If there is any consensus among commentators on geopolitics and strategic policy, it is that the world is entering into uncertain and dangerous times. In the term of the next Australian government political leadership could confront grave situations requiring decisions about war and peace. Few of Australia’s leaders, if any, have seen combat let alone managed existential questions at the national strategic level.
There have been wars that have brought forth and tempered national leaders; the Napoleonic wars, the American Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, and, most recently, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, for example. Rarely more than a generation apart, this meant the political class generally contained members with first-hand experience of combat and some practical knowledge of the mechanics of deploying and sustaining service personnel and military equipment. This is now rare.
Governments must now draw on the military, public servants, academics, and think tanks for advice on policies and strategies. While this has always been so, the learning curve for the next set of leaders will be steep as they seek to filter, prioritise, organise, and integrate the avalanche of intelligence, analysis, theories and policy prescriptions.
In terms of education, training, professionalism, and development, ADF officers stand in high regard irrespective of which social or political cadre they are compared. But their profession is that of arms. Although a rough generalisation, and there are outstanding exceptions, it is correct to say they are mostly unfamiliar with the demands of politics and the nuances of diplomacy. For many force is always an early option in a crisis. Thinking of national strategy as something beyond the battlespace doesn’t always come easy.
The public service also boasts many capable and well educated people. The available evidence, however, indicates a narrow strategic perspective. The habits developed in the long march with the United States through the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Middle East conflicts, and the War on Terror since the founding of ANZUS shape the public service security community’s view.
The deep reliance on the United States for military equipment and technology, intelligence, and strategic thinking has conditioned the public services to default to American objectives and leadership. There are isolated contrarian individuals, however the interpretation of the world and geopolitics presented by public service leaders rarely varies from that of the United States. As a source of advice to government on war and peace they are likely to be predictable and mundane, where prudence, flexibility, and innovation are required.
The proliferation of think tanks gives the external impression of a robust policy debate. This should be the case as Australia now boasts a number of high quality centres of learning focussed on national security; the National Security College and ANU Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, among them. Compared to a couple of decades ago there are many more Australians with formal qualifications in defence and security and currently researching matters of strategic relevance.
Little of the production of this growing expertise is concerned with actual war and its consequences. Not surprising, given the absence of war as a lived reality for Australians over the past for decades. Conflicts have been far away against adversaries of less military capability, and negligible ability to strike back.
The elephant in the Cabinet Room here is a war with China. The next prime minister could usefully break with the traditional National Security Committee of Cabinet or supplement it with a select group. Not to discuss issues like national security, or border security, or terrorism. They get plenty of attention. A group of trusted and accomplished but varied people—certainly a couple of senior military officers and diplomats, but also a couple of historians, an academic strategist, a philosopher maybe, a retired minster or two, a couple of CEOs of big companies, a newspaper editor, even an economist and a public health expert—who gather regularly to discuss war.
Not just military equipment and security challenges. They would be considering the vulnerability of the Australian mainland to attack in a major conflict, the number of Australian civilian deaths and casualties might be incurred, what strategic objectives would justify them, and the possible regional circumstances Australian might be left facing following a major East Asian war. The group could workshop and perhaps instigate the national planning required to go on to a war footing. This would be a genuinely frank and fearless forum.
They could investigate the changes to government administration that might be required in a war and how the relationships between government and business, and with the population will need to change to maximize the chances of success. War, major war, as distinct from deploying force elements far away as part of an overwhelming coalition, is a complicated and demanding national enterprise. At a minimum, the prime minister would need an unrestrained counterbalance to institutional advice.
Most importantly, the select group might help the prime minister and her ministers think through how to avoid falling unintentionally into a major war because of inadequate preparation.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.