The new Defence White Paper is an advance on many fronts. Its appreciation of the changing security landscape is accurate, its logic is mostly clear and it contains a government commitment to spend significantly more, for at least the coming decade.
However, the more I examine the detail in this White Paper, the more concerned I become. Several key challenges deserve closer consideration. Let me touch on five.
My first question is whether the White Paper proposes an adequate response to the more demanding security environment that seems to be in store for the 2030s.
It rightly points out that in the 2030s China’s defence spending is likely to exceed that of the US and that Beijing’s military investments will be concentrated overwhelmingly in East and Southeast Asia. The speed, scale and asymmetric nature of PLA development and Beijing’s confrontational behaviour are already transforming the regional security outlook.
Meanwhile, Washington has been responding to international security challenges with great caution, hesitancy and inconsistency. One consequence is that while China’s defence spending has quadrupled in the last decade, American defence spending has increased by a total of only 12%.
For Australia the challenges may be truly daunting by the 2030s. If a core responsibility of Australian defence planners is to ensure that future Australian governments will always have capabilities to respond effectively to future security crises, will this White Paper deliver enough?
My second question is whether the strategy in this White Paper is sufficiently focussed.
The strategy described in the White Paper has three core priorities. The first is to deter, deny or defeat any attempt to attack, threaten or coerce Australia. The second is to work with regional neighbours to foster a more resilient and secure Southeast Asia and Southwest Pacific. And the third priority is to reinforce a stable Indo–Pacific region and a rules-based international order.
However, in a major departure from its predecessors, this White Paper announces that all three of those priorities are to have equal weighting in force structure design and development. In the past, all three have been accorded roughly equal weighting in ADF activities but the design and development of the ADF has been driven primarily by the most vital tasks; the deterrence, denial and defeat of any attempt to attack, threaten or coerce Australia.
There’s no explanation for this substantial broadening of the criteria for force structure design in either the White Paper or the accompanying Integrated Investment Program. It’s just announced.
That decision is counter-intuitive. One would think that when the country is needing to face up to the demands of a far more challenging security environment and a significantly increased risk of direct military threat in the decades ahead, defence planners would focus acquisition spending on the vital priorities. Nevertheless, this White Paper states that equal investment priority will be given to other types of operations, activities and theatres that don’t pose an existential threat to the country.
In 2035 China’s military spending is projected to be some 40 times that of Australia. But here we have a decision to spend two-thirds of this country’s comparatively small acquisition budget on capabilities that aren’t priorities for the main game.
There are important consequences. One is that if Australia was to be seriously threatened in the 2030s or 40s, the ADF’s capabilities to defend the country would be significantly weaker than would otherwise be the case. Second, were the Australian public to realise that only one third of the country’s meagre defence acquisition budget was being spent on the direct defence of Australia, they’re likely to be unimpressed. Public opinion polling for the last half century has consistently shown overwhelming support for the ADF being structured to directly defend the country but low support for defence operations for other purposes in distant theatres.
In my view, it’s highly desirable that Australia conduct operations in our regional approaches and in support of global security and that all of these tasks be priorities for future ADF activities. We certainly should contribute to the fight against terrorism in the Middle East, we should work hard to build security resilience in Southeast Asia and we should lead emergency responses to natural disasters in the Southwest Pacific.
However, giving those sorts of tasks equal weight with the requirements of directly defending Australia in what we buy for the Defence Force is a major change. Moreover the case for this substantial dilution of strategic focus in defence acquisitions has yet to be made.
A third important question is whether it will be possible to sustain the political will to fully fund the defence modernisation program in the White Paper over the coming decade. Locking the defence budget into a 10-year funding model may be sensible business practice but it’ll be challenging to maintain.
A fourth major question arises from the substantial restructuring of the defence workforce that’ll be needed to operate the new intelligence, space, cyber and the maritime, air and land force combat capabilities that the White Paper details. Many current staff don’t possess the required backgrounds or skills and will need to be relocated elsewhere. Simultaneously Defence will be striving to attract and retain the range of highly capable people that the new functions will require.
My final key question arises from the Defence Industry Policy Statement that’s attached to the White Paper. This statement breaks new ground on many fronts and is to be welcomed.
However, in order to succeed, the new industry policy and indeed the new capabilities listed in the White Paper, will need industry to perform to higher standards of quality, timeliness and cost control than have been seen in the past. It will require a different, innovative and flexible culture in both Defence and in relevant companies.