Mention power projection in Australian defence circles, and the conversation will default to talking about ADF readiness and reach. Fundamentally, it is about when ‘we’ go over ‘there’.
But what happens if ‘they’ come over ‘here’?
Depending on your perspective, Australia’s remoteness means it suffers from the tyranny of distance or is enveloped in splendid isolation. It is a long way from anywhere. In the last 60,000 years the island continent’s isolation has been breached persistently on three occasions: the appearance of Australia’s first peoples, the arrival of British colonists (alright, convicts), and Japanese air and sea raiders during World War 2.
On all three occasions, the world changed dramatically for Australia’s existing inhabitants.
The world has been changing for Australia’s contemporary inhabitants for a while. The change is accelerating and deepening, and the government is responding through legislation, policy, and investment. But for many Australians it has not quite hit home yet because the impacts have been intangible.
The world’s economic and political centre of gravity – once comfortingly distant in Europe and the North Atlantic – is moving ever nearer. Where middle-power Australia was once a regional economic heavyweight, it will soon find itself a middle power “walking amongst giants” as Coral Bell, the late great Australian international relations scholar, put it.
This growth also means that, for the first time since British settlement, the world’s largest navy belongs to someone other than Australia’s major security partner. The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s new status as the world’s largest is emblematic of a broader shift in relative military power.
This shift has manifested through PLA power projection in recent years to make the changing world very tangible for Taiwan, Japan, and the nations around the South China Sea.
China has dramatically increased the tempo and scale of its air and sea activity around Taiwan over the past few years. PLA combat aircraft now routinely circumnavigate the island of Taiwan and probe its airspace. In 2020, Beijing openly disregarded the Median Line – a long-standing convention to keep Chinese and Taiwanese fighters on their respective sides of the Taiwan Strait – to increase the pressure on Taiwan’s fighter fleet.
A similar effort has been directed at Japan, with some effect. After successive years of increasing PLA (and Russian) air activity drove huge increases in Japanese fighter sorties, Japan tightened its intercept criteria. This reduced sortie rates and relieved pressure on its overworked F-15J force, but left PLA aircraft freer to roam close to Japan. As Peter Layton said, “the in-service life of Japan’s F-15J fleet is now almost a decision that lies with China.”
Closer to Australia, Beijing has turned the South China Sea into a Chinese lake. PLA Navy and Chinese Coast Guard warships dominate the sea, and the skies are patrolled by PLA fighters and surveillance aircraft. Artificial island fortresses capable of hosting regiments of aircraft, fleets of ships, and battalions of missiles dot the area.
The question south of China is no longer what the PLA can project to the South China Sea, but what forces Beijing can project from the South China Sea.
For well over a decade, the PLA Navy has maintained task groups in the Indian Ocean to support a variety of outcomes, including counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. In 2017, a Chinese surveillance ship was publicly noted parking itself off the coast of Queensland to monitor the ADF’s largest biennial exercise, Talisman Sabre. Subsequent Talisman Sabre exercises in 2019 and 2021 have received similar attention. It is nice to know someone is interested!
Importantly, apart from its island-building and territorial claims in the South China Sea, China’s power projection activity has been consistent with international law and the rules-based order Australia’s defence policy seeks to strengthen and preserve. As I draft this article, a Royal Navy aircraft carrier and her multinational escorts are exercising freedom of navigation in the South China Sea – an awfully long way from Britain – and there are undoubtedly American ships and aircraft operating legally along China’s periphery.
What does all this have to do with Australia and its inhabitants?
Bluntly, PLA peacetime power projection is quite likely to be the hard edge that makes Australia’s new reality very tangible for the island continent, its peoples, and its defence force.
The softening up has been under way for several years. China’s questionable and coercive trade practices have impacted significant parts of the Australian economy. Foreign interference in civil, political, and educational organisations, along with unprecedented espionage and cyber activity has prompted – perhaps unexpectedly for a Chinese Communist Party accustomed to getting its own way – a hardening of Australia’s legal, regulatory, and policy settings.
In physical terms, PLA ships in Australia’s vicinity are undoubtedly of high interest to the ADF, and the Chinese spy ships in the Coral Sea to monitor Talisman Sabre garnered significant but fleeting media attention. But these have been episodic and largely out-of-sight incidents; noticed by few, and soon forgotten by others.
When Beijing directs the PLA to establish and demonstrate a persistent physical presence in Australia’s periphery, the tyranny of distance will take on a totally different meaning for Australians, and the isolation will no longer be so splendid.
The sobering reality is that projecting air and sea power into Australia’s periphery on a regular basis, while not without its challenges, is relatively straightforward. From China’s bases in the Spratly Islands to Darwin is approximately 3,000km as the crow flies. Sailing or flying via the Makassar and Lombok straits – one of multiple international passages through the Indonesian archipelago – pushes the distance to over 4,000km.
Departing from the Spratly Island bases, a ship or task group averaging 10-15 knots could cover this distance in a bit over a week. In the next decade, such a task group could include aircraft carriers of similar tonnage and capacity to the US Navy’s Nimitz or new Ford class carriers.
But a pair of PLA H-6N bombers, the air-air refuellable variant of the venerable 1950s airframe, at a cruising speed just over 400 knots would enter the Indian Ocean about four hours after takeoff, and approach Darwin an hour later.
Depending on the H-6N’s communications fitout, the photographs of a “nuclear-capable” PLA H-6 bomber flying over Australia’s exclusive economic zone with Darwin, and its infamous port, in the background could hit the internet a few hours later. Fighters launched from a Chinese carrier group operating in the Timor Sea could produce a similar portrait.
Many will point out that such an activity is perfectly legal, entirely within international norms, and that a pair of unarmed bombers does not constitute a viable strike package. These points are correct, but not relevant.
What is relevant is the visible presence of PLA military assets in the vicinity of Australia. What is relevant is how many times this has happened. What is relevant is whether an RAAF fighter aircraft is in the photo with the Chinese aircraft and Darwin.
The political and media furore over the first such incidents, and the adequacy of the ADF’s response, will be disproportionate and largely disregard logic and reason. Australians, and their governments, are sensitive about the integrity of their borders and approaches, and this sensitivity will be exploited by all sides.
In the longer term, a sustained effort by the PLA to project air and sea power into Australia’s approaches will strain the ADF and its partner organisations in many, many ways. The enormity of Australia’s air and sea space will starkly contrast with the resources available to monitor and patrol it.
Choices will be essential in balancing this equation. Like the Brisbane Line of World War 2, clear decisions on which areas take priority, and under what conditions responses will be activated, will be needed. The unhappiness of Australians dissatisfied with their level of priority will be a factor.
When ‘they’ can come over ‘here’ at a time and place of their choosing, it turns ‘here’ into an active area of operations – permanently. Large parts of the RAAF and RAN spent 1942-45 patrolling and defending the Australian continent against Japanese air and sea raiders. Sustained counter-smuggling operations off Australia over the past two decades have placed enormous strains on patrol resources.
This means any traditional ADF expeditionary operation – when we go over there – will automatically open a second area of operations. Resources and risks will need to be shared between the two, and it is hard to conceive of expeditionary needs taking precedence over a homeland under pressure. Indeed, ADF power projection may come to focus within Australia’s own vast expanses.
The equation will also compel hard choices about assets and equipment. Even with the enormous investment in ADF equipment over the next decade, force structure trade-offs will be required as the balances between discretionary and non-discretionary ADF commitments changes. Force modernisation and maintenance will be conflicting priorities as sustainment costs increase.
Assets and equipment – like the Japanese F-15J fleet the PLA seems intent on exhausting – are only part of this equation. The number of people – in uniform, the public service, and industry – needed to operate, maintain, and sustain a state of essentially permanent high readiness is many multiples of Australia’s present defence workforce.
Force generation and sustainment arrangements will need to be reconsidered, as having somebody else’s hand on the ADF’s rate-of-effort throttle will play havoc with long-term readiness, resourcing, and rest plans. The use of consumables such as fuel, operating hours, spares, expendables, and crews, will skyrocket, and the strain on key enablers such as intelligence and communications will be acute.
Training will have to be tightly focused on immediate priorities as persistent operational tasks burn time and resources. High-end aspirations may have to make way for domestic drudgery.
None of this is unusual for the people, governments, and militaries of Japan or Taiwan. Comparisons can be drawn with Soviet activities during the Cold War and with resurgent Russian pressure in contemporary Europe. However, aside from nuclear arsenals, the Dragon is a much larger and more powerful presence than the Bear, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.
Australia has had a taste of the changing world already, as a dissatisfied and coercive Beijing has sought to pressure and punish. The hardening of the island continent’s internal and external defences has begun.
But the changing world will really hit home when someone else’s warships and combat aircraft patrol the island continent’s periphery when and where they please. When ‘they’ come over ‘here’, it will fundamentally change the ADF’s power projection concept and calculus.
This article appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of ADBR.