Australia’s defence strategic review – facts and fallacies

Aug 11, 2022
Flag of Chief of the Defence Force (Australia)
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In preparation for the Defence Strategic Review the  government has not  informed Australians of any threat which challenges our security, much less a spectrum of them up to “most concerning”.

The Review announced by the Government on 3 August has invited public submissions. Which is comforting. The Review’s Terms of Reference begin logically, by suggesting it take into account “intelligence and strategic assessments of the most concerning threats which challenge Australia’s security.”  But how can we prepare to defend Australia without being very clear about the threat?

It is unlikely that the government’s intelligence and strategic assessments for this Review will be made public. Which means Australians are left to speculate on “the most concerning threats” from publicly available commentary. Such commentary is variable and influenced by politics and money. The more anxiety is induced in the populace the more governments are pressured into greater defence spending. Then profits proliferate for those in and around the defence business – including academics, consultants, and especially media. So the media rarely tells its audience that the material it promulgates could be conflicted. With the start point of this Review being such a miasma, what hope has a concerned citizen of responding helpfully?

Maybe the answer is to be selective? Everybody knows we can’t rely on Murdoch. Maybe stick with the ABC ? Just 2 days after the Review was announced Michael Vincent of the ABC interviewed Professor Paul Dibb who elaborated on his work for Defence Minister Beazley done thirty or so years ago:

The holes in our [defence] force structure were gigantic. Basically, nothing had changed since the Vietnam War and before that, the confrontation with Indonesia. It was still a force that successive governments had structured on the basis, not of the defence of Australia, but as expeditionary forces, in far distant military conflicts, primarily to contain communism.”

Is the Professor claiming credit for the revolution in defence policy, which set Australia on the path to self-reliance in defending Australia ? If so, it is not correct. The facts say it all. For nine years from early 1970 until his retirement in August 1979, Arthur Tange was Secretary of the Department of Defence. His deputy was Gordon Blakers who had been Secretary to the War Cabinet. Of the law, and a thinker and communicator of precision, it was Blakers who was the intellectual source of this revolution, at least fifteen years before Dibb came on the scene.

At that time, the façade of ‘forward defence’ had just been undermined by President Nixon’s utterances in Guam, later termed the Nixon Doctrine. Henceforth the US would require its allies in the Asia- Pacific to take more responsibility for their own defence. Tange’s third Minister was David Fairbairn who distinguished himself by agreeing to a White Paper on defence, never before attempted – allowing the drafting to proceed, then getting cold feet and merely tabling the document in Parliament as a departmental Defence Review, in 1972, saying upfront:

“ Public discussion and understanding of Australian defence interests in the decades immediately ahead may be assisted by the presentation to Parliament of this Paper reviewing Australian defence.”

Disappointing as its practical fate was, the work demonstrated the inadequacies of existing concepts and the challenges Australia faced in shouldering full security responsibility, evidenced not least by a struggle for language to capture the nuance – ‘fortress Australia’ was naïve as was ‘continental defence’, but very different from ‘forward defence’. The enduring features of geography and neighbourhood were the bedrock. The Review was remarkable in thinking incisively about the intersection with allies:

 Having others involved in Australia’s security interests is but one aspect: a second is our reciprocal involvement in the security interests of others. A third aspect is the underlying requirement that we be capable of vigorous action unaided, to defend our interests and our territory, whatever these other involvements.

Then came the White Paper of 1976, embraced bi-partisanly, which comprehensively explained the new defence objectives and ramifications. By the time Dibb entered in 1985 almost a decade of practical progress had delivered major force structure outcomes. The Defence ship had been well and truly turned around. The Dibb review was commissioned as a device by a Minister without the ticker to face a pair of Army generals unable to grasp their own responsibilities. The Professor had no pedigree in force structure development, being an academic of intelligence background. Consequently, during his review Dibb was educated patiently by the Department, and was a good listener. Far from being the originator of this extraordinary national policy, Dibb was the beneficiary of high level intellectual capital transfer from the Defence Department.

Back to the current Review. If what the ABC reports is faithful, it has presented an apparent expert, advising Australians that Australia faces ‘probability of high-intensity conflict’ involving China, and deducing that:

We must be able to very rapidly acquire huge numbers of long-range strike missiles, By long-range I don’t mean just a couple of hundred kilometres, I mean thousands of kilometres, certainly at least 2,000.”

One wonders what Paul Keating might say about throwing toothpicks at the mountain in this way. Finally, Dibb has some mechanistic advice for the Review’s leaders:

The way it should be done is you have an independent set of intelligence reviews and advice. Those intelligence reviews and advice go through to the strategic policy advisors

From that, they develop a series of credible threats, including high-intensity conflict, and they model them, and war game what sorts of capabilities that would demand.

Only then do you determine, what’s your force structure priorities? And only then, once you’ve done that, you come to the money.”

Which sounds just like the military appreciations which enduringly flourish in staff colleges – money is incidental, merely an enabler for what the military “demands”. Robert McMamara rejected that 70 years ago in the Pentagon, adopting the discipline of cost – effectiveness. The two have become inseparable components of big Defence judgements. Their relationships vary wildly. For some, effectiveness rises steeply with only modest cost. Think of the Jindalee surveillance network. Others never deliver much added effectiveness, no matter how much money is thrown at them. Submarines come to mind. Always, at some point, effectiveness for money ceases growing. That is the only way value for money and adequacy can be discerned.

Resource allocation in Defence is not credible without this discipline, whether formal, or more a matter of mindset. It underpinned the planning work of Defence during and following those Tange years which turned Australia’s Defence ship around. Powerful intellects like Blakers, Pritchett, Cawsey, Moten and Wrigley made it possible, through formal consultation with the military. I always suspected that Dibb didn’t understand what he had been given.

In any case, the Professor now has the opportunity to assist this government’s Review, by making his case alongside everyone else deprived of the information necessary to commence.

Read more in our Defence Strategic Review series of articles.

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