Originally published in the Spectator
Jim Molan, Danger On Our Doorstep, HarperCollins, ISBN 9781460762608, $34-99
This is not the book for anyone complacent about the China challenge yet it should be compulsory reading for everyone concerned for our country’s future. Very few have seen more of war, and the preparations for war, or thought more deeply about it, than Jim Molan; now a senator, but 40 years a soldier, including a year as chief of operations for coalition forces in Iraq, when he helped to run the Battle of Fallujah.
War with China is “not inevitable”, he says, but is much “more likely than most leaders are saying”. To conclude “that war is so appalling that it could never occur or that the probability is small enough to be ignored” is a dangerous delusion, he says. “Only by planning for the worst”, he says, while still hoping for the best, can we deter a devastating conflict. What’s more, the fact that no recent Australian government has made sufficient preparations for national defence, he says, “is a moral failure of the highest order” and “has led to the highest imaginable degree of complacency within the general population”.
Molan’s book starts with a scenario that should be every Australian’s worst nightmare but that’s all-too-plausible: namely, a Pearl Harbor-style surprise attack on US forces in the western Pacific. First, hunter satellites disable all the US’ eyes in the sky, effectively leaving US forces both blind and unable to communicate, while special submarines break most of the world’s undersea cables disabling the internet. Then, specially designed missiles destroy the US carrier strike group and the US expeditionary strike group typically in our region while more missiles disable the US bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam. For good measure, missiles destroy our own airforce on the ground and smart mines bottle up our navy in its ports. In the ensuing chaos and confusion, the Chinese government offers Taiwan, Japan, South Korea – and us – a choice between a suicidal war or an unequal peace as tributary states. The book ends with Australia in the aftermath of such an attack: almost defence-less; deprived of the essential equipment from overseas needed to rebuild our armed forces and to keep our industries going; with living standards collapsing and law and order at risk; and uncertain whether the US even has the will to fight, let alone to help Australia.
What then should we do: submit or fight? Molan leaves that question hanging but offers the bleak truth that almost nothing is worse than war; except defeat, and that’s where we’re headed without galvanic change. Of course, we have to hope that this doomsday scenario is merely possible rather than probable; because the US may have hardened its ground and space-based systems more than we know, and may have the ability to launch counter-strikes from bases further afield to even the score. What’s clear, though, is that every day we continue to sleep-walk through lotusland increases the chance of a shock way beyond anything our country has ever known.
As you’d expect, Molan acknowledges the good work of the previous Coalition government: such as boosted military spending; the AUKUS deal to give Australia the nuclear powered submarines capable of deterring a superpower; the creation of the Quad; and the refusal to kowtow to an increasingly belligerent Beijing government. He’s also frank about its main shortcoming: an unwillingness or inability to match its “echoes of the 1930s” rhetoric with a crash programme of re-armament. By the time our new frigates and submarines arrive, and our armed forces are expanded to 80,000 personnel in the 2040s, if things go as badly as they might, we could all be speaking Chinese.
The new government, to its credit, seems inclined to do more and to move more quickly than its predecessor. It’s ordered an urgent review of our military posture and has provided larger shipments of arms to Ukraine, doubtless to let Beijing know that smaller, democratic neighbours can’t be invaded with impunity. Yet no one in authority seems prepared to level with the Australian people about the need to make at least some sacrifices for long-term national security; let alone remind people that climate change may not be the only, or the worst, emergency we face.
Here are some of the questions that the government could resolve long before the review reports next March: are we thinking about further help to the Ukrainians to remind dictators everywhere that aggression does not pay; or putting more armament on the 14 near-frigate sized offshore patrol vessels we’re currently building; or moving some of our ships and planes to bases in Japan to be closer to potential theatres of operation; or bringing onshore the fuel reserves that the former government purchased from the US; or asking to be integrated into American battle-planning so that we can better judge the risks we might be expected to run in order to help safeguard Taiwan (a fellow democracy of about 25 million people)?
Molan focuses on what needs to be done to make us militarily stronger and economically more resilient: “Do we have enough industry to produce weapons…Can we provide the one thing that is still necessary for industry, agriculture and war fighting – liquid fuel….Can we mobilise the nation in a reasonable period…(and) are we resolved as a society to prosecute a war”?
But what about stopping all the things we’re currently doing that actually make us weaker and our potential adversary stronger: like insisting that our own puny emissions be cut by 43 per cent in just eight years while the world’s biggest emitter does no such thing; and propagating an “invasion” narrative that saps our self-confidence and legitimacy while China justifies its swagger as ending the “century of humiliation”? Not even Molan is brave enough to suggest that!