What the United States Can Learn from Australia about Grand Strategy

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This post was accepted by the USNI press for publication in Proceedings in 2009, but hasn’t yet made it into print. Despite me signing something that said I would never let it see the light of day except in their pages, I thought it would be worthwhile to push it out here, especially with the issues in the South China Sea. The content is dated, but the thrust remains correct.

What the United States can learn from Australia about Grand Strategy


Though the Australians have had major difficulties at the tactical, operational, and even strategic levels, they have precisely prioritized the ends that they expect their defense force to achieve at the grand strategy level. That is, they make reasoned, long-term, decisions about the most important theatres of war (ends) and select the means and money (ways) to match those priorities. The United States military has a tactical, operational, and strategic prowess that is unmatched, but it lacks a rigid hierarchy of ends that is wants its military force to achieve, thus resources are allocated for ambiguous reasons at a dear price.


The Australian System

The Australians define their ‘ends’ in terms of geographic distance from the northern approaches of Australian as explicitly explained in the 1997 Australian Department of Defence document Australia’s Strategic Policy. Simply stated, the closer a region is to Australia ceterus paribus the more the defense forces will be expected to be able to accomplish in that region. Five concentric rings were drawn roughly extending outward from the top of the continent.



Ring 1 Defense of Direct Approaches

Australia needs to defend its Air-Sea gap from invasion. It expects to be able to do this independently. It expects that its military impact in this region will be completely dominant. 100% of the Australian Defence Force must be able to contribute directly to this end.


Ring 2 Stability of Immediate Neighborhood

Any state attacking Australia would need bases from which to attack it. Australia expects that it will be able to obtain the stability and amity of these states by acting independently, if necessary. Australia expects that its military impact in this ring will be decisive, but not complete. 100% of the Australian Defence Force must be able to contribute directly to this end.


Ring 3 Stability in Southeast Asia

Australia has a large stake in making sure that these countries are not dominated by large Asian powers, but these countries are too big and too distant for Australia to manage without assistance. It expects that its military impact in this ring will be substantial, but it can only operate with a coalition, though perhaps as the lead partner. 50%-75% of the Australian Defence force must be ready to serve in this contingency.


Ring 4 Stable Balance in Asia-Pacific

Australia has a large trade interest in ensuring that the balance of power in East Asia remains stable, but these countries are giants compared to Australia, so Australia only expects to act as a junior partner in a coalition with the United States in this ring. Australia expects that its military impact in this ring would be small, but perhaps significant given the small number of Asia-US alliances. Less than 50% of the force should be prepared for this eventuality, only one or two key capabilities should ever be sent.


Ring 5 Global Security

Though Australia the security and prosperity of the world are important to Australia’s trade, it cannot realistically make anything more than a symbolic commitment at this level. It must again act as a junior partner in a US or UN coalition. Less than 10% of the force will be expected to contribute to this end, and only about 1/3 of any component critical to ring one should ever be sent.


In practice, Australia is never engaged at all of these levels simultaneously, and sometimes a severe problem in a remote region (such as China invading Taiwan) may be given the same force allocation as a minor problem in its immediate neighborhood (such as internecine conflict in the Solomon Islands). Australia’s willingness to respond militarily to any conflict is thus generally defined by the number of the ring (in reverse order) times the severity of the problem.


These five rings correspond to the means the Australian Defence Force acquires to achieve them. For instance, if two acquisitions come forward, one which is primarily designed for something in ring 3 and one designed for something in ring 2, then the latter should take precedence. This system has allowed the Australians to make rational cost-benefit calculations when equipping its military. This has led to seemingly counterintuitive, but rational acquisitions. Australia has one of the most quiet, slow-moving fleets of diesel-electric submarines in the word though its territorial waters cover 10% of the earth surface. Because Australia’s primary interests lie close to home it has acquired subs which cannot travels great distances to global problems quickly, but would be invaluable to Australia or the United States if any conflict broke out its immediate this region. Because Australia’s interests lie close to home, it has not invested not had aircraft carriers for decades, but has made sure that it had basing rights and quality forward bases on the islands to its North. Australia’s conventional forces have been designed as a lightweight harrying force which would force any invader to send sufficient numbers of troops across the air-sea gap to the North of the continent that they could be detected and destroyed by Australia’s submarines and Air Force. This is an ideal force design for a country of only 20 million people surrounded by giants.


In the past four years, less rational acquisitions have been made by the Australians as they have moved away from this approach and started to believe that their interests cannot be defined by the distance from its shores. They have started to invest in low numbers of expensive equipment which they cannot effectively employ. The Australians have recently purchased Abrams tanks which they lack the logistical capacity to employ. They cannot even drive them very far from their bases in Northern Australia for fear that the bridges will collapse under their weight. These tanks have forced them to purchase four C-17s which will likely be dedicated to the tanks alone should they ever be employed in combat. They have also started building up a low-cost low-capability expeditionary force. This force will eventually look something like that of the British before their disastrous invasion of the Falklands, and will likely meet a similar fate if the Australians ever try to employ it outside of a coalition.


Despite these recent problems, the Australians have something that Americans do not have—a government endorsed standard against which pundits and policymakers routinely compare and criticize the utility of these acquisitions. One can quite easily make the case that Australia’s interests as defined by the concentric rings are not met by the recent acquisitions mentioned above. For instance, these new acquisitions will be nearly impossible for the Australians to employ independently in their own region, thus drawing effort away from the most important defense priorities where it hopes to be able to use 100% of its assets in a time of need. Put differently, when acting in US coalitions further afield, these acquisitions may have some minor utility, but it is at the expense of forces which Australia needs for more pressing issues closer-to-home thus making then poor purchases. Though they have executed it has been somewhat undermined in recent years, Australia has a distinct advantage over the United States; they have a meaningful hierarchy of strategic ends which allows them to make critical arguments about how achieve those ends at an acceptable price.


The current National Security Strategy to Quadrennial Defense review process is inadequate largely because the targets laid out in the National Security Strategy are too amorphous, and because they do not provide a meaningful prioritization of the national interests it expects the military to achieve. Prioritization is difficult; indeed, even Australia has found it hard to maintain such a categorization. But failing to choose priorities is choosing to fail at rational distribution of scarce resources.


The prioritization of defense goals is desirable, because it gives American taxpayers value-for-money. If the United States could clearly define its priorities, then Congressmen would have a reasonable standard by which to compare competing projects. Projects which do not accomplish the primary goals would be shelved for more useful and cost effective projects which achieve more important targets. Even if that failed, then just like the Australians, the congress could be roundly criticized for making acquisitions which have little utility. If these priorities become as immutable in the United States as the concentric rings approach in Australia, then there would be no need for a 4% of GDP spending target. Indeed, there is little point in having a spending target unless we are sure what we would most like to accomplish. Programs will be brought to fruition out of need rather than through porkbarrel spending. The planning horizons of defense manufactures and their long-term production targets would not fluctuate wildly. This approach could clearly increase efficiency.


The prioritization of defense spending is more than prudent, it is inevitable. Some may believe that the United States is rich enough to get by without prioritizing its efforts. Perhaps they have been correct for the past twenty years, starving Somalis could receive the same attention as Kim Jong Il without fear of stretching the military too thin; however, as the United States deals with more near-peer competitors to its hegemonic status it may no longer be able to choose the ‘all of the above’ option. Though it may be difficult to come to terms with, just as it was for the British in the 1950s as they fell from their former role as the world’s sea power, the United States may need to order its priorities and realize that it will not be able to influence everything it wants to. This would already be the case in some extreme situations. We know intuitively that it would not be possible for the United States to continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, if China invaded Taiwan and Russia and Japan went to war over the Kurils at the same time. Even the old 1-4-2-1 strategy would not accommodate this catastrophe. Even now the Air Force and the Navy have had to cut the fat and prove their utility in counterinsurgency to get their slice of the budget. If the United States could really do anything it wanted to then no trade-offs would be needed. In the future it may become necessary to decide whether peace in the Middle East or growing resentment from radical leftists in our own hemisphere is dangerous. Equally plausible, the United States may need to choose between upholding liberal democracies everywhere and protecting our NAFTA partners


Some may believe that Australia and the United States are not comparable because of the United States’ uniquely global position. They are correct in that the priorities of the United States may not fit as cleanly on a map as those of Australia, but the principle remains valid. If anything, a middle power like Australia has a more complicated job than the United States. Australia must constantly manage-up in its alliance with the United States while managing-down to all of the smaller nations of the South Pacific. The United States by contrast will not need to manage-up to anyone to ensure its security.


Just what the prioritization should be for America is a decision for the next administration, but the next National Security Strategy should clearly define priorities, not merely concerns—‘all of the above’ will not produce effective results and will lead to resource misallocation.

Interesting stuff since the last post



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