A new era for Australian defence 
7 Oct 2014|

Sydney Opera HouseTitles are always difficult, so give a good mark to ‘Australia’s Defence: Towards a New Era?

Mixing pickiness with praise, tick the ‘new era’ idea while guffawing at the question mark hanging off the title. Making the title a question is symptomatic of the timidity that gives academics a bad name. Don’t assert your argument, seek cover behind a query. Put a question mark in the title, then spend 344 pages ‘interrogating’ the question. Really? Oh, dear? Enough? This question-thingy does funny things to writing, eh?

Please disregard my querulous start. All praise for this first book in MUP’s series on strategy and warfare in Australia’s region.

Even as Iraq and the previous decade call again, the book makes the case that Oz faces new times, positioned between a rising China and a rebalancing America. The era will test Australia’s middle-power status and challenge its traditional vow to maintain a technological edge over regional militaries.

One product that’ll struggle as a new era marker is the coming Defence White Paper. The 2015 Paper will be the third such defining document in six years; these are evolving iterations, handmaidens rather than harbingers. Still, the proposition that Australia confronts a new era can stand tall as a statement, not cower as a question.

Where the book shines in conception and execution is in its building on a foundational tome of Oz strategic studies, Tom Millar’s ‘Australia’s Defence’, published in 1965 (my copy is stamped from the ship’s library of HMAS Melbourne). The New Era volume is good enough to sit beside Millar; in this realm, praise comes no higher.

The Millar base and quality writers deliver a book that works as a set of excellent variations on the central theme rather than disparate essays—the chapters are from a mix of old guns (style them heavy artillery) and an insurgency of young guns (impressive new firepower).

Writing well about Australian politics, defence and strategic culture is a deeply difficult task. Russell Trood is one of the few who can do it from the inside and from the academy, as an International Relations Professor and Liberal Senator. His chapter launches New Era by considering an Australian strategic culture ‘infused with traditions and ways of acting and behaving that shape policy processes as much as they contribute to policy outcomes’.

One tradition is how Australia gets Defence Ministers. The former Senator is blunt—talent isn’t the top qualification to run Defence:

‘Holding office at the will of the standing prime minister, ministers invariably find themselves appointed for reasons other than talent—party political and factional balance, seniority and accommodation of state interests being most prominent among them. Regardless of the motivations, however, the regrettable record is that most occupants of the Defence Minister’s office have served for a relatively short time. Much the same came be said of Secretaries of Defence, of whom there has been a steady procession. In neither case has this been helpful to the stability of leadership in Defence or contributed to the continuity of policymaking.’

Trood judges Defence a portfolio where ‘persistent and repeated policy failures have exposed widespread shortcomings and weaknesses in the management of the department, eroded public confidence in the political and organisational leadership of defence and begun to undermine its historic and hard won reputation as one of the iconic and centrally important institutions of Australian society.’

Trood’s solution is not another independent review. Defence has had 15 of them since 2003. They are used for policy failure, to seek change, as political tool and to manage internal controversies, but Trood thinks Defence has become too dependent on reviews as a mechanism of governance.

Other old guns are equally quick on the draw. Paul Dibb shows again why he’s the Master; Richard Brabin-Smith is still the Sage.

The Sage can be sharp. The final sentence of the book is Brab calling for Defence to be treated ‘more like the instrument of state policy that it is, and less like a constituency that has to be flattered and cajoled’. His force structure chapter is a meditation on risks and resources beyond most people’s ken. The demand is for judgment, hard choices and big calls stretching decades.

The Master’s Strategy chapter is classic Dibb:

‘…a map of one’s own country is the most fundamental of all defence documentation. However, it is still conspicuously missing in force structure arguments coming from the single services, as well as some so-called expert commentators. The abiding nature of Australia’s continental geography and its maritime surrounds should be an iron discipline in determining force structure priorities and ADF dispositions.’

Salvos aplenty!

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of See-ming Lee.