This article is part of a new series of Inside Policy posts that will explore different aspects of global security – in a continuation of MLI’s Global Security Look Ahead project.
By Andrew Davies, March 17, 2017
It’s often tempting for analysts to note a broad alignment of interests and values between countries and decide that there’d be value in them “doing more together.” Australia and Canada are two countries with much in common. Both have relatively small populations in large land areas, and both have economies that depend in no small part on the export of commodities. And both are Commonwealth countries, allies of the United States, and members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence arrangement. At first blush, there should be plenty of things to collaborate on.
But we’re also a long way apart, and though both countries rely on the safe passage of goods by sea, we don’t really use the same sea routes. The tyranny of distance remains a factor even in today’s globalised world. Australia faces the Southern Pacific and Indian Oceans, while Canada’s major maritime routes pass through the Northern Pacific and Atlantic. We face the Antarctic, and Canada faces the Arctic.
Canada’s land border will ensure that the US always provides military support if there’s a threat to the continent, while Australia has to work to keep its alliance tight.
And our security relationships with the US are quite different – Canada is part of the tightly integrated NATO alliance, while Australia is part of the much looser ‘hub and spokes’ model of American Pacific theatre alliances. If push comes to shove, Canada’s land border will ensure that the US always provides military support if there’s a threat to the continent, while Australia has to work to keep its alliance tight.
So what sort of cooperative endeavours should Australia and Canada be exploring? We need to look for activities where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Given that both countries have relatively small armed forces, using precious resources sailing or flying long distances to “do stuff together” that doesn’t provide synergies of some kind doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. By using up flying or steaming hours, it’s even possible that we could both end up with less total capability if we decide to invent make-work activities.
So we need to find ways to add value to one another. The information and burden sharing arrangement under the Five Eyes model suggests one possibility. By splitting up the world into areas of primary responsibility and then sharing the results, the geographic distances between the Five Eyes nations becomes something of a virtue, giving the group a global coverage that would be difficult for any of them to acquire on their own. That model could be extended beyond intelligence into other operational spheres – collaboration of cyber security is an obvious extension of the intelligence relationship.
As the number of submarines in the region proliferates, it will rapidly become beyond the capacity of even the US Navy (USN) to keep tabs on vessels of interest.
In the maritime domain, another potential burden and information sharing activity is anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in the Pacific. As the number of submarines in the region proliferates, it will rapidly become beyond the capacity of even the US Navy (USN) to keep tabs on vessels of interest. But the combination of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in the north, the Royal Australian Navy in the south and the USN operating from its territories and bases across the Pacific basin starts to look like a distributed network of ASW assets that could provide collective systematic coverage. The RCN has long been an ASW specialist within NATO, and continues to play an important role. Australia is starting to get back into the business after letting its capability fall away after the end of the Cold War.
There could also be areas of defence industrial activity where cooperation would be efficient. Both countries struggle to achieve economies of scale in naval shipbuilding, but both wish to keep their national shipyards open. Australia has just about enough frigates (12) to sustain a rolling production model. And plans to build 12 submarines might also let us eke out enough work to keep a yard running. But for other vessel types, building small numbers isn’t generally an economical proposition. So Australia is having two afloat support vessels delivered from Spain.
The calculus for Canada is similar – for small numbers of boutique vessels, either pay a large premium for domestic work, or accept that some builds will have to go offshore. But it’s possible that the sum of demands from the two navies would allow for more efficient production. As an example, Canada could build afloat support vessels for both countries, and Australia could build icebreakers for use at opposite ends of the world.
If Canada is interested in a replacement of the Victoria-class sometime in the 2030s, have we got a deal for you!
And we could look at the possibility of leveraging off each other’s national programs. Australia is just setting off to design a future submarine. The design and setting up of production will entail a large fixed cost, but the actual builds should get cheaper over time due to the learning effect. If Canada is interested in a replacement of the Victoria-class sometime in the 2030s, have we got a deal for you!
Finally, there’s always the benefit of having someone to talk to who has faced similar problems. Dealing with the United States on defence acquisition is often an exercise in patiently explaining the small scales of Australian resources (the Australian defence budget is just 4% of the Pentagon’s) and correspondingly modest aspirations. But Canada will get that. I suspect there are some useful data sharing opportunities in terms of getting the best out of a limited budget.
And we often do similar things. For example, Australia would be well placed to help the Royal Canadian Air Force plan and manage a transition from classic Hornets to Super Hornets if Canada decides not to pursue the F-35 and buy the Boeing product instead – which looks increasingly likely. Australia was the first export customer for the Super Hornet, and we’ve now got a decade of experience to draw on.
In that spirit, let me offer Canada some advice: you really should stick with the F-35 plan. Australia’s circumstance back in 2006 when we made the decision to buy Super Hornets was quite different. Our 1960s vintage F-111s were increasingly unsupportable, and service entry of the F-35 looked to be slipping hard to the right. Today the F-35 is entering initial service—albeit with some development work still to go—and it looks to offer far better capability value than the alternatives.
For a whole number of reasons, I don’t think we’re going to see Australia and Canada shoulder to shoulder in a wide range of activities around the globe. That will happen when we judge that our interests are similarly served – hence Australians and Canadians together in the two World Wars, Korea, and Afghanistan. But, for the most part, we have different priorities in different parts of the world. But we’re also similar enough to have opportunities to help each other out when it makes sense to do so.
Andrew Davies is the Director of the Defence and Strategy Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. These are his personal views.