Like most of my generation I grew up watching Bush Tucker Man. A fun show, with a serious purpose: working out how do defend Australia. While Les Hiddins was the khaki front man, it was the geek squad like Ross Babbage who made the idea a reality.
It might seem a simple idea ‘design your forces to defend the country’ but putting it into practice requires a lot of thought. Especially in a country as big and diverse as Australia. While Hiddins looked at gathering ‘tucker’, Babbage and others looked at the tides, winds, bridges, population centres, and tried to work out how they could help national strategy and force structure.
It is strange to some today, but during the Cold War Australians held a real fear of invasion. We’ve largely discarded that concern now (See the Lowy Poll 2015), but by reading books like this, you can see how authentic such concerns were.
Intriguingly, the two main worries in ‘A Coast too Long’ are ones Australia no longer worries about. The first is nuclear war, a threat that still exists but it is understandable why most of the concern faded with the end of the Cold War.
The second is low-level conflict, a scenario where small groups of elite forces run around the northern territory damaging vital equipment. Think Konfrontasi in Kakadu. This was a real animating concern for much of the 1970s and 1980s, though many debated how to respond.
If just low level coercion, it would be very difficult to get allied support. Likewise Australia’s escalation options would be limited. A conventional strike against the opponents population or resources could seem disproportionate and shift international perceptions of who was the aggressor.
It’s somewhat strange to see such concern, given its absence from contemporary debates. Yet it’s not clear why it’s not a concern. We might think a modern Indonesia wouldn’t engage in such action, but if national relations really degraded (such as if Australia and Indonesia ended up on different sides of a second Cold War), it’s quite plausible.
Another fascinating area is the section looking at the strategic importance of Christmas Islands and Cocos Islands. While neither is worth wholescale defence, they add a lot to current defence capability (increasingly so in an era of autonomous drone equipment).
This is necessarily a book for the scholars and defence nerds. But there’s a lot to learn in this book about the geography of Australia. Just as Bush Tucker man showed the diversity of the top end on the micro scale, there are dozens of maps in ‘A Coast Too Long’ which show the intriguing nature of the country on the macro scale.
It seems that with the 2015 Defence White Paper, Australia is slowly moving away from the Defence of Australia concept. This seems the right direction, but work such as that by scholars like Babbage, Ball, Langtry and others will remain vital if we ever need to defend this long long coast.