A new DWP wouldn’t be worth the white paper it’s written on
19 Jun 2019|

On a five-year timetable, we’re due for another defence white paper (DWP) in 2021. The last one took the best part of two years to prepare, so starting one now would be about right. If the five-year timetable continues, Defence would spend fully 40% of its time in white paper mode, which would significantly eat into its ability to do other things—like planning to deliver the capability initiatives from the previous one.

I lean on the side of ‘fewer but better’ where major strategic policy documents are concerned, and the idea of defence white papers being produced on a five-year timetable makes little sense. For a start, they take much longer than that to play out—we’re only just getting around to the delivery of initiatives contained in DWP 2000, in the form of the Hobart-class ships and the F-35.

Instead, the timing for white papers should be driven by Australia’s strategic circumstances and the broader strategic outlook, which don’t change on nice, neat timescales. We didn’t have a DWP between the first one in 1976 and the next in 1987 for the very good reason that not a lot was happening. That said, I think the changes we’re seeing now, both in our immediate region and globally, mean that a new white paper actually is needed.

The assumption of continued US primacy that permeated DWP 2016 looked heroic at the time. It seems almost foolishly misplaced now. While the Obama administration often disappointed the strategy community with its tepid responses to geopolitical challenges, those now seem like the good old days.

Under the current administration, the caprice and bullishness of US foreign policy—not to mention its unseemly embrace of autocrats—seems as likely to precipitate a crisis as it is to resolve one. It’s hard to say whether the rise of President Donald Trump is an aberration or a trend, but the past few US administrations haven’t really inspired confidence in the longevity of US hegemony in any case. The obvious conclusion for America’s friends and allies is that more self-sufficiency wouldn’t go astray.

DWP 2016 did get China right in the sense of identifying its potential to become an active revisionist. Where it probably got things wrong was in the timescale. Back then we were told that China could disrupt the strategic order sometime in the period out to 2035, which is a comfortable way off if you don’t actually want to do anything quickly that entails force structure changes. But actions in the South China Sea in the past few years and the Chinese messaging at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue suggest that we might not have that luxury. Meanwhile, our first Hunter-class frigate and Attack-class submarine will be doing their first sea trials around 2030, so it doesn’t look like we have appropriate urgency.

And then there’s the matter of emerging technologies, some of which look like being, if not game-changing, at least game-extensively-modifying. The list includes swarming unmanned systems—potentially autonomous ones—‘artificial intelligence’ (which in practice means machine-based expert decision-making), high-precision quantum sensors, and hypersonic weapon systems. Individually, any of those could be disruptive of current force structures. Collectively, they could change the face of warfare as we know it. Yet the Australian Defence Force outlined in DWP 2016 would be readily recognisable to defence planners in the Menzies government.

Consistent with all that is the first of two takeaway points from my talk at ASPI’s ‘War in 2025’ conference last week:

Australia desperately needs a new defence white paper.

Less obvious was the second point:

There is no point in embarking on a new defence white paper.

In the light of everything I’ve just said, you might well wonder why I don’t think it’s worth producing another defence white paper. The answer is that I don’t believe that the system that would be asked to produce it has the courage or imagination required to significantly change direction.

A DWP breaks down into four major sections: an essay about our strategic circumstances, an essay about our military strategy, an outline of a future force structure, and a budget. The first of those is the easiest to modify and the least significant in practice. Our future security won’t be guaranteed by a nicely crafted assessment of China’s strategic intentions. If we’re serious about meeting the challenges we face, we need to take a hard look at the military strategy and especially the force structure.

Neither of those is likely to happen. The sunk cost and institutional fondness for the current ADF structure, combined with the industrial landscape and its associated politics, will see to that. The mega-projects and the joint and ‘balanced’ ADF are for all practical purposes immutable. Even if the government was seized with urgency, after two years of staff effort and upward management from Defence the most likely outcome is that we would end up with the next few items on the ADF’s wish list grafted onto the existing plan, with all the big-ticket items—and their relaxed timescales—unscathed. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Whether we like it or not, if there was to be a war in 2025, or even 2035, it’s going to be largely a ‘come as you were before the 2016 white paper’ affair for Australia. That might or might not be good enough, but I don’t think DWP 2021 is likely to significantly change that.

This article was adapted from a talk given at ASPI’s ‘War in 2025’ international conference on 14 June 2019.