Lowy Institute

Debate: Gillard's National Security Strategy

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We're going to have substantive commentary on the newly released National Security Strategy over coming days, but as a first offering, I wanted to alert readers to Michael L'Estrange's op-ed in today's Australian (to get around the Oz's paywall, just Google the article's headline and click on the relevant link).

The simple point I want to get across here is about the importance of ideas.

L'Estrange's op-ed is all about the slow and subtle shifts in the way people conceptualise 'national security', and how that's reflected in the Strategy paper. I remember the 'human security' debate really getting up to speed around the time I was an undergraduate, and now here we are in 2013, and the tug of war between the 'expansivists' (L'Estrange's term for those who want a broader definition of national security that includes non-state threats and environmental issues) and 'traditionalists' (those who argue that national security has not changed fundamentally and is still centered on the behaviour of states) is determining the course of Australia's national security policy.

L'Estrange doesn't mention it, but we might make the same point about the National Security Strategy's tentative grasp of the 'Indo-Pacific' concept, a term to describe our region which the paper says has 'emerged more recently'. What that leaves unsaid is just how the term emerged, and the short answer is that clever and motivated people needed to come up with the idea, promote it and defend it. See Rory Medcalf's Interpreter post for the definitive account of just how this happened in the case of 'Indo-Pacific'.

The moral here is that students and scholars reading this blog ought to be encouraged. The lonely and difficult task of coming to grips with theoretical ideas in international policy is REALLY IMPORTANT. Yes, it feels distant from the daily headlines, and it's not particularly exciting. But these ideas ultimately shape the world.

Photo by Flickr user Sidereal.

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Robert Ayson is Director of Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand.

It's time for me to fess up. I used to be one of those sometimes annoying people who thought it was a good idea for governments to produce a formal national security strategy. I wanted them to show me how various pieces of the national security puzzle fitted together and I wanted them to do so in a publicly released document. But I am now less sure this is a good idea, and the Gillard Government's newly released National Security Strategy has confirmed my unease. It does so for a number of reasons.

The first is the illusion of coherence. The National Security Strategy talks about Australia's approach to national security as representing a 'unified system'. That's an immensely challenging ambition, and with so many national security issues involved, this can quickly turn into a listing process which describes all the things being done rather than quite how they fit together, let alone how choices might be made between them.

One rule of thumb is that the coherence of any written strategy exists in inverse proportion to the number of bullet points it contains. And there are quite of few of these in the National Security Strategy.

The second is the dependence on coordination. The National Security Strategy concludes that there are three priorities for the next five years. These are: enhancing Australia's Asian engagement, developing an integrated approach to growing cyber-security problems (which attract the adjective 'malicious' at least a dozen times in the NSS), and building security partnerships.

All of these follow the main message of the document: we are going to be better at working together in the national security community and with others, including domestic actors and overseas partners.

Now, a coordinated effort can be a good thing if it can be had, but it is not a strategy in and of itself. A truly all-in approach (the 'whole of government' nirvana and beyond) can even work against the making of choices which clear strategy normally requires. One could be overly cynical and think that the emphasis on coordination in the NSS is even stronger than it would have been had there been some more money (and not less) going around. But I don't think that's the only thing going on here.

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I say that partly because of the third issue: the problem of defence. The National Security Strategy shows that defence accounts for the vast majority ($26 billion per year) of Australia's overall national security expenditure ($33 billion). And cyber-security issues aside (on which about half a billion dollars are spent a year), it is only when the document alludes to the changing military balance in the region and what that means for Australia that one gets the sense of real energy.

Despite the talk about building a range of relationships in Asia (a boiled down version of the vast Asian Century White Paper), there is some real ambivalence here. While the Indonesia relationship gets a big thumbs up, the NSS also warns that 'regional powers could seek to exercise influence over our national decision making and use of our resources.' Rising larger and taller is Australia's defence-rich alliance relationship with the US which 'is critical to our ability to deter and defeat adversaries'.

The NSS appears to be saying that the alliance is Australia's big national security answer. It may be wondered if this is a sustainable judgment when Western power is being challenged in the region. But at least it means that the NSS is making a choice. That choice endorses defence as the national security king in Canberra, regardless of what is currently happening to the ADF's budget.

If the real choice here is to pursue Australia's national security through a strong military alliance with the US, this National Security Strategy offers more than coordinated comprehensiveness. It actually provides a decision, and that's something real strategies offer. As the same decision will likely underpin this year's Defence White Paper, one can't accuse the Gillard Government of strategic inconsistency. But one can wonder how essential the production of the NSS really was.

Photo by Flickr user Todd Ehlers.

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It may seem odd that Prime Minister Julia Gillard would use the occasion of the launch of the nation's first ever formal national security strategy to endorse the view that the 'national security decade' is over. 

This begins to make sense, though, when you note the strategy's conclusion that the nation's biggest security challenges in the new era will come not from terrorists or fragile-state anarchy but from the actions of powerful states. If the national security or 9/11 decade is indeed at an end, then a new age – the international strategy decade — is just beginning. 

Does this make Australia's security environment more or less threatening than during the 9/11 decade? Is the nation safer today than it was when Kevin Rudd presented his national security statement in 2008? If so, then why all the fuss about the need for a strategy? If not, then why is the Government tightening the overall security budget, especially in defence? 

On these points, there are no clear answers, at least none that the Government is willing to state.

The new strategy document also pulls its punches when it comes to identifying the states that worry Australia's security planners. Rudd's 2009 defence white paper was perhaps excessively blunt about China, but this new strategy, like the Asian Century White Paper, swings too far in the direction of cryptic coyness. There's plenty of reference to cyber challenges, espionage, even something mysteriously called 'foreign interference', but the prospective sources of these risks are politely left unnamed.

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To be fair, it is hard to fault the new 47-page strategy on its structure and bureaucratic word smithing. This is a considerably more coherent and crafted document than Kevin Rudd's laundry-list national security statement of 2008, and it is mercifully shorter than the 300-odd page Asian Century paper. It seems to reflect commendable consultation across government, demonstrating the very kind of coordination and efficient use of limited resources that the PM is calling for.

This is also substantially more than an election pamphlet, contrary to some of the media's less charitable characterisations. Yes, the Prime Minister's speech was needlessly partisan in giving the Howard Government no explicit credit for its national security achievements across most of the 9/11 decade, such as the massive, sustained and effective response to the Bali bombings.

But the new strategy itself is not, thankfully, a mere party-political confection. Drawing on the Asian Century white paper, it embeds national security within a framework of Australia's wider international aspirations. It also sets the scene for a new defence white paper. In that sense, it is the middle step in a logical policy cascade.

But, like Ms Gillard's speech, the strategy leaves unanswered at least two glaring questions on the crucial issue of resources and priorities.

Repeatedly, it emphasises international engagement and partnerships as critical to Australia's security. This would seem to be adding further to the demands on our overstretched, underfunded Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). But beyond the Prime Minister's carefully worded claims about expanding the Department's 'footprint', there is no evidence that the Government plans to give DFAT the resources to do the job.

Second, if the future really is about interstate risks, including those relating to military power, then presumably having a strong defence force is one way to deter or manage them. Nowhere does the strategy explain why the dawn of an era of intensified state-on-state challenges is precisely the right time to cut the defence budget. Perhaps that is one feat of drafting gymnastics that has been reserved for someone else. Spare a thought for the defence white paper team.

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After 29 months of government, Wednesday's launch of the National Security Strategy was welcome yet well overdue. Although the strategy has been widely panned as disappointing and unfunded, the strategic framework and development process look sound, and certainly a great improvement on the 2008 National Security Statement.

A recent US Strategic Studies Institute report (link was down at time of writing) found that Australia's bureaucrats coordinate much better on strategic policy than their peers elsewhere. This document's clear structure, logic, and writing show the fruits of that coordination. But ultimately, the Government gets to decide what to do with all that hard bureaucratic work. And yesterday, it decided to subordinate it all to domestic politics.

That's why we heard about the threat of guns in communities in western Sydney before the threat of escalation between powers in the South China Sea. And that's why there's no new funding. The coming election is unlikely to be decided by national security voters. The selected five-year objectives (enhance regional engagement, integrate cyber policy and operations, create effective partnerships) happen to be a lot cheaper than building a brand new submarine.

The eight national security pillars are entirely sensible and it is great to see some prioritisation of the relationships Australia should seek to enhance (China, Indonesia, ASEAN Japan, Korea, and India). But as has been stated countless times on this blog, Australia's ability to influence our region and build key relationships will depend on restoring funding to DFAT.

When it comes to a discussion of defence funding this strategy is downright tricky. To reassure voters that the Australian Defence Force is in good hands, the Prime Minister made two claims at the tail end of the speech:

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Our level of defence expenditure will ensure that Australia remains one of the top 15 nations for absolute defence spending, and second only to the United States on a per capita basis.

The first claim is misleading. The gold standard comparison of defence budgets is as a percentage of GDP. On that basis, Australia's current spending level (1.56%) would put us in at least 50th place in the world, according to the latest SIPRI data, just behind military giants like Senegal and Croatia, and barely in front of New Zealand. On absolute defence spending, Australia remains in the top 15, though the strong value of the Australian dollar must be taken into account.

The second claim on defence spending is absolutely false.

There are at least seven countries that spend more on defence on a per capita basis than Australia. Our neighbour Singapore, for example, spends US$1853 on defence per citizen, ahead of Australia's  $1157. The claim was amended yesterday in the speech as released by the Prime Minister's office and now reads:

Our level of defence expenditure will ensure that Australia remains one of the top 15 nations for absolute defence spending, and second only to the United States on a per capita basis among the G7 countries plus China.

Got that? So fear not, citizens. Australia has the largest defence budget and mightiest military force below the Tropic of Capricorn and east of Rottnest Island. On Wednesdays. But not the Wednesday after pay Tuesday. Or on ANZAC Day when everyone gets drunk.

You can cut the figures anyway you like, but Australia is still underfunding its defence ambitions.

The National Security Strategy also helpfully shows how Australia divides up the pie on national security spending (see chart above). The total is $33 billion on national security annually, $26.289 billion of which belongs to the defence budget. But those are 2011-2012 figures and don't account for the 10.5% of defence budget cuts that occurred eight months ago in FY 2012-2013. The current defence budget is $24.2 billion. In an otherwise tightly drafted document, this mistake is glaring. The National Security Strategy overstates the national security budget by at least $2 billion.

On their own, one of these mistakes would look like poor staff work. Taken together, they look very tricky indeed. And that makes it hard to take the rest of the strategic planning framework established yesterday seriously.

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Senator David Fawcett (Liberal) is a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

The National Security Strategy announced last week by Prime Minister Gillard overlooks the important lessons from Australia's 1999 intervention in East Timor.

The Australian public wanted to protect the East Timorese people from violence. The Government assumed the ADF could easily protect the East Timorese from a militia. Most of us would probably make the same assumption today. How quickly we forget that in 1999 we only just succeeded. The realisation that Australia was ill equipped to project and sustain a relatively small force in a neighbouring country such as East Timor was recently described as a 'strategic shock' by Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison. 

East Timor provides a good benchmark for what we expect our military to be able to do at short notice. In turn, this should inform both Government and public on how much we should be spending to sustain a balanced force, capable of repeating such an intervention if required. There is remarkable similarity in the thinking that underpins Prime Minister Gillard's National Security Strategy, however, and the policies that led to a decline in defence capability and the subsequent strategic shock of 1999. 

The strategic thinking prevalent at that time was that Australia's national security should be predominantly concerned with defence of the mainland against state actors. This theory led to an investment in capital equipment to defend the air-sea gap, but allowed a run-down of the Army, the Reserves and the national capability to deploy and sustain an armed force.

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Despite the theory, history tells us that most of Australia's recent military operations have involved deployed forces (with significant land force components) protecting communities from non-state actors (Somalia, East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan). As the current French operation in Mali demonstrates, this can be expected to be a feature of conflict well beyond the '9/11 decade' that Ms Gillard has just pronounced to be a thing of the past.

At a time when 'budget priorities' are necessarily on everyone's mind, it is also important to remember that the capability taxpayers have to fund is not just the aeroplane, ship or tank. These capital assets are only made effective in combat by enablers such as materiel support systems, supplies, maintenance, facilities, individual and collective training and even doctrine. Enablers such as these are largely invisible to the public (they don't make for good photo opportunities) and they are expensive. This makes them an easy target for cost savings because it is possible to save money while retaining the appearance of a credible defence force. East Timor should remind us of the dangers of 'hollowing out' the back-of-house functions that make Defence capable and effective in combat.

There is an underlying assumption in the National Security Strategy that defeating credible threats will involve coalition partners in joint operations, which will make additional resources available to the ADF. 

While alliances and regional cooperation are imperative, they should complement rather than replace adequate levels of sovereign force readiness. This is because the national interest of allied and coalition partners will inevitably take priority. Australia experienced this from both the US and European nations during the Iraq conflict when shipments of ammunition and spare parts were withheld by the supplying nation for their own use. The ADF was unable to deploy some requested capabilities, such as armour, due to low stocks of ammunition, inadequate maintenance and training, and poor availability of spare parts. Even in East Timor, despite UN resolutions and eventual support from 22 nations, Australia's initial deployment had to rely on existing capability which proved barely adequate to engage a lightly armed militia.

There is much to commend in the National Security Strategy, which outlines a vision for a more integrated approach to national security underpinned by a strong, credible ADF. Vision without dollars, however, is hallucination. 

The National Security Strategy highlights the significant percentage increase in Defence budgets after East Timor, as if this somehow justifies current and future 'consolidation'. There is no recognition of the very low funding base at the start of this period or the significant cost-growth pressures articulated by the Pappas Review in 2008.

Using Pappas indexation figures, the successive budget cuts since 2009 mean that there is a shortfall of some $25 billion over the forward estimates just to maintain the existing force. This shortfall has manifested itself through maintenance being skipped on armoured fighting vehicles, upgrades being delayed and decreased levels of training, all of which sounds depressingly like the situation prior to East Timor. 

The fiction perpetuated by the Minister that all is well because cuts are not affecting current operations relies on the Australian public not understanding the basis of 'operational supplementation'. Put simply, when operations cease, so does the additional funding that has enabled the ADF to acquire and sustain much of the state-of-the-art equipment used in Afghanistan.

Simply increasing the defence budget, however, is not the answer. The other lesson from East Timor is that the large budget increases which came afterward have perversely led to many of the inefficiencies identified by the recent Senate report into Defence Procurement. The Government needs to take account of the measures highlighted in that report concerning governance, sovereignty and engagement with industry that will increase the productivity of taxpayer capital invested in Defence.

The National Security Strategy, like the Defence of Australia policies of the 1980s, assumes that there will be time to prepare for conflict against a state actor. Recent experience shows that the requirement for deployments such as East Timor (or the French in Mali) arise at very short notice, meaning that our forces deploy with whatever they have available. 

The East Timor experience should, above all, be a salient reminder that our national security and the fate of Australian men and women sent into harm's way by future governments will rest largely on what current governments are prepared to spend, and how productively they spend it. Lest we forget.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

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