Today The Interpreter concludes its discussion on Australia's Defence Challenges, a sponsored partnership with the Department of Defence aimed at supporting external engagement ahead of the 2013 Defence White Paper and related processes.

Several months ago we established the aims of this blog feature as being: to discuss Australia's strategic environment, the future of the ADF, defence and diplomacy, and community views on defence. It has been a broad ranging discussion on the first three, but we've have fallen short on the last for reasons I will discuss later.

Two dominant discussion themes emerged on Australia's strategic environment. The first is the level of strategic uncertainty we face as power shifts to Asia and new economic strength leads to new military spending in our region. Authors wrote of increasing territorialism, nationalism and friction in the region. We considered the difficulties of dealing with strategic uncertainty, and the perennial challenge this poses for defence planners.

Secondly, we lingered on the question of how Australia will manage its alliance with the US alongside a rising China. Many contributors discussed the risks inherent in strengthening the US alliance and the possibility that Australia could be viewed as a co-driver of the China containment bus. This risk is one the Minster of Defence and Chief of Defence Force both flagged in recent speeches at the Lowy Institute, and such concerns appear responsible for the go-slow on possible future US force posture initiatives in Australia.

We have teased out some issues which will effect the future of the ADF, including force posture, force structure, maritime strategy, and the need to preserve human skills as the ADF ends operations in our region and Afghanistan. Jeffrey Grey provided a particularly timely reminder that the human capital of the armed forces is more than the sum total of the wages bill. Of course, the state of defence funding has featured prominently, as too has the impact of technology on the ADF. As technology and complex systems become more important in Australia's defence than the actions of individual soldiers, surely much of the way Australians think about our defence force and defence planning will also need to change.

A renewed focus on the importance of defence diplomacy as a way to shape and smooth regional tensions and draw out opportunities for cooperation was illustrated in posts on the thorny issue of  future Australian involvement with the military in Myanmar, an issue under close consideration in Canberra.

But, disappointingly, we've not been as successful as hoped in eliciting views from the wider Australian community on how they think about Australia's defence challenges. The public conversation on Australia's strategic and defence policy still takes place among a small group, very well known to each other. It remains difficult to persuade business or community leaders to engage on the issues that preoccupy the strategic mafia, often due to fears about their 'uninformed' perspective. Albert Palazzo forcefully reminded us that public discussion on the future of war is not normal in Australia. We have been fortunate to have had thoughtful contributions from a few authors within Defence, each expressing personal opinions of course.

In closing, let me thank the Department of Defence for partnering in this venture. We have discussed strategic and defence issues on The Interpreter for several years. We often receive private feedback from defence warriors and bureaucrats alike. This is the first time we have received financial and intellectual support from the Department to explore these important issues. Responsibility for comments in this series of course remain with the authors.

The market for defence ideas is growing rapidly in Australia. Twitter and Facebook are opening up forums for the military, their families, and the wider defence community. Our friends at ASPI are doing a great job growing their blog The Strategist, the Kokoda Foundation is working hard to foster networks between young strategic leaders, and ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre is developing the thinking of the next generation of leaders in the military.

But the national public conversation on strategic and defence issues is yet to fully tap into the immense talent pool within the services and defence bureaucracy. I hope that is soon to come.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.