The first thing to say about Alan Dupont's recent paper is that he is absolutely correct about the dire condition of Australian strategic policy.

As he suggests, we lack a coherent answer to the most basic question of all: 'What do we want our armed forces to be able to do?' Until that question is answered, there is no way we can make sensible choices about the kinds of armed forces we need, nor about how much we should spend on them.

Moreover, Alan is right about many of the reasons why our strategic policy is so bad. However, I'm not completely sold on all of his suggestions about how to do things better. Here are a few points that I think deserve fuller debate.

What is armed force good for?

Clearly we cannot decide what we want our armed forces to be able to do until we have decided what kinds of things armed forces can usefully do. Alan casts the net pretty wide. He identifies a broad range of security threats which he thinks our forces should be designed to deal with, and criticises the idea that we should focus narrowly on building them to respond to threats from other countries' armed forces.

I'm not so sure.

For example, Alan clearly believes that stabilisation operations in the Middle East are an important role for our forces and should influence our force development decisions. This presupposes that not just our interests in the Middle East are important enough to us to warrant giving them such a central place in our national security policy, but that military operations are a cost-effective way of promoting those interests. The experience of the past decade does not support that view.

To take the most obvious case, it seems likely that a serious analysis of our experience in Afghanistan would conclude that sustained military operations there failed to achieve our strategic objectives, not because of any faults in the conduct of the operation itself, but because the aims we set ourselves could not be achieved with military means. Those are lessons we need to learn.

What kinds of threats will we face in the future?

Alan's ideas about the kind of threats that Australia's forces should be designed to address, reflect a judgement that our future threat environment will look much like the one we see have seen in recent decades. That means he emphasises lower-level contingencies and coalition operations over higher-level conventional conflicts and independent operations.

But the future does not always resemble the past, so it is important to test this judgement.

Alan rightly observes that the strategic order in Asia is changing as power shifts to China, and that America's role in Asia will change too, and he criticises our defence policymakers for not thinking carefully enough about what this will mean. But he himself, perhaps, underestimates just how big the implications of these changes might be – especially if we look out a few decades.

Alan deprecates any attempt to think this far ahead, but one wonders how decisions about capabilities that will not even enter service for 20 years can be made without doing so. This is not the place to explore what kinds of risks we might face in the very different Asia of the Asian Century: suffice to say here that it would be unwise to base our strategic policy on the assumption that they will look much like those of the past 30 years.

That is the context in which issues like the geographic focus on our defence posture and the place of maritime operations in our defence planning come into focus. The more the future resembles the recent past, the more sense there is in Alan's arguments for a wider geographic and operational focus. The more we contemplate our security needs in a very different and more contested Asia, the more questionable Alan's arguments become.

How much to spend?

Alan's paper doesn't focus much on money. That is a pity, because money is of course central to any serious discussion about strategic policy. One gets the impression that Alan thinks we should be spending a good deal more on defence than we are, but even with a much bigger budget there would be hard choices to be made between competing priorities.

Alan mentions lots of things he thinks the ADF should be able to do, but doesn't give any basis for setting priorities between them. That leaves the hard work of building a coherent strategic policy still to be done.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.