Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper marks the return of geography to defence planning. Not that it had ever entirely disappeared, although Defence Minister Robert Hill at times tried his best to ridicule the importance of geography and persuade the Cabinet that the Middle East was of greater strategic importance than the defence of Australia. Prime Minister John Howard was fully alert to the domestic political dangers of such positions and promptly sent Hill off to be Australia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
Australia’s unique strategic geography first came to prominence in the 1972 Australian Defence Review. That document was the precursor to the 1976 DWP, and identified geography as having ‘a compelling influence on Australian security’ and that Australia needed to be able to defend the continent ‘if need be, alone’. Self-reliance in situations of less than global or major international concern were stated to be ‘a central feature in the future development of Australia’s defence policy’. These concepts were elaborated in the seminal 1976 White Paper which stated increased self-reliance to be a primary requirement. The ’76 document observed the US alliance didn’t free Australia from the responsibility to make adequate provision for its own security, or to help support stability and security in its own neighbourhood.
These central defence planning concepts were elaborated in more or less detail, and with differing interpretations of our area of primary strategic concern, in the 1987, 1994 and 2000 efforts. The 2000 DWP developed concepts that were characterised by its critics as ‘concentric circles’ for defence planning. They identified our strategic objectives as the defence of Australia and its direct approaches; the security of our immediate neighbourhood; stability in Southeast Asia; the support of strategic stability in the wider Asia–Pacific region; and global security, in that order.
The Rudd government’s 2009 DWP focused on a similar ordering of strategic priorities. But it also usefully observed that this strategic geography hierarchy reflected Australia’s ‘realistic capacity for influence through the employment of military power.’ That’s an important policy judgement. The fact remains that it’s closer to home where we are able to do something decisive about military contingencies as ‘no-one else would have as deep an interest in acting’. The air-sea gap to our north was described as ‘at the strategic centre of our primary operational environment’ and the document outlined the need to maintain a strong capability to project military power utilising forward operating bases in northern Australia.
The Turnbull government’s DWP clearly recognises geographical strategic imperatives. It lists Australia’s strategic defence interests as:
- A secure, resilient Australia, with secure northern approaches and proximate sea lines of communication;
- A secure nearer region, encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific; and,
- A stable Indo-Pacific region and a rules-based global order.
So, it seems that we now have close to bipartisan agreement on the geographical priorities that support Australian defence planning. Even so, the Turnbull government makes it clear that Australia’s security isn’t linked only to our geography or to confronting threats solely in our maritime approaches. It recognises the reality that Australia also has the responsibility ‘and the capability’ to respond to threats to the rules-based global order. This sweeping assertion needs to be qualified by the recognition that there are distinct limits to Australia’s defence capacity—as successive Australian PMs have discovered the hard way.
The 2016 DWP focuses on Australia’s internal geography more than its predecessors did. The Rudd document noted that northern Australia, with its long coastline, remote population centres, substantial economic resources and relatively underdeveloped infrastructure, will always command a significant place in Australia’s military contingency planning. It stated that we need to maintain a strong capability to project military power from mounting bases and forward operating bases in northern Australia.
These sentiments were repeated in the 2013 effort, which affirmed that an effective, visible force posture in northern Australia and our northern and western approaches is necessary to demonstrate our capacity and will to defend our sovereign territory. The Gillard government had commissioned a major review of the ADF’s force posture in 2011 to assess whether the ADF was correctly positioned geographically to meet Australia’s strategic challenges. That review found that the capacity of ADF bases and training areas, particularly in the north and west of the continent, needed to be upgraded to sustain high-tempo operations in northern Australia and our approaches, as well as the immediate neighbourhood and wider Indo-Pacific region. However, little appears to have been done before the change of government in 2014 to improve capacities. The good news is that the 2016 DWP has promised some serious investments to correct these deficiencies in northern basing. Northern Australia receives particular mention as one of the Key Enablers in this White Paper with a statement that the Government is committed to a strengthened defence presence in the north, including significant upgrades to Navy bases there.
The 2016 Defence White Paper marks a significant return to the importance of geography in Australia’s strategic defence planning, both externally and within the continent itself and especially in the north.