Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Game Plan: The Case for a New Australian Grand Strategy

Game Plan: The Case for a New Australian Grand Strategy by Ross BabbageBabbage_game_plan

You may not know the author of Game Plan, Ross Babbage, but you know his work. The ‘Defence of Australia’ policy was built by many hands, but in the words of Des Ball, Babbage was the ‘conceptual leader’. In ‘Game Plan: The case for a new Australian grand strategy’, Dr Babbage signals his view that defending Australia now requires a new set of overseas hands, primarily from the United States.

Babbage’s strategic evolution has been a long time coming. His PhD thesis, dozens of papers, chapters and books such as the widely acclaimed ‘Rethinking Australia’s Defence’ and ‘A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond the 1990s’ were key contributions to the development of Australian defence policy from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

To be sure, the US alliance was always a vital part of this policy. It was ‘self-reliance’ not ‘independence’. But the weight was on Australia to show that it was up to the task of its protecting its front yard. While Paul Dibb, Richard Brabin-Smith and others fleshed out the force structure details, Babbage, Ball and others drove the conceptual debates, along with bouncing around the Northern Territory identifying how the terrain could be protected and the best technology for doing so.

Even as Babbage began to move away from this approach — as did many of his peers in the era of globalization and international terrorism— he kept a core focus on Australian capacity. His controversial 2008 paper ‘Learning to Walk among Giants’ and subsequent ‘Australia’s strategic edge in 2030’ report became known as the ‘Aunty Jack’ strategy. To protect the country, Babbage argued Australia had to be able to “‘rip an arm off’ any major Asian power that sought to attack Australia.”

In Game Plan, however, Aunty Jack has put away the boxing gloves and moved permanently in with Uncle Sam.

As far as I can tell, gone is any reference to a major offensive capability. And while Australian capacity is a vital concern for Babbage, it is in the context of a regional build up, and one thoroughly integrated with US weapons systems, supply chains, intelligence and command and control mechanisms.

There are many who have advocated for greater cooperation between Australia and the United States, and the greatest strength of Game Plan is the flesh it puts on those bones. It offers detailed ideas that are often fresh and engaging. These include proposals for becoming a regional intelligence hub (particularly for maritime domain awareness), creating an Australia–US Strategic Planning Group, greatly increased US basing in Australia, and building an Indo-Pacific training ground, using Australia’s vast spaces to help train partners and allies such as Singapore, Japan and Indonesia.

On one level, I’m not surprised the offensive capacity has been scaled back. It drew significant criticism, was extremely expensive, and probably more show than substance in terms of the overall design of the ADF. But as my own thinking has evolved, I’m somewhat disappointed as well. There are many ways to defend Australia, and the loss of the one figure clearly advocating a strong counter-punch as a deterrent seems a loss to the debate.

The absence of this controversial idea, may also explain why Game Plan seems to have sunk so quickly. Outside a Paul Monk column which describes it as ‘well received in senior military and security circles and deserves to be widely read and discussed’, I’ve seen precious little discussion of it. Which is also a reflection of just how little debate and discussion there is of Australian defence policy issues, despite the obvious challenges and the scale of resources government policy involves.

Game Plan also hurts its own cause with its approach. At just 100 pages and put out by a minor publisher, it’s a difficult book to lay your hands on. And for the informed reader who makes the effort, a lot of the book is extremely general and introductory in tone. As if it might serve to introduce people to the idea that there’s a country called China with a growing military, and a country called the US which people have some doubts about, and maybe we should modify our current policy approach in response.

These concerns aside, Game Plan is a useful contribution to the debate. Probably one more for the specialists. Credit should also go to Menzies House and Connor Court for publishing it. Here’s hoping for a dozen more from them, as many hands are needed for the heavy conceptual lifting to raise Australian strategic policy to the level it will need to confront the coming challenges.

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