China rising: a paradigm shift for the ADF
1 June 2022
Australia is facing an existential crisis that demands immediate and radical action. The confluence of China’s rise, a declining America, and the parlous state of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) pose the gravest threat to Australia since 1942 and overshadows all other issues facing the nation.
This pending emergency warrants a new model for defence planning, funding, and decision-making.
The new system should consist of three distinct, but complementary, components: a coherent defence strategy, a Defence Levy to fund the ADF sufficiently to execute this strategy, and a legislative and bureaucratic apparatus to ensure that decisions are made for strategic – not political – reasons.
While such a model is imperfect, the alternative is to continue down the path of ignorance and inaction that may see the nation’s fate surrendered to the odious designs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The argument for an immense increase in defence funding and an overhaul of defence decision-making has never been more compelling. The rapid expansion of China’s military, with its strategic ambitions within Australia’s sphere of influence, represents an existential threat. The advent of a China-Solomon Islands Security Pact has brought this reality into stark relief.
At the same time, the bedrock of Australia’s national security, the American and wider Western Alliance, are in decline and can no longer be relied upon in this new and suddenly dangerous world.
The alarming speed and scale of China’s military expansion is a harbinger for a new global power struggle.
Ultimate Chinese supremacy is not guaranteed, but its trajectory indicates that it will soon, if it doesn’t already, possess the capability to challenge America militarily within Asia. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Navy (PLAN) are both estimated to be the largest in the world. While it makes sense that a nation of 1.4 billion people would have an army larger than America’s, China’s possession of a larger navy would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
Although the US military retains overall superiority, it has admitted that it could lose a war with China.
The most likely place for a war to breakout is on China’s doorstep and will give the CCP a profound home-team advantage. US forces, concentrated around vulnerable naval assets, could be devastated by a hail of Chinese missiles, as predicted by the doctrine of Rapid Dominance.
The distance between America and its surviving Asian assets would create a crippling logistical impediment thereafter. Moreover, US forces are spread throughout the world and it would be attempting to face China with a fraction of its overall strength.
After being comprehensively expelled from Asia, America would take months to muster a counterattack force. Having lost dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft, and many thousands of lives, would the superpower be willing to risk its remaining assets by sailing them, once again, within range of Chinese missiles?
It is no longer the case that China’s large number of ships and aircraft are offset by their antiquity.
The most recent Chinese aircraft, such as the J-20 fighter, have been designed with the use of (probably) stolen US military secrets, and the PLAN’s latest ship, the Type 055 Destroyer, is believed to be vastly superior to all but the newest US Navy (USN) vessels. Indeed, the Ticonderoga Class cruisers comprise about one-fifth of USN major surface combatants and are 30-40 years old. Meanwhile, the Arleigh Burke Class destroyer constitutes about two-thirds of USN major surface combatants and was designed in the 1980s. Updated versions of this archaic destroyer form the bulk of America’s ships on the production line. Astoundingly, there are claims that early designs for its replacement are blatant copies of the Chinese Type 055 Destroyer. If true, this would represent an inversion of the technological relationship between the USN and PLAN.
The ongoing rate at which China is expanding its military, particularly its navy, is equally concerning. While the Pentagon’s fleet shrinks every year, China’s 17 shipyards launch naval vessels at a pace unseen since the era of Pearl Harbour. Therefore, the disparity in size between the American and Chinese navies is increasing.
A situation has emerged whereby the PLAN has or will soon have a fleet concentrated in the Western Pacific that is both numerically superior and technologically-equivalent to that of the scattered American fleet.
The dramatic expansion and increased lethality of the PLA has been matched by a hardening of Chinese belligerence toward the rules-based global order (RBGO), democracy, and Australia.
Were favourable circumstances to prevail, China could use its newfound strength to seize Taiwan. For what other purpose would it build such a military?
Former US Indo-Pacific Commander, Admiral Philip Davidson, predicted last year that a Chinese assault on Taiwan may occur within six years. Such an act, if opposed by America, would spark regional or potential world war depending on the powers involved. If unopposed, it is likely to trigger the collapse of American influence in Asia and facilitate the projection of Chinese power throughout the region. Alas, circumstances favourable to China continue to evolve.
US and Western Decline
Both as a consequence of, and for reasons other than China’s ascent, America is in decline.
Claims that it is in absolute decline remain debatable, but, given the pace of China’s ascent, it certainly seems to be in relative decline. Nevertheless, ten years after President Obama announced the US military’s ‘Asian Pivot’ there has been little evidence of any meaningful change to its force posture. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that President Reagan’s fateful policy of ‘Peace through Strength’ has ended long go.
This begs the question – in the absence of America and Western strength, how will peace be preserved in the 21st century?
President Biden has declared his intent to rebuild the USN fleet to 300-500 vessels, but such investment is the very antithesis of Democrat Party politics in 2022. The 2023 US Military budget predicts that the fleet will shrink to 280 vessels by 2027. This is despite Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday’s insistence that the USN requires a fleet of at least 500 vessels to execute its mission. Meanwhile, the PLAN is expected to increase from its current 384 vessels to 460 by 2030.
There are also fears that the ultimate manifestation of American power, its aircraft carriers, have become obsolete against Chinese missiles. Although quite simplistic, there remains truth in the realisation that it only takes one $US20 million Chinese DF-26 missile to sink the USS Gerald R Ford ($13bn) with its 75 F-35 fighters ($9bn) and 4500 sailors (priceless).
Despite an increase in US military spending to $US813bn, the 2023 budget includes a paradoxical erosion of capability. Further, a 4 per cent increase in spending is a fraction of that required to meet the Chinese threat.
As Greg Sheridan noted in The Australian on March 25, even if America doubled its military budget, it would still not spend the same proportion of GDP as it did under President Reagan. On April 9, Mr Sheridan wrote that current US military spending constitutes only 3.2 per cent of GNP, while it was 4.7 per cent in 2010 and 5 per cent at the end of the Cold War.
Unfortunately, the threat posed by China this century is orders of magnitude greater than that posed by the USSR in the Cold War era.
Rather than growing, the US military shows every sign of committing to a policy of Managed Decline.
The Navy appears resigned to its fate as a diminished force and tries to save face by claiming that its smaller size is offset by investing greater capability in fewer vessels. Unfortunately, a smaller number of larger ships is exactly the opposite demanded by the principle of force dispersion in this age of the missile.
At the same time, USAF generals avoid embarrassment by not formally requesting the new aircraft they require to properly execute their mission. Why ask when you know that you won’t receive?
The USN’s recent announcement that America will prematurely end production of its San Antonio Class Amphibious Transport Docks is emblematic of the problem. 26 vessels were planned, but only 16 will now be commissioned. USMC Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl has publicly admitted that slashing numbers by 10 will severely impair the Corps’ ability to contain China. His concerns match an increasingly-familiar pattern whereby US Military capability is dictated by budgetary constraints and competing political agendas rather than strategic need.
Although the San Antonio Class is an extreme one, there are many examples of prematurely-curtailed acquisitions and assets facing early retirement. One of the most notable is the legendary F-22 Raptor – probably the most formidable fighter in history.
Recently, the regularity of announcements concerning the cancellation or premature retirement of US military assets has been matched only by the rate at which the PLAN launches new ships. This all suggests a death by a thousand cuts for the US Military and a drift toward impotence against a growing PLA. Indeed, the analogy of the frog in boiling water is pertinent – the US Military is slowly and quietly receding from Asia, and one day its absence or manifest inadequacy will be suddenly and catastrophically apparent to the world.
Distinct from this inexorable decay, a modest decline in the awesome power of the US military would not be such a concern if its allies filled the void. Alas, with few exceptions, this has not occurred.
Uncontested American global hegemony for 30 years has caused complacency to white-ant the defence forces of every other nation. While the degradation of the ADF is lamentable, the militaries of Canada and New Zealand have both virtually ceased to exist and are an embarrassment to those nations and their proud histories in war. Even more so than Australia, both nations would be net liabilities to America in any war with China.
The governments of Europe have been similarly derelict in their sacred duty to defend their people.
In an exquisite example of Trumpian bluntness, in 2018 the former US President accused European Nato members of dudding US taxpayers by not paying their fair share for collective defence. Trump has, of course, been proven correct by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Germany’s sudden €100bn increase in defence spending the ultimate vindication. It is astounding that, given the massive population and economic disparity between the European Union and Russia – 450 million people and $US17 trillion vs 150 million people and $US1.5 trillion – the former does not feel secure without massive amounts of American support.
The only saving graces for the West are South Korea, Japan, and India, ironically none of which are traditionally considered part of the West. All are big democracies and are driven to expand their military strength out of the necessity of being China’s near neighbours.
While current trends are positive, none can be relied upon to provide for Australia’s security.
It is entirely possible that Japan and South Korea, both in range of China’s entire missile arsenal, could be cowed into accepting Chinese hegemony in the near future. As for India – its future as friend, foe, or bystander – is far from certain, in large part due to its dependence upon cheap but effective Russian military hardware.
Although reports of America’s death have been greatly exaggerated, its profound decline relative to China is a reality.
Conversely, it seems that no amount of hyperbole could awaken Australians to the reality of a militarised China whose newfound power is matched only by its antipathy toward the West.
Indeed, Australians seem more interested in the endearing spectacle of Chinese New Year than such petty moral quandaries as the origins of Covid or the genocide of 12 million Uyghurs, whose plight is the product of a CCP with licence to behave as it will by virtue of its powerful military.
The stupefied complacency of Australia, coupled with the historically decrepit ADF evoke near-perfect comparisons with 1939 – the only inaccuracy being that Imperial Japan was a shadow puppet compared to Communist China.