Do we need another defence white paper, and what should it say?
26 Feb 2019|

This essay is from ASPIs election special, Agenda for change 2019: Strategic choices for the next government, released today. The report contains 30 short essays by leading thinkers covering key strategic, defence and security challenges, and offers short- and long-term policy recommendations as well as outside-the-box ideas that break the traditional rules.

Defence white papers are the big cats of the policy savannah—magnificent predatory creatures that eat all the resources flung at them. Right now, the February 2016 defence white paper is sleeping under a thornbush, still digesting its decade-long lunch of $195 billion in equipment acquisitions. Would it even be wise for the next government to prod Leo back to life? Hell hath no fury like a fat lion forced to jump through more policy hoops. As difficult and demanding as white paper production can be, my view is that it’s time to start the process all over again, this time with a fresh set of assumptions about necessary spending levels and a hard eye towards unpleasant emerging strategic realities.

The challenge

The 2009 defence white paper tried to set a five-year cycle for white papers. That never happened, because governments set their own timetables, usually tied to the electoral clock. However, the speeding up of global strategic change suggests that the time is right to start a new cycle. If a white paper is begun in the second half of 2019, we’re unlikely to see the finished product before the beginning of 2021. There are challenges aplenty. Here are my top five.

  1. The focus in 2016 was on designing the future force for the late 2030s and setting the industrial scene to produce key platforms locally. The only thing more important than the future ADF is the current one. A major focus for the next white paper must be on optimising the ADF for coalition warfare in the near future. There’s an emerging consensus among what passes for the Australian strategic community that the risk of short-term conflict in the Indo-Pacific is growing.
  2. The next white paper needs to find a convincing way to talk honestly but diplomatically about the biggest potential risk to the Indo-Pacific, which is an aggressive and nationalistic China. The last three white papers circled around this buoy with varying success. White papers shouldn’t create bilateral tensions, but they should tell the truth in the interests of explaining policy to Australians.
  3. Having fulfilled the promise to spend around 2% of gross national product on defence, the next government needs to ask the difficult question: is that figure anywhere near enough to address a deteriorating strategic environment? My assessment is that strategic shocks will jolt a future government into spending more. True, there’s no science underpinning the 2% figure, other than that it ticks a NATO benchmark of spending adequacy. But 2% hardly makes us Sparta. An ADF half the size of a Melbourne Cricket Ground crowd with a small number of admittedly high-quality capabilities looks meagre compared to the regional giants. In truth, we’ve ridden on Uncle Sam’s strategic coat-tails—an approach that’s starting to look distinctly threadbare.
  4. After China, Donald Trump is surely the next most concerning strategic factor. Woe betide the alliance if Trump’s acid tongue lashes Australia in the way it has Canada and NATO allies. Our next defence white paper must make the case for the alliance as persuasive in the Oval Office as it is in Canberra. This should be treated as an essential bipartisan exercise.
  5. The white paper’s regional priorities should, in rough order, be the Pacific, Japan, Indonesia and India. The 2016 white paper talked a big game in terms of Australia deepening engagement and providing strategic leadership. While there’s been commendable progress in re-establishing Australia’s position with the Pacific island states, the next white paper must put more flesh on the bones of regional engagement. We need imagination here, not incrementalism, but imagination usually costs significant sums of money.

Quick wins

Australian defence ministers typically speak at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, which this year will be held from 31 May to 2 June. While this will require a quick turnaround after the election, a solid ministerial statement at Shangri-La will be an important opportunity for the government to set out some early policy markers.

The defence minister should commission early a classified study into the current strengths and capability deficiencies of the ADF. The minister should ask what quick steps should be taken to lift operational effectiveness against the risk of regional contingencies in the short term. This is an essential platform from which to start new policy work.

Towards the end of 2019, an AUSMIN meeting will take place, bringing to Australia the US secretaries of Defence and State along with senior military commanders. Few AUSMINs have been as important as this one will be because it will set the tone for alliance cooperation for the remainder of Trump’s time in office. This AUSMIN can’t simply tick off a pale list of shared interests; it must set the agenda for new alliance cooperation in relation to China, new technology, space, cybersecurity and a host of emerging problems. As always, Australia can play the lead in writing the alliance ‘to do’ list, because we spend more time thinking about the US than it spends thinking about us. Even with Trump in the White House, the alliance is ours to lose—or to reinvigorate.

The hard yards

White papers are all about numbers, specifically linking (believable) dollars to (believable) capability, but as far as the future force is concerned the hard work was done in 2016. Except for developing a stronger stand-off strike capability, I don’t see a compelling case to revisit the main outlines of future force structure. What, then, are the genuinely hard problems for 2019? Rapidly lifting capability and ADF hitting power in the short term; building that genuine strategic partnership with Indonesia; balancing ADF jointness with integrated coalition capabilities; integrating new technology with older platforms; and growing the military and civilian defence workforce.

Defence has systems in place, designed in part for the 2016 white paper, that mean the organisation is as well positioned as it’s ever been to produce disciplined strategic assessments and sensible costed capability options. A more aligned and cooperative intergovernmental approach on equipment acquisition is also in place. This means that the Canberra system will be able to support the next government’s call for a white paper. We can only hope that government itself will participate in a disciplined and orderly way through careful and frequent consideration in the National Security Committee of Cabinet. Government must own the final product, after all.