The Risks of Australia’s Solo Deterrence Wager

July 20, 2020

If you’re a U.S. ally, it’s got to be unnerving to watch a sitting U.S. president befriend enemies of democracy or repeatedly extort those who rely most on U.S. security commitments. And so it comes as little surprise that Australia, arguably America’s closest ally in the Asia-Pacific, has decided to prepare for a world in which it may not be able to count on the United States to protect it from China. To that end, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced the Defence Strategic Update, which amounts to an unprecedented attempt at rapid military modernization. The proposed $575 billion (AUD) budget over the next decade includes investments in long-range precision-guided munitions, unmanned systems, intelligence platforms, and sensor networks.

With one vocal exception, most Australian national security pundits seem to have only glowing things to say about this dramatic increase in long-term defense capabilities. Some of the praise started even before the plan’s release.



But the merits of a strategic decision depend on the plausibility of its wager: If you do X, you expect Y to occur because Z. Smart people need to be able to see (or deduce) that essential causal reasoning and find it plausible. When you make game-changing investments for strategic reasons — like a big spend to fit out a high-technology military — your logic should be as bulletproof as possible. And you should take care to manage, or at least be aware of, the risks associated with your decision.

That’s why praise for the Defence Strategic Update is premature and possibly detrimental to Australian strategy itself. It’s not that the plan fails the laugh test. It’s on trend with “future of warfare” technological forecasts. It makes sense for Australia to concentrate its resources on its immediate region rather than benchmarking its military against a future of far-flung global operations. The assessment of the security environment to which it’s responding — one characterized by an imperious if not imperial Chinese expansionism and an unreliable, strategically incompetent U.S. ally — is hard to dispute. And Australia does need to hedge against erratic U.S. foreign policy and Chinese aggression in its neighborhood. All of that makes it an analytically serious document.

But the implied new purpose of Australia’s modernization bid is to deter China in limited conventional warfare on its own, without the United States. Should we believe that the military capabilities in development will deter China better than Australia’s existing strategy and force structure?

While we can’t possibly know the answer to that yet, we can prefigure why it could fail despite the best of intentions: unwarranted optimism about Chinese lack of resolve, an imbalance of forces favoring Beijing, and inadvertently diluting the credibility of the threat that a fight against Australia involves fighting the United States. And if Australia’s wager on a unilateral deterrence option goes bad, it’s not just Canberra that will pay the price. The United States and Australia’s neighbors will bear the cost too.

What’s the Wager?

The Defence Strategic Update states what it wants to do in the abstract: “Shape Australia’s strategic environment; deter actions against Australia’s interests; and respond with credible military force, when required.” Vague as that sounds, the hard test of Australia’s military modernization is really about deterring China. Its new wager is something like, “If we invest in longer-range precision-guided missiles and unmanned systems (X), the result will be no Chinese aggression in Australia’s immediate region (Y) because (Z).” Formulated in this way, Z — the how of its wager — is unspecified but likely one of two very different possibilities.

There are some indications that Australia aims to achieve deterrence by denial, which works by convincing China that Australia will physically prevent it from achieving its operational objective. Want to blockade Australia from Southeast Asia? There’s no point in trying because we’ll physically prevent you from setting up the blockade with our submarines, smart mines, F-35s, etc.

But there are also indications that Australia is really pursuing deterrence by punishment, which works by imposing costs on China if it attempts aggression adverse to Australian interests. Want to establish a beachhead on Papua New Guinea or bomb Darwin? We’re going to attrit an unacceptably high percentage of your forces on the way in or retaliate in ways that will cost you dearly.

It matters whether Australia optimizes for denial or punishment or something else entirely. The distinction implicates different operational concepts, force posture requirements, and target sets. Denial, for instance, requires locally concentrated counterforce operations against the immediate threat, while cost-imposing punishment opens a wider range of retaliatory responses. It also matters whether deterrence — a concept that is nebulous and hard to measure — is really the goal of Australia’s force structure bet. The document focuses on deterrence, but since that invokes all manner of imprecise and error-prone contextual and psychological factors, the art of deterrence should be a calculation of statecraft rather than a concrete aim of your defense budget. The role of force planning should be to make that statecraft possible. Ambitions greater than that risk chasing waterfalls.

This may seem like semantics, but it’s something Australian strategists will have to straighten out in the near future. If deterrence is a military objective, the force may have to be sized and shaped primarily for signaling and bargaining games rather than for achieving operational effects. They overlap, but are different priorities.

What’s the Risk?

Several risks of deterrence failure accompany Australia’s current projected force regardless of whether it pursues a strategy of deterrence by denial or by punishment.

First, deterrence failure could arise from what appear to be overly optimistic assumptions about China. It is not obvious what assessment of Chinese resolve underpins Australia’s deterrence expectations. The history of China’s military strategy suggests that it does not half-heartedly commit forces to combat and is generally willing to absorb a high cost when it does employ force. Combined with China’s substantial military superiority, this makes it hard to envision how Australia’s force of the future will physically prevent China (that is, deny it) from conducting any military operation to which it has committed itself. It also strains credulity to imagine that China would alternatively back down from the use of force because Australia is capable of holding some percentage of Chinese forces at risk of retaliation, unless the balance of interests dramatically favored Australia. The only scenario I can think of where Australia’s stakes significantly outweigh China’s are in direct defense of Australian or New Zealand territory, the most unlikely scenario involving Sino-Australian conflict.

Second, deterrence could fail because the balance of forces favors China even after Australia updates its force structure. To take just one crucial example, China’s missiles far outrange Australia’s planned force. Australia’s announced long-range anti-ship missile has a target range of less than 400 kilometers while China’s DF-26 missile alone has a range of 4,000 kilometers. Australia has no prospect of realizing deterrence by punishment or denial without substantially closing that range gap. The willingness to invest in hypersonic glide-vehicle development suggests Australia recognizes the gap problem, but its investment is on too long of a timeline to actually rectify it. Rather than plan to fight a wooden dummy, Canberra should assume Beijing will be improving its capabilities over the next decade and a half as well. Put differently, Australian weapons only have a chance at deterrence magic if we generously assume that either China will deploy missiles within Australian range when it shouldn’t have to, or that Australia will be able to somehow forward position its precision-guided missiles and unmanned systems against China unchallenged ahead of a conflict. Neither is very likely, and both concern only a narrow universe of hypothetical use-cases for what is a very expensive force.

But wishful thinking about China’s resolve and the unfavorable imbalance of forces are smaller matters compared to the third risk: diluting alliance threat credibility. For generations, as Hugh White notes, Australian warfighting was to take place in the context of a U.S.-led coalition. Australia tailored its force structure and much of its foreign policy accordingly. Because of this, it was unthinkable that Australia would have to fight the People’s Liberation Army alone. If China faced the Australian Defence Force, it would’ve had a high expectation of also facing the U.S. military.

No longer. The way Australia is choosing to hedge against American unreliability introduces the risk that China will calculate (correctly or incorrectly) that a conflict with Australia will be a one-on-one battle. Australian pundits are not wrong to highlight that the new force structure plan gives Canberra greater options, but to the extent those options involve solo deterrence, they make the U.S. commitment to Australia’s defense less necessary. China is far less likely to be deterred by Australia on its own than if it believes the United States will fight alongside Australia. And it’s easy to imagine scenarios where an overconfident China determines that the American public would see no need to defend Australia when it has developed an ability to defend itself. I’m not saying that would be a prudent calculation on Beijing’s part — I think it would be foolish — but as Kenneth Waltz said, states “are free to do any fool thing they care to” and China’s no exception. Good strategy should disabuse would-be adversaries of foolish notions rather than encourage them.

To be clear, the United States has put Australia in this position. U.S. foreign policy itself is Asia’s (and by extension Australia’s) primary source of uncertainty and the Defence Strategic Update is a hedge against that. But hedging can take many forms and choosing to do it this way may inadvertently erode the central wager of Australian security for generations (alliance threat credibility) without actually replacing it.

And I don’t mean that Australia should just wish away U.S. volatility. It could reach a specialized division of alliance labor that makes it more likely for the United States to uphold its commitment by, for instance, narrowing the role it would play in an Antipodean conflict, or by shaping its forward presence into more of a deliberate tripwire posture. Australia might even hedge with deterrence constructs that embed the Australian military in partnership with third parties other than the United States. The point is simply that while Australian strategy must respond to a security environment in which the United States has recently played an inflammatory role, there is nothing inevitable about how Australia responds to it.

Canberra is making a bold bet, and in many respects it’s a well-informed one. But it’s pregnant with risks. The task for strategists on both sides of the Pacific is now to diagnose and come up with ways to manage them.



Van Jackson, Ph.D., is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, host of The Un-Diplomatic Podcast, and associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. From 2009 to 2014, he was a strategist and policy adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is also author of the forthcoming Risking the Asian Peace: American Statecraft and the Fate of the Indo-Pacific with Yale University Press.

Image: Cpl. Rachel Diehm