The Defence White Paper 2013: between the covers
22 Mar 2013|

Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Mabus meets with Australian Minister for Defense Stephen Smith at the Parliament House April 2, 2012.Earlier this week, the RUSI ACT asked Ben Schreer and myself to talk about the next Defence White Paper. This is a challenge because we’re going to get a new Defence White Paper (DWP) in the last few months of a parliamentary term (assuming both run to timetable). That’s caused a few cynics around Canberra to start talking about a ‘White Pamphlet‘ rather than a substantial document.

Balancing strategy, resources and force structuring will be tough. And, for reasons I’ll explain later, the 2009 DWP isn’t the best starting point. But before we get to that, we need to understand how we got to where we are. And we need to go back quite a way—Australia’s rationale for its force structure can be traced back over 40 years to major policy decisions made in the face of then pressing external influences.

The first was the Indonesian confrontation of 1965, which created a mind-set in Australia that we would always need a defence force capable of deterring Indonesia from hostile actions—a school of thought that persists to this day. It resulted in us acquiring Oberon submarines, the F-111 and guided missile destroyers (DDGs)—core elements of the force structure that are today in the process of being replaced at great expense. And then the United States gave us a fright with President Nixon’s ‘Guam Doctrine’ of 1969, which told us that America wasn’t prepared to be all things to all allies, and that we have to be self-reliant in own region. This wasn’t at first blush a great development, and it left Canberra wondering how we would manage our security.

Neither of these factors remained with us for long. In 1967, President Suharto took power in Indonesia, greatly relieving local tensions. And in 1972 Nixon negotiated the US-China rapprochement which left the US as the primary power of the Pacific region. The net result for Australian defence planning was that we could, in effect, take a more relaxed approach to our defence force, backing away over time from long-range force projection, as evidenced by the demise of the aircraft carrier capability in the 1980s. The ADF became a force that was able to do all it needed to counter Indonesia’s rather meagre air and maritime capability while making small (but sometimes significant) contributions to coalition operations.

That basic notion is sound—our interests are stronger in our immediate region than anyone else’s, and we should be prepared to invest more to protect them. Further away our interests overlap with others, especially the United States—we should be able to make a contribution to their protection, but we don’t need (and aren’t able) to lead. So the force structure laid down in the 1960s and US primacy in the Pacific theatre enable us to understand almost all of the major defence decisions made since 1965. The ‘replacement syndrome’ explains the rest; for example, six Oberon submarines became six Collins.

Every post 1972 DWP has had some variation of the ‘local defence’ model in it. The 2009 paper, however, departs from its predecessors in an important way. It contains three main elements; a strategic narrative, a military strategy and a force structure. The strategic narrative and the military strategy are fundamentally at odds because the former describes a world of changing major power balance in a region very much larger than Australia’s vicinity, and it’s a very different world from that of 1972, in no small part because American primacy is now coming under question, at least in part of the theatre. But the military strategy pretty much toes the line of looking after the local neighbourhood first and foremost. The military strategy and the force structure don’t match either, because the bulk of the new equipment acquisitions are highly capable long range maritime platforms with land strike capabilities and a focus on amphibious land operations.

To see what the drafters were thinking, we should follow the money. (Actually promised money, since it evaporated.) We find that the strategic narrative and force structure match pretty well; we were planning a force to work with the Americans far from home to help constrain the military options of the PRC. We can argue about the effectiveness of that—our planned forces were tiny compared to the USN—but the intent was clear. In particular, the force structure emphasized small numbers of highly capable platforms, rather than larger numbers of lower capability platforms for use against less capable Indonesia.

Our defence planning and funding envelope have evolved over four decades to support ‘defence of Australia and its environs’. By moving away from that, the 2009 DWP needed more resources and a much more sophisticated understanding of how we fit into the big picture. It failed on several levels. For a start, if working with the Americans was the aim, we probably should have spoken more deeply with them than we apparently did. To paraphrase the leaked 2009 cable of the discussion:

Australia: we’re going to help you militarily constrain China
United States: we’re not sure if we want to, or even if we could

As I argued about submarines, if we’re going to double our bets on the alliance, we should match our resources and strategy—and America’s.

As the new DWP gets closer, we’ll look at the various aspects of it in more detail, but let’s finish with an outline of three possible force structure approaches:

  1. revert back to a less ambitious force structure, with the local region as the ADF’s primary task
  2. continue with the 2009 DWP model of high level forces for a wider theatre—and find the money
  3. find a compromise between the two in which the ADF has primary responsibility for local operations and can contribute niche but high value capabilities further afield

Which we choose depends on our strategy—a post for another time.

Andrew Davies is a senior analyst for defence capability and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Pacific Fleet.