Paul Scanlan writes:

Sam Roggeveen asks an interesting question: if you face an uncertain strategic future, how do you structure a defence force? Sam and Major General Molan have put the case for a balanced force in an environment of strategic uncertainty. While I agree about the uncertainty, I believe we should consider a solution that lies in focusing our capabilities not simply balancing them. 

Decisions on Australia's capability priorities confront two challenges: to enhance Australia's status and its ability to act unilaterally in its own interests; and being an active participant in a shifting regional environment whilst helping sustain US primacy in the wider Asia-Pacific.

The 2009 Defence White Paper correctly identifies that 'the potential use of force by states is why, at the most basic level, armed forces exist'. This use of force is not an end in itself, however, but 'a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means'. Even so, defence policy only works if strategic objectives, capability development and adequate funding projections align. The White Paper 2009 recognised this, but it failed to provide clear and coherent definitions, it 'muddled' conceptual positions and makes substantive misjudgements, naively justifying our present forces and rationalising a future balanced force.

Australia's strategic interests are more focused than our national security interests, they inform other policy choices, and therefore allow the government to determine relevant cost-effective capability priorities. This is important because these decisions provide the foundations for strategic objectives: what the government requires the Australian Defence Force to be able to do using armed force to protect those interests.

Of fundamental importance is strategic risk. Effective defence policy aligns the core elements of objectives, capabilities and cost in a way that offers a transparent and sustainable balance between an analysis of perceived strategic risk and threats, and the investment in resources required to outweigh them. Therefore, capability should focus primarily on those risks to our security from the use of armed force by our adversaries.

It is in matching this policy with strategic circumstances that we encounter a tyranny of dissonance between the theory and the practical. That is to say, a disjunction between strategic theory and military reality. This theme is not without precedent, there is a trend for new or cost-cutting governments to portray to the public that Australia faces new threats, but then reassure them the force built to deal with the old risks will meet the new.

To resolve this, Australia requires a new white paper nested within a National Security Strategy framework that identifies which of the wider national security objectives will be strategic; those for which armed force will be a principal policy instrument. India's foreign and strategic policy document, Nonalignment 2.0, is an example of such a framework. It contains a clear strategic objective: emergence as a maritime power.

Consequently, the key to the NSS it to first acknowledge that Australia faces many kinds of threat to its national security, of which military threats are only one, and second, that while armed force will support the response to most of these threats, it will also have a leading role in some specific and highly demanding circumstances. These circumstances are the correct focus of defence policy. Furthermore, it seems strange that Australia seeks influence with a United Nations Security Council position and yet we are unable to provide a more detailed national security strategy than that of the National Security Statement, released in 2007.

It follows, then, that the government has to decide on the strategic challenges it wants the Australian Defence Force to be able to meet and then design the appropriate force structure. This means making the harder choices about the kinds of forces we need.

The balanced force requires review and transformation into the focused force: focused on capabilities that can achieve our strategic objectives most cost effectively. The shape of Australia's future force structure must maximise Australia's strategic weight for every dollar spent, that is, policy alignment of objectives, capabilities and funding.

Australia is facing one of the greatest strategic challenges in our history and, as US strategic primacy in our region fades, Australia must aspire to build the strategic weight of a middle power and shape how the region evolves in line with our interests. Moreover, we need to align our national strategic objectives and clearly identify our military strategic objectives. For the Australian Defence Force, a fundamental transformation is required, to that of a focused force to meet this intent. 

Finally, this must be done in a manner so as to minimise the risk or intensity of strategic competition between major powers and retain a balanced US interest in the region. Our Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, confronts the same conundrum: to serve Australia's abiding interest in US power while accommodating China's growing prerogatives.

We need to initiate policy now to shape our own immediate strategic circumstances. 

Photo by Flickr user expertinfantry.