DWP 2016: betting big at the regional roulette table
9 May 2016|

We now have our third Defence White Paper in less than seven years. In the preceding quarter century we managed only four. The reduced shelf life of recent White Papers reflects—in part—volatility at the top. Over the same seven-year period, we’ve had two major reorganisations of Russell Hill, three defence chiefs, four department secretaries, five prime ministers and six defence ministers.

While there are strong threads of continuity running through the past three Defence White Papers—at least in terms of plans for the ADF—the near-continuous chopping and changing has been damaging. Not just the corrosive effect of on-again-off-again funding that’s resulted in at least five ‘lost years’, in which plans for the defence force have been put on hold, but also due to changing government direction. For example, we’ve had not two, but three distinct strategies for the future submarine acquisition over the period. Little wonder that we’ll likely now have to extend the life of the Collins-class.

To make matters worse, the past seven years have seen deterioration in our strategic outlook. Iraq has descended back into chaos, Afghanistan teeters on the brink, Russia has gone rogue and North Korea has an even crazier dictator. At the same time, domestic terrorism remains a live threat, and cyber-attacks proliferate by the day. Most seriously for our region, China has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s advice to, ‘hide your strength, bide your time’, and has instead been brazenly asserting its control over the South China Sea through land reclamation and militarisation. If that wasn’t enough, there’s a cult of personality emerging around Xi Jinping while the communist party propaganda machine whips up belligerent nationalism. China’s dream may become our nightmare.

Precious time has been lost.

Perhaps we can now get on with the job of building a stronger ADF. Even with an election around the corner, things look favourable. We have bipartisan agreement on most aspects of defence policy, including a commitment to the white paper’s decade-long funding plan. In contrast, in both 2007 and 2013, the opposition went to the electorate promising a new defence white paper and a comprehensive review of the Defence organisation. Thankfully, neither’s in prospect this time around.

But before we congratulate ourselves for finally getting our act together, it’s worth asking whether the White Paper is fit for purpose.

In terms of financial planning, this year’s White Paper is more robust than any of its predecessors; it’s uncharacteristically transparent about funding and an unprecedented effort has been put into estimating costs. Similarly, the renewed emphasis on international engagement is hard to fault. Even industry seems happy, having been elevated into the hallowed pantheon of ‘fundamental inputs to capability’. But none of this is worth a pinch of salt unless we have a sound strategy and the military capability to back it up.

Despite supposedly new criteria for force design—three ‘equally-weighted’ strategic objectives rather than a focus on self-reliant defence of Australia—the 2016 plan for the ADF looks remarkably like those from 2009 and 2013. That is, modernisation across the board with moderate emphasis on bolstering air and maritime capabilities. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that the answer stays the same even when the question changes. Or perhaps the question doesn’t matter and the military will share the spoils irrespective of the earnest discussion of interests, objectives and tasks at the front of the document. The critical question is whether doing a little bit more of everything is adequate to mitigate the strategic risks ahead.

There are two critical judgments in the 2016 Defence White Paper. The first is that there’s no risk that United States will cease to play its ‘enduring’ role in the Indo–Pacific. The second is that a regional major-power conflict is sufficiently remote (or perhaps sufficiently discretionary in terms of our involvement) that we can afford to treat it on an equal footing with tasks such as ‘support the governments of Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and of Pacific Island Countries to build and strengthen their security’. If either of these two judgments turns out to be incorrect, we’ll confront a dark future underprepared.

There’s surely a risk on both counts. Anyone who thinks that America’s role in the region is preordained has failed to register the support accruing to Trump and Sanders in the US presidential primaries; each candidate would substantially diminish America’s role in the world. Similarly, absent complete and absolute faith in deterrence, it’s hard to argue that we need to spend tens of billions of dollars on high-tech conventional platforms such as submarines and fighters while simultaneously maintaining that major inter-state conflict is so unlikely that it can be put on par with maintaining law and order in Honiara.

If we decided to hedge against the risk of a US retrenchment from Asia and/or major conflict in the region, we’d face a series of hard choices. There’d be winners and losers among the three services—remember what happened to the army in the 1980s—and we’d have to make some big bets about our relationships with other countries. What that might look like depends entirely on the strategy we adopt. We could go the way of Sweden and Switzerland and really get serious about self-reliance. Or we could go the way of Japan and South Korea and draw the US closer by hosting its armed forces—think B1 bombers in Tindal and Virginia-class submarines in Brisbane. Probably the only thing that’s certain is that we’d have to spend a lot more on both our defence force and our national resilience (for example, by re-establishing domestic oil refineries).

The 2016 Defence White Paper defers those difficult choices to another day. In an uncertain strategic environment, that might be the right thing to do. The strategic landscape is in flux, so the longer we wait the clearer the merits and risks of various strategies will become. And it’s not as if we’ll be standing still: the DWP envisages steady improvements for most of the ADF in the years ahead. Nonetheless, like a gambler watching a roulette wheel slow before placing a bet, we risk putting our chips down too late. Every year we keep our options open is a year we lose working on the option we finally choose. It doesn’t help that today’s plans for the ADF will play out at glacial pace. For example, we’ll not see the twelfth submarine until the late 2040s or 2050. Let’s hope time is on our side.