Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

The video cameos featured in Dougal Robinson's post, Defence in Depth: Strategic Partners, go to two of the most important concepts in Australian defence: self-reliance and self-delusion.

Jack Georgieff looks more directly at self-reliance and reminds us how much has changed in this key defence concept in 25 years. The concept of self-reliance, says Georgieff:

...has transformed from expectations that Australia can defend its territorial sovereignty on its own, to one that relies on the alliance with the US to maintain self-reliance. In other words, 'self-reliance' has become 'alliance-reliance'. Little debate has taken place over this. A one-liner referring to self-reliance in the Defence White Paper is merely deluding ourselves and the US that we are not free-riding off of their unrivalled military might.

And even when 'self-reliance' as a concept meant something, Australia was never able to achieve it in reality, thus bringing to the fore self-reliance's twin: self-delusion.

I remember being in the part of Defence which tried to interpret policy and strategy to create defence capability. We were always asking ourselves what this 'self-reliance' concept meant for the doers in defence and we concluded we had no idea how to interpret these clever words from above.

We accepted that self-reliance was always going to have limits, nuclear deterrence being the obvious one. We argued that self-reliance meant we could shelter under the US nuclear deterrent, buy the best defence equipment from overseas, and establish logistic sustainment agreements. But for self-reliance purposes, the systems we acquired had to be at least maintainable in Australia, a thought that should have flowed into effective industry policy. The term we came up with was that Australian operations should be, at worst, 'Australian led, Australian supported, but US enabled'.

Clearly the Defence White Paper cannot tell the unvarnished truth. It would be politically difficult to state publicly that a central plank of our defence policy is that Australia free-rides on the US. And it is clever, in a way, to state a policy term like 'self-reliance', then dumb it down over many years without ever achieving even the dumbed down version. But the danger is that we start actually believing this version of 'self-reliance'. Self-delusion spreads confusion.

What chance of clarity in the defence debate when we have a drive-by offering on defence from the economics editor of The Australian, David Uren, in a long economics article, where almost as a one-liner, Uren writes: 'The next defence white paper, unlike the previous two, needs to reconcile a realistic assessment of strategic challenges with limited financial resources. Again, hard choices will be required.'

As a defence commentator, Uren might be a very good economist. But his words have a touch of the conveniently defined 'self-reliance' about them. And because they are self-delusional, they are just as dangerous. Uren accepts what anecdotally so much of Australia seems to accept: that we must spend less on defence regardless of the strategic challenge. In fact, he advocates redefining the strategic challenge down to meet what he calls our 'limited financial resources'. What if the real strategic environment does not limit itself to what Uren thinks we should spend?

Words have a real impact on thought and attitude, and conveniently defined terms such as 'self-reliance' are not just clever policy. Such duplicity has a real impact on how Australians think of defence. Uren is prepared to define down the strategic environment to reach a level of spending which he has decided is appropriate. But this same strategic environment finally has both sides of politics now admitting that they are spending about 20% less on defence than they should be (though without this resonating anywhere).

I desperately and naively grasp at a Charter of Defence Honesty as a means to impose some clarity on this debate, but if not a Charter, surely there is some mechanism that publicly links the strategic environment with the security and defence outcomes that are needed, and the risk of underfunding defence? Once that is established, then governments themselves, as well as economists, can decide how much they are prepared to spend on defence, and we the voters can assess the risks they are taking.

But perhaps if we were so honest in our use of words and concepts, voters would be far too self-reliant in their ability to assess government and ministers' performance in defence.

Photo by Flickr user tropical.pete.