Defence White Papers at 40
9 Mar 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Amanda Slater.

Australia’s seventh Defence White Paper was announced as we approach the 40th anniversary of the first Defence White Paper, tabled in Parliament in November 1976. A 40th anniversary is an appropriate time to reflect on the history of Defence White Papers and on their possible future.

For the first 75 years of the Commonwealth of Australia, no government produced a White Paper on defence. During this time, Australian forces were committed to two world wars, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts. Successive Australian governments developed strategic concepts such as ‘the Singapore strategy’ of the 1920s and 1930s and ‘forward defence’ in the 1950s and 1960s.

DWP 1976 arose from the feeling among the small constituency of Australians interested in long-term strategic policy, most prominently Sir Arthur Tange (Defence Department Secretary 1970–79) and Robert O’Neill and Des Ball of ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, that Australia needed not just a fresh strategic approach but a completely new framework for making and implementing defence policy. DWP 1976 was only a part, albeit an important part, of a decade of radical reforms in defence.

The strategic environment at the time appeared benign. In the 1960s the world had often seemed on the brink of nuclear catastrophe and Australia faced demanding commitments in both maritime and mainland Southeast Asia. Now, with the Vietnam War coming to an end and with international relations between the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Japan, Indonesia and Europe generally stable, there seemed every reason to hope for a prolonged period of global and regional security. The first sentence of the first draft of a 1973 strategic assessment read: ‘Australia is at present one of the most secure countries in the world’.

Australia’s major security relationship was also undergoing change. Washington was obviously tired of allies who were willing to fight to the last American. Even loyal allies like Australia would have to rely more on themselves and less on their great and powerful friends. Moreover, after Vietnam, Australians were more reluctant to send expeditionary forces to fight alongside powerful allies on distant battlefields. Instead, Australia would concentrate on the defence of the continent and its immediate region. ‘Forward defence’ was out; ‘the self-reliant defence of Australia’ was in.

Those broad strategic concepts were closely linked to major structural reforms. Five departments (Defence, Navy, Army, Air and Supply) were merged into a single department. The three services were brought into the Australian Defence Force, which would place more emphasis on joint operations and less on single-service coalitions with allies. They would be led by officers, male and female, educated at a tri-service academy, where they would study the history and politics of regional neighbours as well as engineering and science. The aim was to ensure that civilian officials and uniformed officers would collaborate effectively on policies to protect Australia’s interests in this new environment.

Those ideas and ideals dominated official thinking on defence for the last quarter of the century. DWP 1987, following the 1986 Dibb Report, was essentially part two of DWP 1976, drawing out its implications for force structures and capabilities. DWP 1994 followed similar lines.

DWP 2000, however, came just as the strategic environment was undergoing major changes. China’s rise was already on the agenda, but Australian attention was particularly aroused by the 1999 crisis in what is now Timor-Leste, leading some to focus on ‘the arc of instability’ from western Indonesia through Papua New Guinea to the South Pacific islands. Soon afterwards, the events of 11 September 2001 precipitated the enduring agonies of Islamist terrorism and conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The security implications of climate change added a further complexity, as did actions by Russia as well as China.

It’s little wonder that analysts this century have found it hard to make confident assessments of the next generation’s strategic threats. Moreover, Defence White Papers have been caught up in the severe political tensions between and within the major political parties. The rapid turnover of defence ministers and more recently prime ministers has further impeded long-term planning. Defence budgets have been raided for electorally popular policies. Amid a challenging international environment and domestic political turbulence, DWP 2009 and DWP 2013 had short and unfortunate shelf-lives.

After three DWPs within seven years, it’s time to give the whole process a rest. Defence policy-making would best be developed if there were a moratorium on DWPs for at least 10 years, preferably more. Instead, we would benefit from frequent but low-key updates on the strategic environment and its implications for Australian forces, as some of the assumptions and forecasts of DWP 2016 will inevitably need to be reassessed.

The extent and quality of strategic debate in think tanks, academe and official circles has greatly improved since 1976. But, as Graeme Dobell has argued, major statements should be delivered in Parliament, where the standard of debate needs considerable improvement, and by the Defence Minister, not a quasi-presidential Prime Minister. Governments should also do more to encourage informed debate—inside and outside Parliament—on its broader national security policies, including their diplomatic, aid, trade, immigration, intelligence, cyber and other non-military dimensions. As Allan Behm has pointed out, national security isn’t solely a matter for Defence. Nor is it a matter for stage-managed media events; it requires real information and real debate on complex challenges. That’s more likely to come from more frequent, but less comprehensive, statements than from another, all-inclusive DWP.