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On Target: Similarities from 1925

Brian Weston 'On Target: Similarities from 1925' in Australian Defence Business Review , September-October 2019 p 80

In the On Target column of the July/August Australian Defence Business Review, Alan Stephens concluded the three-part series on Sir Richard Williams by outlining Williams’ concept of operations for the defence of Australia ‒ a document of sixty-eight pages titled a “Memorandum Regarding the Air Defence of Australia”.

Some of the themes Williams identified in his concept of operations, drafted in 1925, bear similarities to Australia’s circumstances of today.

The first was the importance of Australia’s geo-strategic setting. Williams placed emphasis on Australia’s proximity to South-east Asia and of the importance of Australia’s north and north-eastern maritime approaches, and their island chains, to the defence of Australia. As Alan Stephens noted in his column, it was not until 1987 that Australia’s geo-strategic setting was again so clearly identified, by Paul Dibb, as a critical policy determinant in Australian defence policy. No doubt, Williams would have endorsed the geo-strategic perspective evident from the Azimuthal Equidistant Projection attached to the inside rear cover of the Department of Defence policy paper Defence of Australia – 1987, some 62 years after Williams’ 1925 memorandum.

The second similarity was of the expanding influence of an emerging Asian power. In Williams’ day it was Japan building on its early military success in defeating the Russian Baltic fleet at the Battle of Tsushima Strait in 1905, with covetous eyes on neighbouring lands. An aggressive strategic aspiration later formalised under the innocuous label of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. But while some recognised Japan as an emerging threat, it was not a universally accepted view even after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931.

In 1934, Australia’s leading industrialist, Essington Lewis, visited Japan. He returned to Australia surprised at Japan’s industrial capacity. He had also been unsettled by the menace and aggression evident within Japan. He reported in those terms to the Australian government and while his reporting stimulated an increased awareness of the threat Japan posed, history records the actions taken by the Australian government were far short of what was warranted.

Today the emerging Asian power is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a totalitarian state under the governance of the Communist Party of China, with aspirations as both a global and regional power; as evidenced by its occupation and militarisation of the South China Sea in defiance of a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Some commentators seem to place little weight on this occupation and militarisation, preferring to draw solace from China’s role as one of the world’s major trading economies, somewhat akin to how some dismissed the events which took place in the Tsushima Strait in 1905.

As for national governance, while the detail of Japan’s then militaristic autocracy is different from that of today’s PRC, in both instances the then Japan and today’s PRC were and are one-party states; well-able to plan and take decisions that nations with a democratic form of government cannot. Add to this, the soft power being acquired and projected by the PRC and of its disregard for established conventions in such matters as the acquisition of technology, and it would seem there is little to hold back coercion as a means of advancing PRC national interests.

Third, Williams was concerned that the scope and utility of a new military capability ‒ air power ‒ was generally neither understood nor recognised, and he went on to articulate a concept of operations advocating the emerging capabilities of aircraft in Australia’s national security policy. At the time, his concept of operations was given little credence but once World War II broke out, it was clear advances in aeronautic technologies had revolutionised military operations.

Today, there is a plethora of advancing technologies, many with scope for military application, such as autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, intercontinental strike, space and cyber, which, when taken together with soft-power such as “debt-bombs” and social media, will have a significant impact on military operations. But more importantly, these developments open the door to new strategies and to new ways a nation state, or non-state actor, can influence, intimidate, control or prosecute an aggressive campaign against other nations.

While the term “asymmetric warfare” has long been in the politico-military lexicon, that lexicon is currently under revision as, new chapters about new ways of prosecuting aggressive campaigns against nation states are being added.

While hopefully the net effect of these changes may be to lower the risk of large-scale war between nations due the grave risks involved in twenty-first century conflicts, they do substantially increase the likelihood of smaller-scale aggressive and coercive campaigns to advance a nation’s national interests. Australia would be well-wise to understand the world’s post-1945 system of established “rules-based international order” is being superseded.

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation and On Target is published as a regular column in the Australian Defence Business Review.

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