and regional interests, and our values as a liberal democracy.
*This article was first published in the WA DEFENCE REVIEW’s 2019 Annual Publication and can be viewed online here: https://wadefencereview.com.au/publication/
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are that of the author’s only and do not necessarily represent the views of WA DEFENCE REVIEW.