It’s time – for a top-down review of defence

Jul 4, 2022
Illustration of the defence forces
Image: Pixabay

Labor has a big reputation to protect on defence reform. At historic turning points in Australia’s security it was mostly Labor governments which turned up and delivered.

From Chifley and Curtin governments who acted when Australia’s wartime interests were subordinated to Britain’s, to Whitlam and Hawke who recognised and acted when great peacetime change was requiredPercy Spender’s foresight and tenacity winning through against Menzies fealty to Britain, to deliver ANZUS, was a singular conservative moment.

Just as with the election of the new Albanese government, defence was a political issue fifty years ago. In 1972 the Labor Opposition led by Gough Whitlam went to the people promising to reform Defence. On its first day in office, the new Labor government instructed Defence Secretary Arthur Tange to report on options. Three Service Departments were united, improving capability and releasing resources.

With Whitlam’s encouragement the Department delivered a seminal white paper, tabled in Parliament in November 1976 by James Killen, entitled “Australian Defence”- a national treasure, stating for the first time the government’s intention to ensure our security independently, self-reliantly. A signal of nationhood, with bipartisan support, showing that political leaders had the fortitude to accept that the ANZUS Treaty leaves Australia with no responsible alternative.

It was uniformed citizens who had most difficulty, facing in a new direction and having to justify spending against fresh criteria. Just over a decade later Robert Hawke’s government at its first Cabinet meeting decided that the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne would be retired and not replaced. This politically difficult decision recognised that the carrier offered little in defending Australia beyond that of land-based aircraft and other maritime vessels. Large resources were released for more productive use.

In grappling with the implications of self-reliance, the obvious question was defence against whom? Policy was clear that, at one extreme, fighting a superpower such as the USSR was not a contingency which should shape our planning. Nobody disagreed with that. And nor should attack by regional powers of the Indo-Pacific be a focus:

In the Indo- Pacific area the major powers are India, China and Japan. Australia seeks friendly relations with all of them…These countries all have their own local strategic preoccupations, and radical change in these circumstances and in their national policies could not be expected to be quick. 

The policy also calibrated where Australia should expect to be able to act with military force. Geographic reaches, identified as “areas of primary strategic concern” inferred much about the type and level of defence effort we should be able to mount:

For practical purposes, the requirements and scope for Australian defence activity are limited essentially to the areas closer to home – areas in which the deployment of military capabilities by a power potentially unfriendly to Australia could permit that power to attack or harass Australia and its territories, maritime resources zone and near sea lines of communication. These are our adjacent maritime areas.

Obviously, our nearest neighbour and friend Indonesia had to be at the fore in contingency analysis. Geographic reality says that a putative threat would most likely have to materialise from or through the Indonesian archipelago.

However, today’s strategic assessments are not as sanguine about all Indo-Pacific powers, singling out China factually for its extraordinary economic growth and potential for plenty more. And our ANZUS ally is concerned about China for reasons not directly related to us. How a self- reliant Australia should respond to this big change remains to be explained publicly in the same measured and convincing manner as in 1976.

Which is another way of saying that fifty years on from when Whitlam energised defence thinking in this nation we are at another watershed- where big security assumptions have to be questioned, ventilated publicly and measured actions pursued.

Taking Stock Again

It’s time for this Australian government to do what Labor has done well historically – rationally address new security challenges with Australia’s interests to the fore.

Indeed PM Albanese appears to be heading this way: “the defence forward posture review.. .. I will be appointing someone independently to conduct that review which will be about our assets, our capabilities and how we go forward given that I’ve indicated we will need to increase defence spending” ( Australian Financial Review, 30 June ).

But bigger strategic questions require attention before “forward posture” finds a logical place. It is time to be frank. The US is asking Australia to reshape its defences to join a US fighting plan against a large nuclear armed power, which dominates our region pervasively. Our preparation for that conflict would effectively prevent genuine effort to resolve regional concerns of China and other Asian nations. The conflict path is a US policy choice, to deal with its perception of strategic competition driven by growth in China’s economy and self-assurance. Australia’s security is a second-order component of the US motivation.

Ally risk has to be assessed. Apart from the ambiguity in US commitment written into ANZUS and the underlying shift in US foreign policy ambitions since the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, contradictions now overshadow US credibility. President Biden chose not to commit US forces alongside Ukraine to fight Russia, citing the risk of nuclear warfare. Then the same President said the US would commit forces to defend Taiwan, a non-sovereign state, against China. The contradiction is profound.

Australians have to feel confident that strategic risks for Australia have been thought through. As Hugh White observes in his recent formidable strategic risk analysis:

“ So the key choice we face is not whether we should abandon America, but whether we should trust them not to abandon Asia, and abandon us”. (Quarterly Essay, “Sleepwalk to War” QE 86 2022).

How do we prepare for America leaving Asia, which prudence dictates we assess? Surely not by lining up once again to be losers, in a war which America cannot win.

Separately, Australians seem to be less than confident in our defences now for no good reason. Murdoch correspondent Greg Sheridan has written to the Prime Minister citing a senior ex-official Peter Varghese, who should have a professional knowledge of our defence capacity, claiming:

“The truth is we have failed to acquire that capacity – to defend ourselves without relying on the combat assistance of the US – despite it being the objective of Australian defence policy for the last 40 years.” (The Australian, 4 June 2022).

Could that not simply be because governments have not bothered to keep Australians abreast of defence progress? Or has public ignorance suited political ends? And perhaps leaders just don’t have much of a clue anyway, like officials who should? This situation cannot continue, if for no other reason than current capability is the baseline for judging risks and cost and effectiveness of ways ahead. A factual assessment of the unique and potent defence capability which Australia possesses now should be the bedrock of any review.

Moreover, the Albanese government has promised to make productivity gain the centrepiece of reforms:

“ at this moment in our history it is imperative that we deliver the next set of national productivity reforms to secure our future for the coming decades” ( Prime Minister AlbaneseAddress to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 5 May).

It is imperative that the government require that the large and diverse resources projected for Defence embrace productivity opportunities.

Who becomes the leader of this review will be critical. Professor Hugh White is without peer on fundamental strategic risk. Its credibility would be undermined were the leader associated with the “Washington club”. To deliver across the span of issues requires other specialists – in capability, operational and resource allocation analysis, organisation, procurement and industry. Experienced statesmen such as John Faulkner or Greg Combet would have much to contribute to a team seeking to fuse practical outcomes from complexity.

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