There's lots to like in the 2013 Defence White Paper. And there's lots of detail missing too. Let's examine the White Paper on its own terms.

The first thing this White Paper needed to do was to resolve the defence funding dilemma caused, so the Government suggested, by the lingering and unexpectedly corrosive impact of the 2009 global financial crisis. Secondly, the White Paper aimed to make sense of the strategic change in Australia's region since 2009.

On the first, the funding model announced in today's White Paper is scant. A mere 700 words in a 132-page policy document that concludes 'the government is committed to increasing Defence funding towards a target of 2 per cent of GDP. This is a long term objective that will be implemented in an economically responsible manner as and when circumstances allow'. Not much of a promise, but it is an acknowledgment that the Government has decided to underfund defence by approximately $7.6 billion. Not that the Opposition seems to mind, because its aspiration to return the defence budget to 2% is just as vague. The problem of how to retain ADF capability while managing a decline in funding has not yet been solved.

The consequences of underfunding health or education by that amount would be difficult to hide. But defence policy is murkier and consequences can remain dormant for decades. This White Paper does little to explain what it is that the Australian Defence Force can't do and what risk we are carrying while Defence remains underfunded.

The strategic assessment of the White Paper is much more sophisticated than that of the 2009 version. The rise of China is no longer a threat to wax histrionic about, but instead a nuanced issue on which there are many aspects and many possible outcomes. The Defence White Paper has echoes of both the Asian Century White Paper's cheerleading for the opportunities of Asia and the National Security Strategy's more hard-headed wariness about the real but latent risks of Australia being coerced by another power.

The issue of 'coercion' is interesting and represents a welcome change in Australian national security thinking. It's discussed at two points in the document, firstly on p.26:

Australia supports a rules-based regional security order that fosters cooperation, eases tensions between states and provides incentives to major powers like China and India to rise peacefully. In particular, it is in our interests that no hostile power in the Indo-Pacific is able to coerce or intimidate others through force or the threat of force.

The second reference is on p.30, in the most critical paragraph in the entire White Paper:

Australia's military strategy seeks to deter attacks or coercion against Australia by demonstrating our capability to impose prohibitive costs on potential aggressors and deny them the ability to control our maritime approaches. This requires a credible force with effective capabilities for sea and air control and denial, strike and power projection. It also requires an active and visible domestic and regional force posture based on adequate levels of ADF preparedness. A key theme across this White Paper is the need to ensure that these two key components are in place to ensure Australia can best influence the region's strategic transformation within a constrained Australian fiscal environment.

So the major difference between 2009 and 2013 is that we are no longer preparing for an invasion of the Australian mainland that no serious defence analyst or bureaucrat thinks will come, but for the threat of coercion which might limit Australia's sovereignty.

So why then does our military strategy look pretty much the same as in 2009? The principle tasks for the ADF look largely the same too. I would like to think that the Government ran through a bouquet of possible options for a military strategy, discarding all others and deciding to stick with its vaguely articulated 'maritime strategy'. But I just don't think we are there yet in our collective strategic thinking. The kinds of varied military strategies being discussed in the US, for example (paywalled), haven't been generated here yet.

But reading between the lines of this Defence White Paper, our appreciation of the strategic challenge ahead is much more sophisticated than it was four years ago. And much more humble. In 2009 defence planners boldly and decisively declared:

Our military strategy is crucially dependent on our ability to conduct joint operations in the approaches to Australia – especially those necessary to achieve and maintain air superiority and sea control in places of our choosing.

This time, more demurely, planners write that 'Australia's geography requires a maritime strategy for deterring and defeating attacks against Australia and contributing to the security of our immediate neighbourhood and the wider region'. There's even an acknowledgment that 'Australia's relative strategic weight will be challenged as the major Asian states continue to grow their economies and modernise their military forces.'

Yesterday I paraphrased another, slightly more evil defence analyst and predicted this would be the diet coke of Defence white papers. That's a little harsh. Peel away the political layer of this Defence White Paper and beneath is a much more detailed strategic planning and thinking process than we saw in 2009. Defence is getting serious about strategic capability and future possibilities: if not war, then the threat of war.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.