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The Echidna Strategy

Australia’s Search for Power and Peace


Sam Roggeveen

Collingwood, VIC: Black Inc Books, 2023

Paperback ‎     240pp      RRP: $32.99


Reviewer: Robert Ellis, January 2024


During the earlier part of the 21st Century, the then-Australian Government commenced a major planning exercise to review and revise plans for Australia’s defence in the event of war.

After extensive negotiations, it was agreed that a flotilla of diesel-powered submarines should be ordered from a French shipyard, to replace the six diesel-powered Collins Class submarines then in service with the Royal Australian Navy. After work was started on the first hull, the Government decided to cancel the agreement. After further negotiations with British and American senior military and political leaders, it was decided to order up to eight nuclear-powered attack submarines, as a key element in Australia’s future defence commitments and structure, under the AUKUS agreement. This major decision was to further integrate Australian defence capability with that of the United States of America, which had become Australia’s major ally and was already a supplier of combat aircraft, heavy-lift military freight and transport fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft and American-pattern armoured fighting vehicles.

Reliance on the United States as a significant supplier of military hardware, and as a key source of support in the event of any future war, has been central to Australia’s defence planning since 1942, when, after the fall of Singapore (Britain’s major base in eastern Asia and the Pacific Ocean basin ),  it became glaringly obvious to the then Government, and its leader, Prime Minister John Curtin, that Great Britain was not then able to make any significant contribution to Australia’s defence against Japanese military expansionism in the region. Australia would only survive with American assistance, in men and equipment.

From the start of the Napoleonic Wars in 1804 to the beginning of the First World War in 1914, sea-borne trade, upon which much of the world depended for imports of food and other resources and the export of manufactured and processed products, was carried on under the protection of Britain’s Royal Navy - then the largest and most effective naval force in the world. Through this ‘Pax Britannica’ Britain fulfilled its obligation to the rest of the world to protect sea trade. This was central to its world view and its national security. After 1945, when the United States was, to some extent the ‘last man standing’, it took on this role of international political leader and moderator, that Britain had held from 1804 to 1914. Many other components of what the British Empire had been, became responsible for their own defence, and Australia was one which turned to the United States for leadership and support in international affairs.

Central to its Government’s thinking, in the early 21st Century, was the somewhat radical decision to for Australia to ‘go nuclear’, with six to eight submarines - initially two to four - purchased from the US or Britain, and the remainder built in Australia, as the key element in a policy of deterrence.

In his book, Mr Roggeveen criticizes this strategy as inappropriate, and suggests, as one alternative,  adopting an ‘Echidna Strategy’. Being small animals, the echidna is often preyed on by larger predators. Its only defence is its sharp-pointed and rigid quills, similar to those grown by porcupines.  When it is curled up in a ball, with a 360o barrier, the predator is faced with this almost impenetrable hedge, which will inflict more harm on the hunter than any benefit gained by attacking. So, the echidna lives on, while the hunter goes hungry or finds some less well-protected quarry.

Australia’s geographic location poses an additional barrier to any likely aggressor. It is relevant that in 1942, the Japanese did not make any determined attempt to land troops on the Australian continent. The Japanese Army believed that it would need to land seven divisions, which, with Headquarters and  Corps troops, would mean somewhere around 100,000 to 120,000 men, with heavy equipment and transport vehicles. The Imperial Japanese Navy stated it could not guarantee logistic support for more than two divisions,  which might have been enough to defeat the Australian forces in country at the time, but nowhere enough to hold what they had taken, so no attempt was made to invade. [This is discussed in detail in Craig Collie’s excellent book On Our Doorstep, which is well worth reading, as it sets out the problems facing an invader then - and which would still be a serious handicap for any potential attacker in the mid-21st Century].

Mr Roggeveen suggests other strategies should the United States not be in a position to prevent an aggressive approach to Australia. It is pertinent that this book was published in 2023, and this implies that much of the research involved was undertaken between 2019 and 2022, and that there have been significant changes in the political and economic environment since. 

Only marginal attention is paid to the possible return to the Presidency of the U.S. by Donald Trump, should he win power in November 2024. If that occurs, there may be a reversion to the isolationist policies that kept the United States standing back from involvement in international affairs from the ‘Roaring Twenties’ to the late nineteen thirties. It became involved, only reluctantly in 1941, in the European-centred World War in 1941-42, and then only after a direct attack by Japan on the US navy base at Pearl Harbour and Nazi Germany’s declaration of war against the United States in December 1941. Many American political and military leaders would have been prepared to concentrate their efforts on war with Japan in the Pacific theatre, leaving Britain and the USSR to deal with Hitler’s Germany without American aid.

There are other strategic structures, suggested by the author, which may serve to deter any attempt by a foreign power to invade and occupy Australia. One is to create, across the Pacific Ocean, something similar to the European Union, but led by Australia, alone or in concert with New Zealand, to present a united front to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), should the United States lose or voluntarily abandon its role of socio-political leader. There are two bars to adopting this strategy: It may be seen to smack of colonialism, and so be unacceptable to some of the smaller nations, and this strategy is weak, in that even if all the smaller Pacific nations did come together, under joint Australian and New Zealand leadership, they would not have the strength to confront the sheer mass of the PRC. Put simply: ‘It’s a great idea, but . . .’

Another option Roggeveen puts forward is to find a third power, not already committed to a role of leadership, to take over that role from the United States. He suggests this could be either India or Indonesia. Both these countries have large and rapidly-increasing populations - India, with more than 1.6 billion people, is larger than the PRC; Indonesia,  with about 290 million people, is smaller, but still a large country. Indonesia is resource-rich; India is largely rural. They have similar demographic structures - mostly young people, with a small number of very rich, a slow-growing middle class, and a large number at low-income or subsistence-levels, especially in rural areas, where in both countries there is much endemic poverty. India, overall, has a higher standard of education than does Indonesia, and a more skilled work force, but neither country has a single common language - India has more than 300 distinct languages or major dialects; Indonesia claims nearly twice this number. Neither is politically stable, and both have strongly defined and sometimes incompatible religions. Militarily, neither is powerful, although India, which has a small number of atomic warheads, has a significant naval force and a reasonably modern air service. Its land forces did not perform well in two wars against its neighbour, Pakistan, or in smaller border wars with China. It is also dependent, in part, on mercenary Nepalese for a substantial part of its infantry. Indonesia has a small Navy, largely of small patrol vessels, few modern aircraft and an army which is not well mechanised. Many middle- and senior-level officers are political appointees and lack leadership skills and experience.

It seems unlikely that either country could fill any leadership role left vacant by an American withdrawal from this role in the Pacific Basin, and India has no great stake in the area. It might be 20 to 30 years before India could realistically be expected to take on the international leadership role that the US now holds. For Indonesia, it may take 40 to 50 years to reach that stage. Australia cannot risk waiting that long.

The only other likely contender to Pacific Ocean leadership seems to be Japan, which receives only passing mention in this context by the author. It has a large, but aging population, and it has difficulty recruiting replacements for armed forces personnel who are reaching retiring age. It has an industrialised economy and a highly skilled work-force. Its military is strong, well-equipped and integrated with other friendly countries, but its doctrines are focussed on defence of Japan. It has no love for the Chinese People’s Republic or its satellite, North Korea. It is unlikely to voluntarily fill any leadership role vacated by the United States, and there may be other smaller Pacific Ocean powers that have long memories and would not look to Japan for leadership.

Looking back at the broad situation, Australia is not in a good position vis-a-vis the Peoples Republic of China. It is likely that it must, as Mr Roggeveen suggests, rely on a combination of ballistic missiles and static marine mines for defence against invasion, and hope that any potential enemy is unable to solve the problems of logistics posed by Australia’s geographic isolation.

Our greatest risk may be if a smaller country, using long-range ballistic missiles, which it may develop in the near future, launches an unprovoked attack on Australia or one of its closer friends, and is backed up by another larger power which may risk a major war to gain some worth-while return at a bearable cost. We will be safer, Roggeveen argues, if the cost of conquering Australia is seen to be greater than the benefits that will be gained.

This is an unlikely future scenario, and it is one in which Australia’s best defence strategy will be the land-based or marine-based defences Mr Roggeveen suggests as our first line of defence, linked to the logistic problems and costs involved in maintaining any invasion force.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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