The release of the Foreign Policy White Paper last week has sparked heated debate about the rapidly evolving Indo-Pacific region, Australia’s role and our strategic assumptions. One line caught my eye: “Military modernisation in our region is not directed at Australia but nonetheless will significantly diminish the capability edge we have enjoyed.”
This is certainly true, but while that modernisation may not be directed towards Australia, a good chunk of it is directed towards our largest security partner, the United States. It also underplays the extent of an evolving geopolitical competition over emerging technology and the pace of its integration into military forces that is occurring throughout the region.
The United States’ edge in military technology, part of its strategic power since the First Gulf War, is no longer as assured. China and Russia are investing heavily in advanced missiles, satellites, submarines and other types of military capabilities. They have turned these technologies into an advantage. They allow Beijing and Moscow to raise the military cost and risk for Washington if it chose to intervene in a conflict close to either of their borders. This could lead allies and partners to question America’s ability to deliver on alliance guarantees and other commitments without escalating in a crisis, in turn impacting Washington’s credibility.
Further, a broader rivalry over emerging technology is taking shape. Over the past decades funding and technological innovation has shifted from government labs to the private sector. Much of this private sector technology, like artificial intelligence, will be the basis of future warfare. China has responded by reforming its military, shrinking its size and increasing its agility. Beijing has also recognised that new technologies will fuel its next stage of economic development, recently announcing new national plans in quantum computing, artificial intelligence and robotics. A vibrant private sector in technology hubs like Shenzhen and Shanghai is also driving growing competition with Silicon Valley.
Lastly, US dominance is increasingly costly. Sustaining America’s military and strategic position with its current capabilities is straining the Pentagon’s fiscal resources. A variety of priorities like nuclear modernisation, new army procurement programs, the F-35 and a larger navy are vying for pieces of a stagnating budget.
Recognising this, in 2014 the Pentagon launched the Third Offset strategy: essentially a department-wide effort to develop new technologies, institutions and culture to theoretically ‘leap ahead’ of its competitors. The Third Offset is a set of three related strategies. The first involves betting on new technologies that will provide new ways for the United States to project power in contested environments. Secondly, new types of capabilities will be economically sustainable, allowing the United States to maintain its strategic position by doing more with less. The third is that by reforming America’s defence institutions, and developing new ones, the Pentagon will be able to take advantage of private sector developments faster and better than its rivals over the long-term.
This Third Offset is still ongoing in the Trump administration. Some new technologies, like high-energy lasers and hypersonic weapons, are moving ahead quickly. But the defence budget remains an uncertainty – many of these capabilities, while less of a fiscal burden in the future, require a boost in funds now to enter production. Canberra can do more to collaborate and coordinate our own defence research efforts, and equally, participate in exercises and simulations as these technologies are brought together into operational concepts. For Australia, US efforts to balance growing military modernisation in the region are critical for its strategic assumptions and security outlook, which is not guaranteed.