Thankfully, Minister Smith has delivered the sort of Defence White Paper you hope for when you really don’t need a White Paper and there isn’t enough money to pay for the current plans, let alone any further promises. Nevertheless, the 2013 White Paper has at least attempted to repair the damage caused to our relationship with China by the Rudd hedging excursion in the 2009 paper. The Chinese must be getting confused by now.
On a positive note, the paper encouragingly hints at Defence acknowledging that it’s part of the broader Australian national security community and it finally introduces some clarity into the submarine question. However, the Air Force must be dreading the prospect of a mixed fleet of combat aircraft—and just when does the number of Super Hornets being purchased start to discount the number of JSF we intend to buy? The paper also makes positive moves towards real policies for cyber and space and finally recognises the importance of Indonesia as a partner in Australia’s security.
The paper’s conservative nature should be seen as a win for the realists in the Department of Defence over the narrow strategic view and spin-obsessed approach of the politicians. Well done to the CDF and the Secretary, who must have had a real battle on their hands to get this result. But the battle isn’t over. Now the Department has to continue the struggle to restore the defence budget to a figure in excess of 2% of GDP before some of the damage that’s already been done to defence capability becomes irreversible. Sadly recent comments from the Federal Opposition provide no hope that they will ride to the rescue.
Away from the bells and whistles of military equipment the White Paper offers a very important discussion on self-reliance. This introduces a reality not evident in previous documents. Past Defence White Papers trumpeted self-reliance as the foundation of our defence. Australia claimed the ability to; act independently, lead military coalitions and make tailored contributions to other activities. Acting independently has always been a fantasy and this White Paper confirms the inevitable; Australia alone can’t defend itself. As a result, we’re a less sovereign nation and severely restrained in making and taking independent decisions and actions. We’ll have to learn how to live with this reality.
The White Paper speaks bravely of our efforts to defend ourselves to the greatest extent possible but acknowledges in the ‘extreme’ we’d depend on direct support from allied combat forces (read America). This presumes they’re willing and able to provide the support.
The important word on the discussion of self-reliance is ‘extreme’. Given the size and nature of our defence force and the deep penetration of US military equipment into the ADF there’s actually very little that Australia could do without US support. It might not be boots on the ground but intelligence, logistic, materiel and technical support will be required for almost any level of conflict. East Timor in 1999 is a classic example. Yes we own the ships and planes, but in reality they can’t operate without the source codes and constant updates of software, navigation and targeting information only available from the US They also need ammunition and maintenance, mostly US sourced. What if the Americans need it themselves for higher priority conflicts or decide not to make it available to us?
The relationship between Australia and America is strong and has worked to the mutual benefit of both countries. It’s hard to imagine a situation where America wouldn’t support Australia (and vice versa) but in the realm of sovereign nations there’s always the potential for divergent national interests. The US and Australia pursued different interests over Irian Jaya in the 1960s and the American view prevailed over ours.
The 2013 White Paper has correctly, if somewhat disingenuously, identified the scale of the problem of Australia achieving military self-reliance. But it is not just ‘extreme’ events where we’d need support. There are very few military situations where Australia could operate independently. The White Paper has done us a favour by highlighting the problem.
Another angle on self-reliance is ensuring that US support will always be available has become an important element of our decision making processes. This involves our interpretation of ANZUS and what some people call making ‘down payments on our defence insurance policy’—US support and involvement when we need it. Are we to make decisions based on our values and sovereign national interests or because we’re concerned that if we don’t help the US in every situation they won’t turn up when we need them?
Another more recent example of restricting our independence is outsourcing decision making. The embedding of HMAS Sydney in the US Seventh Fleet brings Australia closer to conflict in Asia. If conflict broke out in North Korea, Taiwan or in the China Seas it would be difficult for Sydney to avoid being involved. Decisions made by the US to become involved in hostilities will be measured, but do we really want to be involved in the front row of Asian conflict when some of the decisions will be taken by politicians in other nations primed on nationalism and an inability to negotiate in a sensible and constructive manner?
The Defence White Paper of 2013 has given us reason to talk about self-reliance. It’s important that we begin the discussion. For those who don’t like the White Paper, there’s every chance there’ll soon be a new one under a Liberal Government. Sadly, with no firm commitment to a funding increase from them we can’t really expect anything much different from this one.
Peter Leahy is the Director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra. He was Chief of Army from 2002 to 2008. Image courtesy of The White House.