The Defence White Paper: politics, policy and posture
26 Feb 2016|


Modern Defence White Papers are notoriously difficult to craft. As public documents, they’re fragile vehicles that are expected to carry a number of heavy loads.

They must be accurate enough in their scan of the strategic environment to provide a sense of what might occur without offending regional sensibilities. They must be comprehensive enough in their force structure prescriptions to keep the various defence tribes happy, yet provide an indication of where priorities lie. They must press enough national security buttons to keep external stakeholders happy, without so attenuating the focus on national defence responsibilities that the document turns into a kind of security policy blancmange. And they must accommodate the politics of the day without appearing to be partisan.

Yesterday’s White Paper accommodates these competing expectations competently, and certainly with greater assuredness than its two predecessors (2009 and 2013). Defence Minister Marise Payne claims that ‘the 2016 Defence White Paper is the most rigorous and comprehensive in Australia’s history’. In truth, it isn’t so different from its forerunners. It’s just as conventional and, perhaps in consequence, just as fragile, with a bit too much hyperbole covering for perplexity in the face of largely irresolvable problems.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s assertion during her Radio National interview with the ABC’s Michael Brissenden that the force structure parameters were determined as recently as 2014 (yet another instance of politics standing on the throat of policy), the current document displays considerable continuity with its predecessors. That is as it should be, since defence capabilities remain in the inventory for decades. But it also rectifies a couple of fundamental failures of the two previous White Papers.

Most importantly, it provides much needed guidance on the rebuilding of the Navy as a central strategic asset in a world where maritime power matters more than ever. The White Paper should end the dithering and indecision that has attended consideration of Australia’s submarine capability for the past decade and a half—a dithering that has both degraded our current capability and set back the restoration of our most significant strategic weapons system. Of course, it continues to beg the question ‘where will they be built’. That’s a question that demands an answer.

The White Paper should also cement naval shipbuilding into the fabric of our national industrial and technological capacity. Defence is a national enterprise. The idea that major defence systems (and that’s what the Navy is) are somehow dissociated from the drivers of the national economy, and that major platforms can be assembled from a rag bag of international offerings at the lowest cost (and often the least effectiveness) is anathema. Yet the mantra of cost efficiency has actually generated cost overruns and delivery delays that have hollowed out the effectiveness of the ADF. That has to stop.

The White Paper’s proposals regarding a rolling submarine build program to ensure that the risk of a capability gap in the middle of this century is reduced, together with a continuous shipbuilding approach to the construction of surface combatants should, in combination, provide greater operability and sustainability to the Navy. This is long overdue.

The White Paper is, overall, a sound basis for Australia’s future strategic policy design, force structure development and operational planning. Its treatment of China as the dominant strategic concern in the Asia–Pacific region is much more nuanced and confident than were either the 2009 or 2013 White Papers.

It is, however, less assured in dealing with four significant issues.

First, its threat analysis lacks precision and definition. To be truly useful, Defence White Papers must deal decisively with what it means to use armed force in defence of the nation and its interests. That goes to the heart of national strategy. National strategy isn’t coterminous with national security—that’s a much larger canvas on which an integrated policy needs to be drawn. Yet this White Paper conflates security issues with strategic ones, and the result is a measure of confusion that could dissipate the national defence effort.

The threat of cyber-attacks and the threat deriving from terrorist groups around the globe are real. But are they grist to the defence strategic mill?

A concerted cyber-attack could conceivably bring down not just the banking and commercial systems but also critical aspects of the national infrastructure such as electricity and water. Clearly, governments must take such threats seriously and address them thoroughly. But while the Australian Signals Directorate plays an important role in both the diagnosis and treatment of the cyber security problem, cyber security isn’t at its core a defence issue. Armed force is irrelevant to its resolution.

Similarly, terrorism isn’t ultimately a defence matter. It’s evidently a law enforcement and intelligence issue, and some elements of the ADF capability (particularly the precision assault skills of the SAS) are applicable in certain situations. But the capacity available to government in dealing with some terrorism incidents is a consequence of sound force structure planning, not its cause.

Second, determining 2% of GDP as the defence-spending envelope within the coming half decade puts the financial cart before the capability horse. The issue here isn’t the quantum of the spend, but rather the allocation of appropriate levels of funding to achieve mandated capability outcomes. The important thing for governments is less to meet election commitments (which are pretty flexible anyway) than it is to spend the right amount of money wisely—especially given Australia’s practice of providing supplementary funding to the ADF when it’s deployed on operations.

Third, apart from a couple of passing references to the humanitarian and natural disaster effects of climate change, the White Paper maintains the government’s coyness on global warming issues, especially the possible strategic consequences in the Asia–Pacific region. Internal migrations, domestic disorder and mass border crossings are, perhaps, the least of the strategic issues. But contests over ocean resources and, more importantly, water are real consequences that require analysis, planning and force posture consideration.

And finally, the White Paper is silent on the critical relationship between defence and the national economy. A strong and growing economy is fundamental if a confident and effective defence posture is to be maintained and the resilience necessary to sustain that posture over the long term is to be generated.

Basically, White Papers are a work in progress. This one is a good start, but there is more to be done if the next version is to chart an even more rigorous and comprehensive basis for strategic decision making as the fault lines in the strategic geography of the Asia–Pacific region become ever more apparent.