Australia faces ‘potential military crisis’ with China over Taiwan within years

You go to war with what you have, not with what you need.It’s an old saying. But a relevant one.
With admirals, generals and politicians warning a new Pacific war may be just three to five years away, the question is being asked: Does Australia have what it needs?
Last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to spend $270 billion over 10 years to prepare for a “poorer, more dangerous” world.
It included an extensive shopping list for long-range anti-ship missiles, smart mines and an underwater surveillance network. It comes off the back of costly – and controversial – projects to build 12 new submarines and nine new frigates. Then there are plans to develop our own hypersonic missiles and Loyal Wingman drones.
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Most of these aren’t due to be delivered until the 2030s and 2040s.
But – given the reassessment of tensions over Taiwan, the South and East China Seas, and the Himalayas – 10 years may be too late.
Chances are, we may have to use what we have.
Clear and present danger
Australia is throwing its old war plans out the window. It’s racing to get ready for the greatest threat it has faced since World War II.
It’s a strategy addressing challenges closer to home.
It’s a strategy that accepts the US may not come to our assistance.
Since the end of the Cold War, Canberra has operated under the assumption that any severe threat would come with at least ten years of warning.
In 2020, the Defence Strategic Update abandoned that expectation.
It was always a dangerous presumption. History had already taught us that. Britain only abandoned its 1930s ten-year plan less than five years before war erupted with Germany in 1939.
“We have not seen the conflation of global economic and strategic uncertainty now being experienced here in Australia in our region since the existential threat we faced when the global and regional order collapsed in the 1930s and 1940s,” the Prime Minister warned when announcing the defence update in June last year.
“And so we have to be prepared and ready to frame the world in which we live as best as we can, and be prepared to respond and play our role to protect Australia, defend Australia.”
Are we?
An unexpected fight
“The ADF now needs stronger deterrence capabilities,” Mr Morrison told an audience of defence leaders when detailing the strategic shift.
“Capabilities that can hold potential adversaries’ forces and critical infrastructure at risk from a distance, thereby deterring an attack on Australia and helping to prevent war.”
It was a tacit admission that Afghanistan and Timor were no longer the templates for Australia’s defence force structure.
Now the threat has been identified as China.
The mission may be to reinforce Taiwan.
The outcome may be direct attacks on Australia itself.
“Any major war Australia is involved in will most likely start in maritime Southeast Asia. The aim is to keep our opponents as far as possible from our landmass,” says Australian Strategic Policy Institute head Peter Jennings.
And Australia’s first concern will be securing critical supplies.
“Energy imports alone will require both the degree of sea control necessary to ensure safe passage of oil and gas, and for the continuing operation of each country’s armed forces,” former Admiral James Goldrick warns in the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter.
“In Australia’s case, this will notably include the aviation fuel, which cannot presently be refined onshore.”
Mission capability
“We are heading to a potential military crisis at some point in the next year or two around the first island chain that borders the approach to the People’s Republic of China,” Jennings warns.
But any attempt to save democratic Taiwan from communist mainland China faces an uphill battle.
The United States Navy is no longer an overwhelming force in the Pacific. The US Air Force is an aged shadow of its former self. And superiority in the air and on the sea is necessary to protect vulnerable transports rushing to reinforce allied states.
But, Washington has friends. As does Tokyo, Manila, New Delhi and Canberra.
Even France, Germany – and now the UK – have begun to demonstrate their willingness to uphold the status quo in South East Asia.
Combined, such an allied force could impose a prohibitive cost on any expansionist moves in the region. And that produces deterrence.
“China views Australia’s defence alliance with the United States with a mix of envy and puzzlement,” Jennings says.
“Its puzzlement is about how countries can co-operate so effectively based on trust, strategic interest and shared values. China does not have these types of relationships.”
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The ADF has trained as an integral part of US-led alliance operations for decades. Its ships, submarines and aircraft can easily slot into communications networks, supply chains and tactical roles. The Jindalee over-the-horizon radar system can offer crucial intelligence. And Australia’s northern bases are a springboard for forces operating throughout South East Asia.
Royal Australian Navy amphibious assault ships can join efforts to move troops and tanks into combat zones. Its submarines and destroyers can help protect them.
Australia’s 11 EA-18G “Growler” Super Hornets would likely be in high demand. Designed to protect air, sea and land forces with a powerful radar and communications jamming suite, they will be needed as forces attempt to push into contested territory.
If they can be spared.
Beijing’s Blitzkreig?
The fall of Taiwan would rapidly result in a strategic turnaround.
Its ports and airfields – combined with the artificial island fortresses in the South China Sea – would give Beijing’s forces broad access to the Western Pacific.
Major US bases at Okinawa and in Japan would be under direct threat. Even Guam, in the mid-Pacific, would be exposed.
Such a war could quickly put Australia on the defensive.
Especially as Tindal RAAF Base and US Marine facilities in Darwin are being built up as part of the West’s own “island chain”.
“Geography doesn’t change. Southeast Asia was the strategic fulcrum around which the Pacific War was fought, and it is the region most sharply in Beijing’s sights,” Jenning says.
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But Australia’s defence can no longer rely on a “sea-air gap” to our nation’s north as it has in the past.
Modern missiles, such as China’s DF-26, and cruise missiles carried by bombers such as the H-6K can already reach many of our northern bases. It’s also building aircraft carriers.
Invasion is unlikely.
Japan abandoned the idea in 1942 as it would soak up too many personnel, ships and aircraft.
But China has the reach to choke Australia’s arterial shipping lanes, strike vital facilities and keep our warships from passing through narrow island choke points to assist allied forces.
Be prepared
“Just as the Japanese warplanes that swept over Pearl Harbor or Manila brought war to the United States, Australia shouldn’t expect prior notice of an attack that would give us time to prepare our defence,” warns ASPI’s Albert Palazzo.
No RAAF airfield has hardened shelters to protect its small fleet of F-35s, Wedgetail radar aircraft or F-18 Super Hornets. Not that they would be much help in the face of modern weaponry. Missile defences will be necessary.
US simulations suggest up to 70 per cent of all its Pacific combat aircraft will be destroyed within any conflict’s first few minutes.
But every port, weapons dump, barracks and marshalling yard is at equal risk.
“This neglect must be corrected if the ADF is to have the opportunity to use its new capabilities before they’re destroyed by an adversary,” Palazzo says.
“It isn’t enough to just buy capability; the ADF must also secure it.”
Do we have enough?
Can we get enough?
Can we preserve enough?
How long will it take before our submarines, warships, tanks and aircraft must park themselves for lack of ammunition?
“Put simply: a small number of military platforms without a large supply of advanced missiles is a force fitted for but not with combat power,” says ASPI’s Marcus Hellyer.
Canberra has woken up to this fact. In March, the federal government announced it was accelerating a project to manufacture some of these weapons for ourselves.
“Creating our own sovereign capability on Australian soil is essential to keep Australians safe,” declared Prime Minister Morrison when committing $1 billion to kickstart a 10-year plan in March.
“But we can’t wait until the perfect plan is developed,” Hellyer states.
“The urgency of our strategic circumstances means we need to start now.”
Arms race
More big Australian short-term defence purchases were approved by US government agencies last week. It includes some 200 refurbished tank hulls, four reconditioned Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, and 12 MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones.
The Chinooks, taken from US Army stocks, will be given “customer-unique modifications” before delivery. A set of eight spare engines headline an associated package of spares.
The SkyGuardian drones will come with command units, communications equipment, training simulators and spares. It’s intended to provide medium-altitude, long-endurance weapons coverage. This can include air-to-ground missiles, laser-guided bombs, glide bombs, and air-to-air missiles.
Most notable, however, is that the Australian Army wants to upgrade its tank force. Its current M1A1 SA “Abrams” tanks isn’t considered up to a peer-on-peer fight. They were bought because they are lighter and more transportable. But it also means they are less well protected.
Now it has put in a bid for refurbishing 160 older US Abrams hulls up to the latest M1A2 SEPv3 standard under what is dubbed “The Australian Heavy Armoured Combat Systems” package.
Canberra is already spending $1.4 billion to purchase 200 AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missiles (LRASM), fired from F/A-18 Super Hornets, F-35s and P-8 patrol aircraft.
Last month, it announced $582 million towards upgrading the Robertson Barracks in Darwin and surrounding weapons test facilities. It’s about making the base more appealing to US Marines.
The Royal Australian Air Force base at Tindal is already undergoing a $1.1 billion upgrade and extension to operate US strategic bombers and heavy air-to-air refuelling aircraft.
It’s all part of the effort to control Australia’s exposed approaches.
The race is also on to develop our own long-range hypersonic weapons. BAE says it has “fast tracked” this project to produce a working demonstrator within a handful of years. But it will likely take a decade beyond that before it reaches operational service.
In the meantime, speculation is rife Australia will acquire Tomahawk cruise missiles with a range of about 1500km. Combined with sea mines, this would give the ADF the ability to challenge some of the narrow approaches to Australia’s north.
“Australia can’t opt-out of this reality,” Jennings says of the threat environment. “Washington and its key allies in the Indo-Pacific — Japan and Australia — need to give the wider region some confidence that collectively we can push back against Beijing’s bullying.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel