China’s PLA prepare for a military parade….and for war!

The question of what type of war the Australian Defence Force (ADF) should be prepared to fight represents one of the ongoing points of debate in Canberra and beyond.

Blunt threats made in Chinese mainstream media and acceptance by many experts  that the ADF is unlikely to last more than just a few weeks in a high-end conflict with China warrant an examination of Australia’s strategic circumstances and the likelihood of an attack on mainland Australia.

Let’s consider the possibility that the Chinese political-military leadership decides to launch a major offensive against mainland Australia.

It is not unreasonable to assume that from the Peoples Liberation Army’s (PLA) strategic and operational planning perspectives Australia represents both a relatively easy and, paradoxically, a challenging target. Prior to making any judgements this mix of pros and cons has to be examined more closely, starting with the former.

The relative ease of attacking mainland Australia comes from the geographical distribution of our major industrial and population centres, which are located within Australia’s littoral.

Over 90% of the country’s population is spread along coastal areas, with a majority concentrated in a number of urban hubs located on the Pacific, Southern and Indian Ocean sides of the country.

Adding to that, some of these hubs house core elements of critical infrastructure, including major defence installations, bases and headquarters.

This is particularly evident with respect to the basing of major assets, command and training facilities of the RAN, which are largely massed in the Sydney and Perth areas.

Such a distribution of both human and physical core infrastructure offers a technologically advanced and militarily superior adversary a multitude of opportunities, ranging from political-military blackmail in times of heightened geopolitical crisis, to limited or large-scale offensive operations in times of war.

Another important contributing factor, which a possible adversary is likely to take into account, is the combined fighting potential of the ADF.

Drones and missiles are essential

When it comes to assessing a country’s fighting potential on a comparative basis, a number of major contributing factors needs to be taken into account.

These include its peacetime and wartime strength; state of combat readiness and preparedness; morale and determination to fight; state of national non-human reserves (arsenals, munitions, spare parts, fuel and lubricants and their replenishment capacity); and the level of commitment and reliance of international alliances.

The ADF is a highly trained and combat experienced battle force that enables it to operate across all current and emerging battle domains.

However, in the context of the Chinese hypothetical invasion threat, two problem factors can be identified: the fighting force and the question of endurance.

Experts agree that in the event of a large-scale invasion of mainland Australia, the ADF’s response capacity would be overstretched beyond any reasonable expectation of waging effective defensive operations over an extended period.

Consequently, a skilled and determined adversary that can mobilise and deploy a sizeable invasion force capable of reaching our shores; demonstrate sufficient capability and operational experience in large-scale protracted amphibious operations; and deploy a potent logistical enabler; could overcome the ADF’s resistance and take possession of territory.

Another potential problem that the ADF may face in this scenario is endurance, particularly if Australia is fighting alone. Although detailed information about national stockpiles of munitions, critical spares, and fuel is not wholly open-source it is claimed the ADF only holds sufficient resources to engage in high tempo large-scale operations for just a few weeks!

In particular, the critical issue of fuel reserves has been entirely overlooked by governments and Defence bureaucrats for decades in Australia.

In the case of the PLA, the following needs to be factored in:

Firstly, China has insufficient capacity to wage long distance assault operations.

Despite its massive standing force, including noticeable improvements to its amphibious assault element, it is not fit to conduct a successful cross-strait amphibious invasion of nearby Taiwan, let alone engage in a long distance strategic hypothetical such as an invasion of Australia.

Similarly, the PLA’s Airborne Corps lack air lift capacity for long distance air assault operations. Driven by the need to close the capability gap with their Russian counterparts, with which the PLA trains regularly and from which it takes its inspiration, it will be some time before its Airborne Corps will be able to support long distance strategic assault operations.

Finally, the PLA seriously lacks operational combat experience, including in managing expeditionary operations.

On the other hand, China deploys a comprehensive capability to engage in offensive cyber operations against its adversaries. Hence, it can attack Australia by means of a sophisticated cyber offensive campaign, even without a formal declaration of war.

Also, China deploys a long-range strike capability (conventional and unconventional), which allows it to target Australia. In theory it can wage long-range missile strikes against our key land targets such as defence installations, strategic surveillance communication facilities, and large population centres.

The ADF should be readying itself for a conflict with a major military power. Even if an invasion of mainland Australia is a remote possibility, displaying an enhanced capacity to defend the mainland is an effective deterrent in its own right.

Strategically, the USA’s reliability as an ally is the core of the issue.

This raises the question of alliance obligation, and the subsequent need by the USA and other allies such as the UK and France to make it very clear to China that an attack on Australia will trigger an allied response.

Most importantly, it means that our government needs to immediately increase expenditure on defence and national security and purchase effective and modern defence equipment within the next 2-3 years – not wait until the 2030s and 2040s, because by then it may be too late!

Xi Jinping is already 70 years of age and has sworn to take Taiwan, by force if necessary, during his lifetime …. and we could well be one of the next on his list.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would love to get its hands on our fossil fuels, minerals and agricultural produce free of charge!

The old Roman claim si vis pacem, para bellum – if you want peace, prepare for war – is very relevant but seemingly not fully understood by our apparatchiks in government and our lazy and dysfunctional Defence establishment.

They really seem to think we can just sit back and wait for AUKUS submarines and a few additional low-impact surface ships in 10-20 years’ time!

I’m not convinced that Xi Jinping will be happy to wait until we’re entirely ready and he is 80+ years of age before making his move.

Thanks to Dr Alexey Muraviev, Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at Curtin University and publisher Australian Defence Magazine for their major input to this article, and Johannes Leak for his cartoon.