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Defence & Aerospace

Australia’s defence forces must gear up for South China Sea, says expert

HMAS Warramunga

HMAS Warramunga

Naval tensions over territorial disputes in northeast Asia and the South China Sea are nearing the dangerous point where serious incidents or armed conflict could become inevitable, one of Australia‘s most respected strategists says.

Paul Dibb, key architect of the defence of Australia strategy, will warn in a speech to a naval conference this week that unless a significant system is quickly set up to avoid unintended collisions or clashes, “conflict on the high seas may well be inevitable”. Professor Dibb will warn that the chances of a military confrontation over disputed territories have risen significantly and he will identify two crucial challenges for the Australian Defence Force.

Its focus must shift from Afghanistan to its region of primary strategic concern to the north, primarily a maritime theatre of operations.

“Second, we face a period of fiscal austerity in which resources available for defence will be constrained,” he says.

Years spent fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan had seen some of the resources needed to defend Australia run down in fields such as anti-submarine warfare, mine hunting and sweeping, electronic warfare, and maritime surveillance and detection.

Bases and facilities in Australia’s north and northwest could not sustain high-speed operations and that problem would be compounded as new ships and aircraft were introduced.

The Abbott government has said it will consider strengthening military forces in northern Australia, especially in resource-rich areas with little military presence.

Professor Dibb will say that rather than trying to defend sea lanes far away in the north Pacific or the western Indian Ocean, Australia should focus on areas closer to home and on trade vital to its economy.

There is a low likelihood of war between the major powers, Professor Dibb will say, because the fear of nuclear weapons will remain a huge deterrent and the world is so interconnected economically that there will be no winners in a major war.

He has been pressing for some time for a strong agreement on measures to avoid naval incidents.

“Of late there has been a significant increase in the potential for military confrontation over disputed maritime territories in northeast Asia and the South China Sea,” Professor Dibb says.

“It is important that antagonistic naval confrontations do not occur and slide into the use of military force, either by accident or design.”

Professor Dibb says escalating manpower costs are threatening to undermine the delivery of sharp-end equipment and may need to be cut back.

Professor Dibb says the new government should consider radically cutting the 21,000-strong civilian bureaucracy and possibly the uniformed ranks as well.

He notes that the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says the civilian Defence workforce has grown by 30 per cent and the ADF by 16 per cent across 13 years. The number of civilian senior executives has increased by 63 per cent and military star-rank officers by 58 per cent.

There are now about three “other ranks” for every officer, compared with five in 1989.

The ADF might have to make do with fewer than its promised 100 Joint Strike Fighters for $16 billion, fewer than 12 submarines for $30bn and to spend much less than the intended $19bn on new vehicles for the army, he says.

“The huge cost of these programs needs to be reconsidered.”

Source: The Australian – Asian naval tension ‘dangerous’
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