Over the past month, The Interpreter has hosted a debate on Australian defence strategy initiated by Alan Dupont's Lowy analysis paper, Full-Spectrum Defence.

The discussion so far has only glanced tangentially off the most brutal of the realities affecting defence strategy: the perpetually frustrating issue of money and the imperative for which it is always a proxy, the identification of priorities.

Hugh White raised the issue in his response to Alan's initial post, in the context that finance is central to any serious discussion on strategic policy. Alan's rejoinder mainly posited the place of theoretical rigour but did identify the crux of the relationship between finance and defence policy: 'the efficacy of the process for allocating resources.' In this context, Allan's focus is on decisions concerning the development of ADF force structure.

It is obvious that funding forces choice into public policy, although it seems that policy makers often try to ignore this reality. This certainly is the lesson from most of the defence white papers tabled since 1976. They failed to accommodate the impact of looming developments in Australia's economic and fiscal circumstances and their programs were, surprisingly quickly, disabled by the Commonwealth's inability to appropriate budgets of the size envisaged in formulating the white paper.

This process, repeated over a few decades, leads not merely to a degree of inconvenience but a challenge to the basis of defence policy. Inevitably, financial objectives had to become part of policy, as in the 2000 white paper's commitment to a 3% real increase in the defence budget. A quick scan of the figures in a paper I did at the time gives some indication of the destructive potential of unchecked financial pressures on Australia's defence capacity.

The 2000 white paper was implemented in the best possible environment, a period of persistent fiscal consolidation driven by expanding revenues. This is in contrast to the present fiscal situation, although it remains government policy to increase expenditure on defence to reach the level of 2% of GDP. However, a continuing constraint on revenue and a search for expenditure reduction remains the backdrop for all Commonwealth policy areas.

So, there seems little question that rigorous prioritisation will continue to be central in developing whatever ADF force structure should be indicated by policy. My difficulty with Alan's concepts is that it is hard to see how they assist in this process.

I'd like to hear a lot more about the force structure priorities that Alan sees as arising from the space and cyber domains as operational environments. His expectations seem quite ambitious but consequent changes to ADF force structure are not so clear.

The Australian Signals Directorate is already the Commonwealth's lead agency for cyber security, so it is easy to imagine (these things are, by their nature, not openly discussed) Defence leveraging these capabilities to develop a capacity for offensive cyber operations. The ADF could be expected to require additional equipment and new operating procedures which might be neither cheap nor simple. Yet, were Australian offensive cyber to become a strategic capability, it would more likely require organisational change – the creation of an Australian NSA, or some such – than adjustment to ADF force structure.

Similarly, what changes to force structure would Alan identify as allowing Australia to 'shape and if possible control' the space environment, and how might this be sustained in the absence of an Australian space industry?

Australia could enhance security against the proliferation of ballistic missiles by upgrading the RAN's new Air Warfare Destroyers to use the SM-3 missile system. But to protect Australian targets the AWDs would have to intercept ballistic missiles during the launch phase, meaning that the vessels would need to be stationed close to the coastline of the launching state. This would be (especially in the case of North Korea or Iran) a long way from the protection of other ADF forces and would only be feasible if the destroyer was operating in cooperation with a much larger coalition force. In such circumstances, the destroyer's deployment would have little to do with a specific attack on Australia and much more with arrangements for regional security. So in this case ADF capacity would reflect alliance relationships rather than changes to force structure.

I draw much the same conclusions from Alan's discussion of the emerging nature of warfare and Australia's history of distant operational deployments. The nature and extent of Australia's overseas deployments has often been influenced as much by international or local politics as by the military situation. I can see little to indicate that future distant deployments will not continue to be as highly contextualised.

Similarly, evaluating the nature of emerging conflict can help planners identify emerging challenges but not much to nominate the priority that should be allocated to force structure elements. As Hugh White observes, combat is unlikely to occur on Australian territory, so it will be the judgement of Australian governments that continues to determine the scope and size of the ADF's exposure to emerging conflicts and overseas deployments.

Such contextualised episodes provide few indicators of priority within defence strategy. That is why there remains a vigourous debate over whether the capabilities of the new Canberra-class helicopter landing docks meet, are greatly in excess of, or provide the basis for future ADF force deployment requirements.

Ironically, I would not be surprised to see Alan's analysis used to encourage a default position of 'more of the same', rather than to support significant change in ADF force structure.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.