Defense expert Paul Dibb says Australia faces ‘likelihood of high-intensity conflict’ in the region

The circle of people who know Australia’s ability to defend itself is small.

The number of people the Australian government has trusted in recent times to tell them where the holes are in that defense is on two hands.

Paul Dibb is one of those people.

Paul Dibb, now Professor Emeritus of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, is a former Director of the Defense Intelligence Organization and a former Deputy Secretary for Strategy and Intelligence at the Ministry of Defence.

When the defense secretary this week launched a historic defense survey to determine what gaps remain in the country’s defenses, he invoked Professor Dibb’s work for the Hawke administration 30 years ago.

“It was the strategic foundation for the 1987 Defense White Paper and every white paper since,” Defense Secretary Richard Marles said.

“It has created a strategic setting for this country for 35 years.”

The Defense White Paper of 1987

“The Holes in Our” [defence] armed forces structures were gigantic,” Professor Dibb told 07:30, referring to his historical survey of the armed forces three decades ago.

“In principle, nothing had changed since the Vietnam War and before that the confrontation with Indonesia.

“It was still a force that successive governments had structured, not on the basis of the defense of Australia, but as expeditionary forces, in distant military conflicts, mainly to contain communism.”

Naval officer on a boat looking through binoculars at sunset.
Paul Dibb says the holes in the structure of Australia’s defense forces were “huge” after the Vietnam War.(Supplied: Australian Navy)

At the time, he said he had bumped into several elements of the Navy, Air Force and especially the Army, which he said did not want to move “from their nice comfortable barracks in the south and east” to the north of the country where an invasion would take place.

“Because the most likely threat to Australia would come from, or from, the archipelago to our north, not the penguins in Antarctica or the Kiwis in New Zealand,” he said.

30 years later, the ‘warning time’ is over

This week’s announcement of another milestone in the defense assessment comes just two years after a strategic update in 2020 by the previous coalition government, which also had a defense white paper in 2016.

So what has changed?

“In four years they went from self-confidence in 10 years or more [of] warning time of a major threat… [to] acknowledgment that the warning time was over and over,” said Professor Dibb.

“We are now faced with the potential for high-intensity conflict in our own immediate strategic environment.

“Let’s be honest, it’s the code name for a certain country in our far north.”

The government was ready to name China when it began its saber clatter over Taiwan.

The question remains how committed Australia is to the defense of Taiwan.

Chinese military exercises
China has begun conducting military exercises and training activities around Taiwan following Nancy Pelosi’s visit this week.(Reuters: Eastern Theater Command/Handout)

“I’ve been there four times in the last eight years – it’s a vibrant democracy with 24 million people on an island – that should ring a bell – 24 million on a small island half the size of Tasmania,” he said .

“Frankly, if we refused to join the United States, it would mean the end of the ANZUS Alliance.

“China is an aggressive, autocratic communist power. According to Xi Jinping, it is now on the side of the People’s Republic of China to take revenge on the century of humiliation in the 19th century and take the helm as the leading power in our region of the United States.”

What could be a deterrent against China?

More missiles. More Americans. Fewer troop carriers for the army.

“We need to be able to acquire huge numbers of long-range missiles very quickly,” said Professor Dibb.

“By long distance I don’t mean just a few hundred miles, I mean thousands of miles, certainly at least 2,000.”

A rocket being launched into the atmosphere.
Paul Dibb says long-range missiles are crucial to Australia’s defense capability.(Supplied: US Department of Defense)

Long-range missiles could “quickly give us much more advanced capabilities” to deter any advance from the north, Professor Dibb said.

Discussions are already underway about Australia building its own missile factories in order to alleviate problems with logistical supplies from the US and Europe.

But money is critical, and the defense budget is already being taxed by future submarines and other major expenditures, which Professor Dibb says can be redirected.

“The reduction of some parts of the defense capacity plan, for example the $49 billion that Defense wants, the military, wants to spend on what I would call the armored personnel carriers or combat vehicles.”

If Australia can’t afford to buy everything it needs in time to close the expected gaps in the country’s defenses, it’s no surprise that the government will turn to America – possibly for an even bigger rotation of marines or high level weapons like B2 stealth bombers.

Advice for new reviewers

Professor Dibb has some solid advice for the couple recruited by the government to do its latest assessment – former defense chief Sir Angus Houston and former defense and foreign secretary Stephen Smith.

Formal Secretary of Defense Stephen Smith and retired Air Marshal Sir Angus Houston in composite image.
Stephen Smith (left) and Sir Angus Houston will oversee the defense review.

“The way it has to be done is you have an independent set of intelligence assessments and opinions. Those intelligence assessments and opinions go through to the strategic policy advisors,” he said.

“From there, they develop a range of credible threats, including high-intensity conflict, and they model them, and war game what kind of capabilities that would require.

“Only then do you decide, what are your priorities for the force structure? And only then, when you’ve done that, do you get to the money.

“Well, no government has ever done that. So maybe this new review might be the first to do that.”

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