New policy regime forgets geography

By Emeritus Professor Paul Dibb
31 May 2016

However, there is little evidence in the 2016 Defence White Paper of these sort of risk management considerations.

This piece was first published in The Australian on 28 May 2016.

Defence is all about risk management.

Because it is impossible to predict the future accurately, defence planning needs to have contingency plans against the more credible threats.

Contrary to the opinion of some commentators, this does not mean preparing for worst case contingencies.

If it did, we would have given the Australian Defence Force the capability to defend Australia against invasion or nuclear attack.

Serious threats of that nature are unlikely to develop without preceding indicators.

However, there is little evidence in the 2016 Defence White Paper of these sort of risk management considerations.

This might in part be because of the need to protect classified, sensitive contingencies.

But it is also because the Defence organisation has been preoccupied with supporting military operations in the Middle East for the last 15 years.

This has resulted in a mindset that all future operations for Defence will be "come as you are" contingencies.

As a result, the 2016 Defence White Paper shows no evidence of understanding such concepts as strategic warning time and the expansion base.

What happens if the white paper's predictions out to 2035 are wrong?

The future might bring us into conflict with China on such a scale that we need to have a Defence Force able to expand from a carefully planned expansion base.

As the 1976 Defence White Paper so cogently argued: insurance against uncertainty is a basic principle of defence planning, which includes the maintenance of a substantial force-inbeing that is also "capable of timely expansion to deal with any unfavourable developments".

It described this as insurance against uncertainty. Further, there is the disturbing issue that the 2016 Defence White Paper for the first time gives priority  to "three equally-weighted" strategic objectives to guide the development of the future Defence Force.

These three strategic defence objectives are: 1) the defence of Australia and its northern approaches; 2) a secure nearer region including Southeast Asia; and 3) a stable Indo-Pacific region and support for a rules-based global order.

This implies that our strategic geography no longer matters and having the capability to fight in the Middle East is to be given the same strategic weight for force structure planning as defending Australia or mounting major maritime operations in Southeast Asia.

If that is the case, then we will have ditched the long-established defence planning concept that credible threats nearer to home will always be more important than distant operations because the latter will allow us a discretionary choice whereas the former will be compulsory.

The 2009 Defence White Paper had it right when it said "all other things being equal, our capacity for action are going to be a function of proximity".

It would be more likely that we would be able to do something decisive about contingencies that require military responses close to home.

The current government's lurch back to forward defence, as well as former defence minister Robert Hill's ill-fated pronouncement that geography no longer matters, is to be condemned as imposing unsupportable expectations on a Defence Force of less than 60,000.

There is an associated problem with the idea in the White Paper that Australia is powerful enough to "make meaningful contributions to global security operations".

While it is true that we should have a capacity to deploy forces at significant distance from Australia where our core strategic interests are at stake, it is a pipe dream to believe that we could "make a difference in the world wherever our strategic defence interests are engaged".

Do we really believe Australia could make a difference to military outcomes in high-intensity theatres such as the Korean peninsula?

This brings me to what I fear may turn out to be an unrealistic force-planning timescale.

The White Paper implies that  China's looming threat as a potential adversary means that we need to prepare ourselves for serious maritime contingencies closer to home, including in Southeast Asia.

But the long lead times for capability acquisition in this White Paper may mean that it will be well into the 2030s - or even later - before we have what the White Paper boasts will be "a regionally superior ADF with the highest levels of military capability". 

The central defence planning time frame with regard to realistic threats from China rapidly compresses.

Those senior military and civilian officers who have grown intellectually lazy by pretending that we must rely upon a "come as you are" ADF may face a strategic catastrophe where we would be unprepared to rapidly expand the Defence Force.

That would be particularly the case if a future American administration suddenly expected us to do much more with ramping up military operations to support them.

This brings me back to the central question of why is there is no evidence in this White Paper of even casual attention to the defence planning concepts of mobilisation and the expansion base?

These defence planning concepts should include, for example, considerations of stockholding policy for potentially high-usage missiles and ammunition, and the ability of Australian industry to supply the ADF with substitutes for overseas supply should this be denied us in the event of high-intensity conflict in Northeast Asia involving the US and China.

All this suggests the minister, Marise Payne, needs to direct the Defence organisation to develop a prudent planning basis for realistic ADF expansion. This may well be the most comprehensive Defence White Paper in Australia's history, but it has a serious shortcoming.

Paul Dibb is Emeritus Professor of strategic studies at ANU.