The case for a new defence white paper
18 Jun 2019|

Successful defence white papers have to find the right resting place between four sets of demands: politics; strategy and policy; military capability; and money.

That’s what makes them so interesting, and also so hard to do well.

How do those factors play out in terms of likely considerations for the Morrison government?

In saying that white papers are political, I make no negative judgement. All complex policy is political in the sense that an elected government is making choices which, it hopes, will get it re-elected as well as do the right thing for the country.

Policy is inherently political. As John Howard used to say, good policy is usually good politics.

It’s noteworthy that neither of our major parties went into the election campaign promising to do a new defence white paper.

Labor proposed a force structure review, which seemed harmless enough. Maybe it was intended to be a bit of throat-clearing for 12 months or so before a white paper was started.

Politically, Labor just didn’t want to bring defence and security into the election campaign. It’s not the battleground of their choosing and I imagine they didn’t want to spend a day or more in the campaign arguing the case for a new white paper.

As for the Coalition—well, they had produced the 2016 defence white paper.

And this raises an interesting point. It’s easy for a new government to ditch a white paper written by its political opponents, but it’s another thing altogether for an incumbent government to replace one policy which it produced with another.

The 2016 white paper’s sponsor, Marise Payne, is now the foreign minister, and quite a number of senior political heavies are deeply invested in that document, which is often presented as the centrepiece of the government’s security policy.

So I don’t expect an announcement this year that a new white paper will be started.

That’s a good thing. It gives the new defence minister and the government time to consider what needs to be done.

So much for the politics. Going back to the other dimensions of white papers—strategy and policy, military capability, and money—it’s increasingly clear that the case for a new white paper is looking very strong.

It’s clear that major areas of our strategic outlook have changed quite dramatically since the 2016 white paper was released. It’s not that the judgements in it were wrong, but much of what was thought to be likely in, say, 2030 has effectively already happened.

We are confronted with the reality of a harder, riskier, more immediate strategic competition and a force development plan which makes sense but is about 15 years out of sync with the ugly reality.

So the case for change in our strategic policies is strong and, in areas like the Pacific step-up, it’s clear that the government and the defence organisation are adjusting to the new realities.

The question about what to do with military capabilities in a policy sense is the area that’s least clear to me. I certainly accept that a lot of the emerging technologies that we hear a lot about are years from being fielded. We all sense the great potential of AI, machine learning and autonomous systems, but quite what that means for today’s investment choices is unclear.

And that’s where I think a new white paper, sooner or later, will be useful.

It can act as a forcing function to jolt the system into new ways of looking at old problems.

What bureaucracies and governments do best is to defend old policies—especially the ones they’ve produced.

What white papers do is to create permission to think laterally and differently from past policy work. Opportunities to do that in a thoroughgoing way don’t come around all that often in public policy.

And a new white paper could also help the government and officials think laterally about the means and methods we use for making policy. For example, does the pace of change mean that we need to have annual white papers rather than every five or six years? Clearly an annual white paper would have to be developed differently compared to the current approach, which is a bit like forcing a heard of grumpy rhinos backwards through a mincer, in slow motion—not pretty.

And finally we come to money. White papers force a conversation about money, which the central agencies and many parts of government are otherwise hellbent on trying to avoid.

We will never get out of the ‘about 2% of GDP’ mantra unless a new white paper gives permission to unlock a different discussion on defence spending.

I have said this before, but we would be delusional to think that we can modernise the ADF and make it fit for purpose for a much more risky strategic outlook within the current 2% ceiling.

In fact, we know what 2% of GDP buys us. It’s what we have now, plus a little more, prettied up to go to the ball in 2040.

Two per cent won’t buy much AI, machine learning, hypersonics, quantum computing, big data, synthetic biology, autonomy and all the rest. And it won’t buy much of a Pacific step-up—or an Indian Ocean step-up or a Southeast Asian step-up, which we also badly need.

Nor will 2% buy much of a force with enhanced readiness and a broader national mobilisation capability.

And no matter what one says about a hundred years of mateship, 2% of GDP doesn’t buy much coffee on the E-ring of the Pentagon, where America’s expectations of its allies are, rightly, growing.

It’s only a new defence white paper which would allow that discussion about future funding to be held. And fundamentally, that is a discussion where our strategic outlook should force us to think about what a defence budget of 2.5 or 3% of GDP could deliver for our security.

So, I absolutely think that a new white paper will be timely and needed within the life of the current government.

A paper commissioned in early 2020 could, with the right design, be completed in mid-2021. It would have to be done differently to the 2016 white paper, which was the heavy armoured division of the policy world.

The good news is that Defence is substantially ready to go, because of standing policy, capability development and costing methodologies that were put in place last time around.

My hope is that the decision to commission a new white paper is a step the government will be prepared to take in coming months.

This is an edited version of remarks delivered by ASPI’s executive director at ASPI’s ‘War in 2025’ international conference on 14 June 2019.