May 06, 2013

We rely on the US at our peril

US military dominance of Asia rests on the power of its navy, and at the centre of its navy sits the mighty aircraft carrier, the queen of the ocean. And, like a queen, each one travels with an entire court - dozens of smaller vessels, scores of aircraft and at least one submarine.Each aircraft carrier strike group represents about as much firepower as the entire armed forces of a medium-sized country.They carry such potency that,for example, when China was threatening to attack Taiwan in 1996, the US only needed to move two of them closer to the area to instantly pacify the Chinese.The US has 10 in its navy, representing half of all the aircraft carriers on earth, and two more under construction.

So it is bracing to read a report by an American naval captain and military historian that the aircraft carrier ''is in danger of becoming like the battleships it was originally designed to support: big, expensive, vulnerable - and surprisingly irrelevant to the conflicts of the time.'' In a paper published by the Centre for a New American Security in Washington, Captain Henry Hendrix argues that, as muskets and cannons overtook arrows, the aircraft carrier is being overtaken by advances in military technology.

In particular, he cites China's game-changing carrier-killing missile, the DF-21D.This missile was developed by Beijing in direct response to its impotence in the 1996 crisis. It retreated in the face of the two US aircraft carriers, but resolved to develop a way of overcoming them in the future. That future has arrived. Hendrix points out that China builds a DF-21D missile for an estimated maximum cost of $US11 million apiece. It costs the US $US13.5 billion to build an aircraft carrier. At these prices, ''China could build 1227 DF-21Ds for every carrier the United States builds,'' he writes.

''US defences would have to destroy every missile fired, a tough problem given the magazines of US cruisers and destroyers, while China would need only one of its weapons to survive to effect a mission kill.''Suddenly, the unchallenged US dominance of the Pacific looks distinctly questionable, even without taking account of the effect of cuts to the US defence budget.The Australian government has engaged in a delusion that China's rise will bring only happy things. The Gillard government's Asian century white paper sets out a mouth-watering buffet of rich economic and cultural offerings for Australia.

Its new defence white paper, delivered last Friday, finds Asia to be more ''complex'' and ''competitive'' but not terribly worrying.How could it be? Judge not by the rhetoric but the harder reality: capability.The government has cut the defence budget to its smallest as a share of GDP since the 1930s, and while the white paper contains a wish list of major aircraft and submarine acquisitions, the government offers no realistic way to pay for them. As the Lowy Institute's Rory Medcalf wrote in The Australian Financial Review, the ''chief weakness is about money. Smooth drafting cannot disguise last year's big cuts to the military budget. ''It continues to defy credibility that the promised force of 12 made-in-Adelaide submarines, joint strike fighters and so on, can be delivered unless the budget can be lifted from about 1.5 per cent towards 2 per cent of GDP.''

No such lift is in prospect from Labor. Strip out the rhetoric and look at the reality of the government's defence policy and this is what you find. Having welcomed US Marines to a new permanent presence in the Northern Territory, Australia has cut its national defence effort to its smallest since before World War II.In other words, the nation is now freeloading on the implicit guarantee of US protection, at a time when the US's relative power is at its feeblest since World War I.

Yet on the very same day the white paper was published, experts assembled by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington published this finding: China's new abilities to resist US armed force ''are casting doubt on the ability of the military forces of Japan and the US to operate freely and, if necessary, to prevail in future disputes with Beijing over a variety of contentious national security issues, from maritime territorial and resource rivalries to the handling of crises over Taiwan or North Korea''.Looking towards 2030, the report said the most likely effect was not all-out war between the US or Japan on the one side and China on the other. Most likely, it suggested, was something more subtle yet almost as pernicious: the mere build-up of Chinese armed forces would allow China to win disputes through coercion without having to declare war.

Indeed, we have already seen this, when it intimidated the Philippines into submission in a recent naval standoff.The Asian century brings tremendous opportunity to Australia, but it also brings the greatest risk to national sovereignty since the Japanese imperial expansion of World War II.The regions major powers are responding to China's power and assertiveness by arming themselves. Last year Asian countries spent more on defence than European ones. The world's top five arms importers last year were all Asian: China, India,Pakistan, Singapore and South Korea.

The government's defence blueprint, which might best be titled ''The Pollyanna Papers'', is irresponsible. Its redeeming feature is that it has a likely shelf-life as long as the lifespan of a dragonfly, from now until election day. The Coalition has promised to do better but has yet to say how.