Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.
The Defence White Paper (DWP2013) has pretty well negated defence as a political issue. From the point of view of the Government, that means it's a roaring success. Beginning with an American style launch and ending with a shambolic interview by the Minister on Australian Agenda on Sunday morning, the DWP2013 did not even make it, as an issue, far past the Sunday morning talk shows.
Most commentators made general statements on the adequacy or otherwise of submarines and Growlers, but those comments can only be based on a range of personal prejudices. How can anyone say that either 12 submarines from 2030 onwards or 12 Growlers in (I think) 2017 is a good decision when neither commentators nor voters know the overall operational concept for their use or the defence outcome being sought?
So the commentariat puts the proposed weapons into their own implied operational concept for how the weapons will be used (if they've thought 'defence' through to this extent), and then say whether this might be a good or bad decision. So all we are doing, by commenting on numbers and weapons, is displaying our prejudices.
I will not comment on numbers and weapons because there is no context in which to make such comment. If the Government does not state it wants the ADF to do, in workable detail, then it does not really matter what you cut or buy.
I will however make some comments on structural issues.
From my reading of the document, the DWP2013 is as internally inconsistent as previous defence white papers, is spoilt by further inconsistencies, makes no measurable link between its strategic assessments/interests/tasks and the materiel to be purchased, and has no believable financial plan (acknowledging that this is not a white paper's main purpose). All of this comes from a government that has no credibility on defence, given the nobbling of defence spending last year. It is inherently a political document and because of the political situation, its relevance could be limited.
The strategic outlook in chapter two is competent, but the link between that strategic environment and the four strategic interests in chapter three, which then roll neatly into the four priority tasks for the ADF, is the central weakness of the DWP2013. The interests and the tasks are so neat that it reeks of reverse word-smithing.
Where the whole process breaks down is that there is none of the real guidance that force structurers need for real-world, long term procurement. If the DWP2013 does not give guidance to those that procure and structure, then what kind of policy document is it? The answer of course is that it is a political document. These vaguely stated tasks will create decades of confusion and inter-Service argument, if the DWP2013 lives that long. And of course the Government cannot give the guidance that logic demands, and force structurers need, because then we would all see the gross deficiencies in the current ADF force structure and the worsening of ADF capabilities over time.
Government has successfully hidden these deficiencies, as previous governments have also done, in the hope that the ADF will not have to fight. This reflects the continuing reliance on hope and luck that characterises Australian defence policy. Australia has indeed been lucky for decades, but we now face changed power relativities and the potential for significant conflict in our close region, in particular, the Malacca Straits (on this see Ben Schreer over at ASPI).
But something good has come out of this nugatory process, perhaps unwittingly. In order to negate defence as a political issue for September, the Government has claimed an outbreak of partisanship on the issue of the aspirational 2% spend. The Government and the Opposition both recognise that something in the order of 2% of GDP should be spent on defence.
This 2% spend, increasing yearly by 2.2% in real terms to maintain purchasing power, if maintained for the decades it takes to procure complex military equipment, would give Australia the basic defence force demanded by the very strategic outlook that is in the DWP2013.
But this Government is only spending 1.56% of GDP on defence, and will increase it only when they think they can afford it. In the Coalition's case, if it won government in September defence spending will increase by 3% per year in real terms, but again, only when they can afford it. In not-so simplistic terms, the Government is underfunding, and the Coalition looks set to underfund, defence by something in the order of $8 billion per year or 25%.
The main conclusion from the DWP2013 is that this Government has exchanged a large amount of its own self-created political risk in the upcoming election for a significant, perhaps 25%, increase in our strategic risk. On that basis, it would be foolish to praise the DWP2013.
Some might say that what I ask for — that is, an open and public linking of policy, strategy and the 'tactics' of defence policy (materiel procurement) — is not possible in an unclassified document. I would say that the only being hidden by not having an open analysis and explanation is the incompetence of successive governments to meet the defence need, and the inability of the ADF to achieve the most important of the priority tasks given to it by government.
Photo by the Department of Defence.