Defending Australia: Tributary State or Hard Target?

The reminder of oath at the beginning of the obstacle course, Tully Battle School, 1990. 

Danger On Our DoorstepDanger On Our Doorstep by Jim Molan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jim Molan's book is provocative but also sets out some possibilities that are certainly not far-fetched. While I felt the future scenario description was not quite in the same vein as Nevil Shute's On the Beach, it was certainly disturbing. Molan also mentions James Curran (p. 176), so I intend to read Curran's Australia's China Odyssey: From Euphoria to Fear next. I was fortunate enough to attend Curran's book launch and I bought a signed copy.

One of Molan's statements that struck me relates to the potential impact of AUKUS (p. 171):

Ironically, AUKUS increases both the likelihood that China can be deterred from taking military action, and the likelihood that a war will occur sooner.
Like many others, I had long hoped that Australia could manage our strategic relationships with the Untied States and China simultaneously, but China's "wolf warrior" diplomacy and its willingness to use trade as a "weapon" changed my tune pretty quickly. I was also concerned by the Morrison government calling out China on the origins of COVID-19 among other issues. But at the same time, teaching political leadership and considering the likes of Neville Chamberlain and his firm belief that appeasement was working only makes me glad that Morrison had the fortitude to call China out on its shenanigans.

On a more mundane level, the term "Contested Logistics" (p. 222) was new to me. One of the United States' major strengths has been its logistics capabilities. But Australia is not so well-regarded. For example, following the shortages of toilet paper and food in Australia on a whim during the pandemic, it is clear that Australia's capacity for basic logistics is lacking, which makes me wonder about our capacity for contested logistics. Molan discusses "national capacity" as the population's willingness to fight and win a war, and this is an area that bothers me the most.

In my most recent article in The Spectator Australia, I argued that universities following woke trends from the US are making us "harmless". Molan (p. 258) argues that universities (along with other institutions) have a key role to address "deficiencies in skills enhancement". But I think universities are not even close to having a meaningful impact on skills enhancement and we are encouraging neither "self-reliance" nor "resilience" (p. 268) in our students. In fact, I believe we are encouraging a fragmented society that neither could nor would be willing to win a war, even in self-defence. While I do hope I am wrong, and that the current woke trend will pass, Molan paints a picture that we should not ignore if we are to continue to live our rather blessed lives as we have done since the end of World War II.

This is an important book in that it raises a number of issues and scenarios that policymakers need to heed. But I do believe that policymakers in the national security sector are so institutionalised as to reinforce these very institutions through returns that reward sticking with the norm. Molan does suggest that Australia needs a national security strategy that is not just run by Defence.

But with interest groups in the Defence Industry sector so tightly entwined, I suspect we will have to suffer the initial losses that democracies tend to suffer at the beginning of wars as we have done in previous wars. Molan provides ample warning for this, but I really do worry that contemporary Australians would rather we became a "tributary state" than stand our ground or present a hard target.

Molan writes that when people ask him what we need to do, they immediately rattle off (p. 252):

B-21 bombers, F-22 fighters, conscription, reform of the Federation, nuclear weapons, a nuclear power industry...
I, too, have been guilty of looking to technologies rather than strategies. But at the same time, we do not have real policy debates where we focus on obtaining rigorous answers to difficult strategic questions. If we leave it up to the existing institutions, we get the same result. If we open it up to free and open debate, we are telegraphing our intentions.

Neither solution is adequate, and while Molan provides some of the important questions, he does not provide the solutions (nor could one person). Nevertheless, this is quite a thought-provoking work and it is well worth a read as it provides an important starting point for an Australian national security strategy.

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