The question of what type of war the ADF should be prepared to fight represents one of the ongoing points of debate in Canberra and beyond.
Blunt threats made in Chinese mainstream media, and more recent remarks by an Australian senator - that “the ADF… is unlikely to last even a few days in a high-end conflict with China” - warrant yet another examination of Australia’s strategic circumstances and the likelihood of an attack on mainland Australia.
Thinking the unthinkable
Let’s for a moment entertain the improbable: the Chinese political-military leadership decides to launch a major offensive against mainland Australia.
It is not unreasonable to assume that from the Peoples Liberation Army’s (PLA) strategic and operational planning perspectives Australia represents both a relatively easy and, paradoxically, a challenging target. Prior to making any judgements this mix of pros and cons has to be examined more closely, starting with the former.
The relative ease of attacking mainland Australia comes from the geographical distribution of our major industrial and population centres, which are located within Australia’s littoral. Over 90 per cent of the country’s population is spread along coastal areas, with a majority concentrated in a number of urban hubs located on the Pacific, Southern and Indian Ocean sides of the country.
Adding to that, some of these hubs house core elements of critical infrastructure, including major defence installations (among them bases and headquarters). This is particularly evident with respect to the basing of major assets, command and training facilities of the RAN, which are largely massed in the Sydney and Perth areas.
Such a distribution of both human and physical core infrastructure offers a technologically advanced and militarily superior adversary a multitude of opportunities, ranging from political-military blackmail in times of heightened geopolitical crisis, to limited or large-scale offensive operations in times of war.
Another important contributing factor, which a possible adversary is likely to take into account, is the combined fighting potential of the ADF.
When it comes to assessing a country’s fighting potential on a comparative basis, a number of major contributing factors needs to be taken into account. Among them are the following (but not necessarily in this exact order):
- the fighting force - its peacetime and wartime strength, and human mobilisation potential (organized defence reserves and potential for a larger-scale mobilisation);
- capacity to fight - state of combat readiness and preparedness, including levels of training and operational experience or both deployable units and reserves; state of command and coordination structures; morale and determination to fight; state of military science/strategic and military thought;
- order of battle - deployable combat and support capabilities and technological edge;
- endurance - state of national non-human reserves (arsenals, munitions, spare parts, fuel and lubricants and their replenishment capacity);
- alliances - state of existing alliances; levels of command and fighting elements integration; coordination and planning; foreign military presence and bases; levels of commitment and reliance.
The ADF is a highly trained and combat experienced battle force, which continuously invests in acquiring advanced military capabilities that enable it to operate across all current and emerging battle domains. All of the its fighting elements are in the process of qualitative force transformations, which would continue to provide the ADF’s operators with the technological edge.
In the context of the Chinese hypothetical invasion threat, two problem factors can be identified: the fighting force and the question of endurance.
It is safe to assume that in the event of a large-scale invasion of mainland Australia, the ADF’s response capacity would be overstretched beyond any reasonable expectation of waging effective defensive operations.
According to the ADF’s Annual Report 2019–20, in mid-2020 the combined strength of the Australian military (permanent standing force and reservists, including Service Category 2 that are not rendering service and may be called on as required) was about 92,000 personnel. Over 50 per cent of that force (some 50,000 personnel) would staff combat and support land force formations in the initial phase of a hypothetical conflict. This force, supported by elements of the RAAF and the RAN, could defend a specific sector or two of the Australian mainland, providing that other operational commitments (for example, garrison duties in major cities and coastline patrol) are reduced to a minimum.
Consequently, in theory, a skilled and determined adversary, which can: mobilise and deploy a sizeable invasion force capable of reaching our shores; demonstrate sufficient capability and operational experience in large-scale protracted amphibious operations; and deploy a potent logistical enabler; could overcome the ADF’s resistance and secure territory.
Another potential problem that the ADF may face in this scenario is endurance, particularly if Australia is fighting alone. Although detailed information about national stockpiles of munitions, critical spares, and fuel is not wholly open-source it is logical to expect that the ADF holds sufficient resources to engage in high tempo large scale operations for a certain period of time. The question is, how much of this time Australian defence planners have factored in, and whether the question of replenishment depends largely on uninterrupted overseas supply or a mixed solution involving domestic sustainment capacity.
The creation of the Sovereign Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordinance Enterprise is supposed to address some of these concerns. The question of fuel deposits, which has to be replenished regularly, remains.
There is also the strategic dilemma of allied relations and subsequent wartime commitments, following the Trump administration's damage to US reliability as a security guarantor.
The PLA’s capacity, or lack of it
Thanks to geography, any scenario involving an attack on mainland Australia can only be seriously entertained in the context of assessing adversarial power projection capabilities, including strategic lift. In doing so it is important to differentiate an attack from an offensive strike.
In the context of this analysis an attack includes an actual attempt to deploy adversarial offensive military power on Australia’s shores.
Offensive strike can be interpreted as a series of limited or larger scale prolonged long-distance kinetic and cyber offensive actions, conducted remotely.
In case of the PLA, the following needs to be factored in. Firstly, China has insufficient capacity to wage long distance assault operations. Despite its massive standing force, including noticeable improvements to its amphibious assault element, it is not fit to conduct a successful cross-strait amphibious invasion of nearby Taiwan (China’s number one strategic and operational priority), let alone engage in a long distance strategic hypothetical such as an invasion of Australia. The PLAN is still in the process of mastering out-of-area major battle group deployments.
Similarly, the PLA’s Airborne Corps lack air lift capacity for long distance air assault operations. Driven by the need to close the capability gap with their Russian counterparts, with which the PLA trains regularly and takes its inspiration from, it will be some time before its Airborne Corps will be able to support long distance strategic assault operations.
Finally, the PLA seriously lacks operational combat experience, including in managing expeditionary operations.
On the other hand, China deploys a comprehensive capability to engage in protracted offensive cyber operations against its adversaries. Hence, it can attack Australia by means of a sophisticated cyber offensive campaign, even without a formal declaration of hostile intent.
Secondly, China deploys a long-range strike capability (conventional and unconventional), which allows it to target Australia. It is unlikely that the PLA will risk using its ageing strategic bomber force as a long-range offensive asset against Australia. Given the absence of layered air defence capability (AD) in the ADF’s order of battle, including long-range AD systems, in theory it can wage long-range missile strikes against our key land targets (defence installations, strategic surveillance communication facilities, possibly large population centres), even though it may risk escalation to an open confrontation with the United States. Similarly, China can regularise and intensify cyber-attacks on Australian key assets to cause more disruption and inflict more damage.
If war comes tomorrow
The ADF should be readying itself for a conflict with a major military power. Even if an invasion of mainland Australia is a remote possibility, displaying an enhanced capacity to defend the mainland is an effective deterrent in its own right.
The ADF’s combat experience in campaigns fought in the Middle East and Afghanistan is valuable, but would it help to fight against a high tempo campaign near-peer adversary? As part of national preparedness response options at strategic, operational and tactical levels need to be considered.
Strategically, Washington’s reliability as a security guarantor is the core of the issue. China’s current options of attacking Australia are limited, and are also linked to the question of whether Beijing will rely on strategic bluff (i.e whether it assumes no retaliation will come its way). This raises again the question of alliance obligation, and the subsequent need by Washington to make it very clear to China that an attack on Australia will trigger an allied response.
Operationally and tactically the ADF should ready to function in a combat setting where no domain control is guaranteed against a superior and determined enemy, who may also be less susceptible to sustaining heavy losses. This guides the question of the optimal future force size, and the subsequent commitment to defence spending, as highlighted by Senator Jim Molan.
Although this is an ongoing discussion, more action is possible now. For example, the ADF can ensure command superiority by protecting its own communications, command, control, computers, intelligence and interoperability (C2I4) structures, systems and networks from hostile disruptive operations, while denying an adversary the ability to utilise theirs. It can also enhance the moral readiness and the determination of troops to fight and win under any circumstances, including unfavourable battle conditions (for example, in the absence of air superiority or sustained logistics). Finally, the question of possibly fielding long-range interceptors under AIR 6500 Phase 2 as the future component of the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defence (JIAMD) capability could be brought forward.
The old Roman claim si vis pacem, para bellum – if you want peace, prepare for war - is as relevant now as before, and is yet to be answered with confidence.
Note: Dr Alexey Muraviev is Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at Curtin University.