White paper update must not be about defending the 2016 status quo

The looming strategic update to Australia’s 2016 defence white paper is an opportunity for creativity and practicality.

It’s too easy to imagine the update describing what’s happened in the last four years and moving on to say that the strategic, force structure and investment priorities in the 2016 plan are still ‘about right’—even with the marked changes in Australia’s strategic environment since then.

If that were to happen, it wouldn’t just be a bad case of reflexive bureaucratic self-protection; it would be a missed opportunity for the government to adapt Defence and defence investment to the world we live in.

Given we’re talking about how our nation spends $40 billion a year and how it employs 76,000 Australians directly and thousands more in defence industry, this is an issue of public importance. Beyond that, how Australia builds and uses its armed forces also matters to our security and to the security and prosperity of our region—particularly the South Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Back in 2016, there was US–China strategic competition, along with forecasts of changing military balances. The impacts of climate change were discussed. No one but an apologist, though, could claim that the judgements made then are unaffected by the pace, extent and nature of change since. Those developments have wildly outstripped assessments and assumptions made back in 2016.

Hypotheticals and potential paths from then have either happened or not happened, and these events or non-events have consequences. And new challenges—notably the Covid-19 pandemic—just weren’t in serious contemplation.

US–China technological and strategic competition has intensified during the pandemic, with rising nationalism and heightened mutual suspicion. This now clear path was only one of several potential directions for US–China relations back in 2016.

Aside from the dynamic between the world’s two biggest powers, another hypothetical from 2016 has now turned into a reality. A more coercive China is now a direct lived experience for Australia and one that’s only just begun.

Covid-19 has exposed the vulnerability of global supply chains, particularly for critical items in times of crisis. Medical emergencies and military conflicts are the most obvious areas in which this vulnerability must be addressed.

And there’s the now manifest need to take a ‘two-track’ approach to the Australia–US alliance.

On the first track is access to American technological and defence capabilities, along with contribution and access to the US and other Five Eyes intelligence that is becoming more critical to Australia’s national power.

That’s for two reasons: to project military power with regional partners in response to disasters and instability, and to have sufficient strength—along with close partners and allies—to deter those who would otherwise act against our interests. An increasingly assertive Chinese military in the hands of Beijing’s authoritarian rulers is a primary focus here.

On the second track of the alliance, though, is a need to acknowledge that an ‘America first’ US is acting in ways that serve some perceived national interests, but do not always serve Australian interests. An example is the disdain under President Donald Trump for multilateral action and institutions. The US, even more than many other nations right now, is also very internally focused given the civil unrest and looming election.

Australian strategy and policy have to manage the fact that American power, while still a primary deterrent of major war, is also now less predictable and less about orchestrating coalition action than at any time since the end of World War II.

The net result of this picture is that Australia must retain the benefits to our capability and security that flow from the alliance, while managing sporadic divergences between our interests and how the US uses its own power.

Denying the divergences would be as much of a strategic error as seeing them as a reason to disconnect from the benefits that American technology and intelligence bring to our national power.

The last big shift is in national expectations of what the Commonwealth, including Defence, can and should do to mitigate domestic and regional natural disasters, including bushfires, floods and pandemics. More of the same ad hoc application of people and machines not trained or equipped for the mission, as we saw with the national bushfire crisis last season, is helpful but insufficient given the emerging needs.

What flows from this is a much bigger rethink of plans made back in 2016 than anyone envisaged even as recently as September last year when Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced the update.

If the major responses from Defence to our changed world amount to adjusted language and minor tweaks, though—or, worse still, simple implementation of 2016’s plans—they will not be enough.

Three examples from the capability investment area show what this might look like, and also sketch out more imaginative and potentially more successful alternatives.

If the update’s ‘new news’ is enhancing firepower by acquiring some advanced missiles and precision munitions, that won’t do the job. Buying a few hundred of Lockheed Martin’s long-range anti-ship missiles, or LRASMs, and a few new sea mines is window dressing. In any major conflict, 200 missiles would be just enough to get through the first days or, if you’re lucky, weeks of a crisis. Then everyone would need to pause politely while long lead orders were filled.

New purchases will work only if they’re accompanied by new production lines for Australian-built weapons. The US, Israel and Norway come to mind as partners whose weapons are in already in use in the Australian Defence Force and who may also benefit from having alternative centres of production in times of crisis—particularly if Australian government investment were to help create the new facilities.

This alternative approach wouldn’t just give the ADF a more powerful inventory, but would also ensure weapons were available in numbers during crises and address painfully exposed vulnerabilities.

If the update on the ADF’s undersea capability is about the Collins-class submarines being enhanced until the first Attack-class vessel arrives in 2035, that will also fall short of what’s required. Defence needs to give the government some significant capability injections much earlier than that in order to address rapid strategic and technological change, and to mitigate risk from a slow-to-arrive next generation of submarines.

Capabilities like Boeing’s Orca large unmanned underwater vehicle represent an alternative path. New platforms like the Orca could be in service early in the 2020s and complement the Collins boats through manned–unmanned teaming. With the collapse of airliner orders, Boeing is no doubt open to new business from reliable customers.

Additional variants of the navy’s offshore patrol vessels that include anti-submarine warfare capabilities would be another practical, near-term initiative worth pursuing.

Proceeding with implementation of the 2016 defence infrastructure plans with only minor changes, as we’ve seen with recent announcements in the Northern Territory, will prove inadequate. The Gordian knot on investment in essential fuel supply to Tindal airbase needs to be cut by investing in a fuel pipeline instead of trucks. That, together with forward-basing of naval vessels at Manus Island and starting a public conversation about a new eastern base for the growing fleet, would show the blend of imagination and practicality our environment demands.

I’m still hopeful about what the update will contain, not just because imagination is alive and well in Russell, but because we also have a more critical, demanding public that’s well aware of the growing strategic pressures Australia faces. Just as importantly, we have a demanding and empowered government that sees defence, defence capability and defence industry as key to Australia’s future.