Paul Dibb is Emeritus Professor at the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, ANU. This two-part article is a longer version of a piece published in The Australian on 27 July.  

 

In my previous post, I unpacked the problems inherent in trying to keep the basic judgments of the 2009 Defence White Paper and manage the resource crisis it has generated. The other way to approach the problem is to recognise that the 2009 Defence White Paper is now redundant and no longer relevant for either policy or programming purposes. This approach would be quite radical and would require clear endorsement by the minister. 

Option 2: A new post-Afghanistan White Paper

It is possible to accept that some parts of the 2009 White Paper are worthwhile: its concerns about the vulnerability of the north of Australia, for example. But the paper would need to be recast in the following way:

  1. The defence of Australia and its approaches would be re-established as the key defence planning and force structure determinant.
  2. There would have to be a renewed focus on the immediate region and its implications for force structure and operational priorities.
  3. The eastern Indian Ocean and South China Sea should be included in Australia's primary operational area and for credible contingencies but the North Pacific should be excluded.

All the references in the 2009 Defence White Paper to fighting a major power adversary and imposing substantial military costs on it should be deleted from consideration. And it should be recognised that distant Army expeditionary operations in the Middle East are no longer a priority.

There needs to be a serious reconsideration of the likelihood of military threat to Australia. Armageddon is not just around the corner and the key concepts of intelligence warning time and the expansion base need to be reasserted. The new White Paper, and any associated classified studies, also needs to reject the idea of direct military conflict with China. Australian defence policy must not be based on the least likely and most incredible scenarios.

However, Australia's rapidly changing economic and strategic environment against a background of weak regional governance, territorial disputes and increasing military capabilities means that, while the region is at peace, it is not stable. In this environment, Australia and its friends and allies need to work harder to ensure that prosperity and security continue. This suggests we need to focus more on building security and creating positive security relationships in the region, including having credible military capabilities present in the region to bolster security. This is a much more sophisticated approach than the 2009 White Paper's stark view of the world.

What is needed is a much more realistic view of the risk of armed conflict in our own region. There is far too much of a tendency right now to say that the strategic outlook is increasingly uncertain and threatening. All Defence white papers have had a tendency to do this, but in the 40 years since we quit the Vietnam War, where in the region have we been involved in major conflict? This is not to say there may not be some serious future military scenarios, but they need to be less alarmist than those prepared for the 2009 White Paper. We need to focus more on winning the peace: defence planning will be a success if there is no major power conflict.

In our immediate neighbourhood, we face probably the most stable strategic situation in decades. We should plan on Indonesia in particular becoming a key strategic partner. We should also recognise that most Southeast Asian countries are becoming economically strong and able to acquire elements of maritime defence that are in our common interests.

Most importantly, we need a much more carefully considered analysis of just how strong, or not, China's future military capabilities are going to be compared to those of the US. This should be a fundamental intelligence and analytical task and consideration should be given to appointing a Team B to challenge some of the sillier straight-line extrapolations of China as a military threat. We should also have more confidence in America's future military strength.

If this second White Paper option is chosen then a number of the major force structure proposals in the 2009 Defence White Paper will have to be re-examined. It will be vital that they be considered against a rigorous set of new strategic priorities and force structure determinants. Some of the major programs that need revisiting are:

  1. 12 large, long-range submarines (cost about $57 billion, including through-life operating costs).
  2. 100 Joint Strike Fighters (cost $16 billion in 2000 prices).
  3. The precise strategic role of the two landing helicopter dock ships (the region's largest amphibious assault ships; pictured) in the ADF's order-of-battle, and operational ambitions.
  4. Army's Plan Beersheba and whether it is relevant to our future strategic environment (including Project Land 400, costing $19 billion).

For several of these projects there needs to be a fundamental re-examination of how the proposed numbers were derived. The most obvious one is the doubling of the submarine force from six to 12 boats without any apparent strategic justification. The other is the long-standing proposal for 100 Joint Strike Fighters. Each new generation of high-technology combat aircraft is more advanced and more capable than the previous one. So why is 100 still the correct number?

If serious financial pressures continue, we should re-examine the size of the ADF and the Defence organisation. The last time a Defence White Paper came under such strong financial pressure was in 1991. When the 1987 White Paper was being developed, government financial guidance was for 1% real growth in the budget year and +3% growth thereafter to 1991-92. In fact, real growth in defence outlays in the four years after the 1987 White Paper averaged 0%.

As a result, the minister commissioned a Force Structure Review in 1991 which recommended that, over the decade of the 1990s, ADF personnel be reduced by 10,450 and Defence civilians by 3840. This was the only way the central force structure proposals in the 1987 White Paper could be sustained. The current lessons of all this are only too obvious.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.