There are four overall principles that have characterised Defence of Australia policies. The first is the self-reliant Defence of Australia. The new White Paper leaves no equivocation on this point. Paragraph 3.35 says ‘The highest priority ADF task is to deter or defeat armed attacks on Australia without having to rely on the combat or combat support forces of another country’. The next paragraph elaborates: ‘Australia’s defence policy is founded on the principle of self-reliance in deterring or defeating armed attack on Australia, within the context of our Alliance with the United States and our cooperation with regional partners’. What’s new here is the reference to the region in the final phrase.
The second policy principle is that there are limits to Australia’s military resources and influence. There are few direct references to this (perhaps it’s taken as self-evident) but there’s little doubt that it’s a central factor. Paragraph 3.2 reads to the effect that the Government’s responses to security threats and opportunities will have to acknowledge ‘the limits of our capability and reach’. The next sentence is in some ways more telling: ‘Choices must therefore be made to guide the allocation of finite resources to deal with challenges that are most likely or most dangerous, and where our response can be most effective’. This theme of choice, and by implication difficult choice, recurs throughout the document: see for example paragraph 7.9.
A related theme is that Australia’s strategic edge is likely to diminish. For example, paragraph 2.51 says ‘Over the next three decades, Australia’s relative strategic weight will be challenged as the major Asian states continue to grow their economies and modernise their military forces’. This thought too recurs in the White Paper.
The third principle is the strong preference for operations closer to home over more-distant operations. Paragraphs 3.30 to 3.34 spell this out most clearly, with Task 1 (deter and defeat armed attacks on Australia) and Task 2 (contribute to stability and security in the South Pacific and Timor-Leste) being the determinants of the force structure, and with the resultant defence force being deemed sufficient to meet the needs of Tasks 3 and 4 (contribute to military contingencies elsewhere, with priority given to Southeast Asia). This is classic Defence of Australia stuff, although other parts of the text seem to allow for a greater influence of operations in the nearer reaches of the Indo-Pacific (a new term introduced in this white paper) than previously.
The fourth principle brings together the issues of levels of contingency (and discretion), warning time, and force expansion. Recall the Defence of Australia approach: minor contingencies were credible in the shorter term, but major contingencies would be credible only after an extended period of warning, during which Defence would expand.
With respect to major contingencies, not a lot has changed. Paragraph 5.13 talks of the need to balance resources between current and short-term requirements while retaining a baseline as the foundation for force expansion should strategic circumstances deteriorate. Paragraphs 3.39 and 3.40 elaborate on this, including the need for strong defence intelligence. Paragraph 3.46 reassures us that, in spite of military modernisation in our region, we would still expect substantial warning of a major power attack, although, perversely, paragraph 7.12 cautions that strategic circumstances can change with little warning.
In any event, there’s little force expansion on offer, implying that we’re not in a period of strategic warning. Nevertheless, the commitment to get twelve electronic warfare Growler Super Hornets is important, as is the enhancement of cyber security. Overall, more needs to be done on the analysis behind warning and expansion, as the issue is critical.
The White Paper is less clear on contingencies to which Australia might want to respond in the shorter term. But preparedness is a recurring theme: paragraph 5.1 recognises it as a ‘key strategic management tool’, and paragraph 5.17 mentions some welcome recent enhancements to Defence’s preparedness management system. Paragraph 5.3 is a cautionary straw in the wind: ‘Adjustments to preparedness levels … can take effect relatively quickly compared to longer-term basing and force structure decisions’. The discussion of the Reserves (paragraphs 4.32 and 5.18 for example) and how quickly they can be readied for either longer-term or shorter-term contingencies seems incomplete. Overall, the issue of what Defence needs to be prepared for, why, and with what warning, is shaping up to be a battle in itself, and, again, more thought is needed.
To paraphrase Thucydides, White Papers are an armistice in the never-ending war for funding: they set the rules of engagement for the next few rounds of combat between spending departments and the gatekeepers: they don’t set out the answers, but they do tell you how to ask consistent questions, and in a way agreed by the other players in national security. They help progress the inevitable unfinished business.
The White Paper contains a lot of the latter. Further examples include the evolution of the ‘Indo-Pacific Strategic Arc’, Defence diplomacy in the region, and Defence policy for industry and innovation. In the immediate term, however, there’s a pressing need to choose the balance of investment between the current force, its preparedness, and modernisation. For choose read adjust and rebalance. It seems unlikely that Defence can afford to modernise what it has already got, so something has to give. Even if the Government continues to maintain the permanent ADF at about 59,000, there’s still the issue of the size of the post-Afghanistan Army and the allocation of the 59,000 between the three Services. Hard decisions usually don’t make themselves: let’s hope that Defence has the mechanisms in place to identify what needs to be done and then to get on with it.
Richard Brabin-Smith is a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. Image courtesy of Defence.