Twenty months ago the Chief of the Defence Force delivered a speech at the Lowy Institute outlining how he thought the 2013 White Paper would be developed. Today at the University of Canberra's National Security Institute, the CDF again gave a speech foregrounding a Defence White Paper. But this time, it seemed we heard from a less encumbered General David Hurley (pictured).

Broadly, General Hurley's National Security Institute speech outlined the timing and process for the 2015 Defence White Paper. Most importantly, he signaled that the Defence organisation is seriously examining  many of the underlying assumptions that have characterised military strategy for the past quarter-century.

First, the nuts and bolts of how Australia's future strategic defence policy will be produced. In his scripted remarks, the CDF said that new Deputy Secretary Strategy Peter Baxter will lead the White Paper process in close consultation with Vice Chief of the Defence Force Air Marshal Mark Binskin. Importantly, these two senior leaders will also lead the Force Structure Review, previously allocated to a separate area within Defence. This alignment is entirely sensible.

General Hurley confirmed that the Government intends to finalise the White Paper by March 2015,  a mere twelve months away. But I can only assume he chose his words carefully ('finalise' does not mean 'release') to avoid locking the Government into a public release in March next year. 

Hurley also said that the Defence White Paper team will go back to government at least five times during the next twelve months for further political advice. This too is reassuring; the last White Paper seemed to get clear political direction at the beginning and end with little in between. Close consultation with government is particularly important for this White Paper given that the most important driver of strategy – the budget – is an inherently political decision.

The crux of this speech, though, was General Hurley's commitment to 'review the assumptions that underpin the choice of Principal Tasks to ensure that they remain appropriate to our strategic circumstances'.

One of the failings of the last White Paper, in my view, was that the principal tasks for the Australian Defence Force seemed to be little changed from the template derived in 2009, and arguably 2000. The judgement not to change the principle tasks could be in step with the changing strategic environment, but intuitively that seems unlikely.

Defence is also reviewing strategic warning time and mobilisation. These concepts have been pivotal in past Australian thinking about how to structure a small military to face a broad range of threats. The US Quadrennial Defense Review argues that the future of the US military will be more about high-readiness forces that can deploy at the critical time and achieve decisive overmatch in any skirmish or tension in the region. I suspect Australia, too,  will need a force structure that relies less on expansion and mobilisation.

In unscripted remarks, the CDF identified three areas Defence needs to be thinking hard about. Firstly, how to achieve limited sea control through the use of air and sea platforms. Secondly, how to deploy a battalion-sized force and sustain it. And finally, how to fight in the cyber environment.

On this last point, General Hurley outlined that 'the cost of achieving assured access to space and cyberspace that underpins our defence and national security capabilities will certainly increase'. That phrase, 'assured access', stems from US thinking about the global commons and is one we are certain to see more of over the next 12 months. General Hurley also flagged that Defence will begin a more realistic discussion of what the ADF's new amphibious vessels might be used for – one that doesn't just talk about humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. That's a welcome development too.

Two other points worth noting from the speech. The first is the changing relativity of Australia's status in Asia. Hurley says 'as other "middle power" states rise, we will need a stronger voice if we are to be heard'. He reminded his audience that 'In twenty years from now, Indonesia's economy will be nearly twice as large as Australia's…that development by itself has important repercussions for our security'.

This speech reflects a Defence bureaucracy ready to come to grips with the paradoxes in Australian military strategy and the deferred challenges of Australia's future force structure.  But the biggest challenge is out of Defence's hands: as General Hurley says, there should be no underestimating the challenge of raising defence spending to anything like 2% of GDP. In Hurley's words 'managing this commitment will be a defining element of our defence future'.