Commentary | 03 May 2013

Defence White Paper squibs key questions

There's lots to like in today's Defence White Paper, but some big questions still remain

  • James Brown

There's lots to like in today's Defence White Paper, but some big questions still remain

  • James Brown

Executive Summary

Today's Defence White Paper has everything in it but a sound military strategy by which Australia can secure its national interests and international aspirations. There is sound analysis of the strategic environment, making clear that the most important factor in the "Indo-Pacific" will be managing tensions as China and the US move into a period of strategic competition. There are some prudent spending decisions. The growler electronic attack aircraft provide a powerful capability that helps to bridge the gap until the Joint Strike Fighter can be delivered. The Navy's ageing replenishment ships and cracking Armidale patrol boats will be replaced sooner than expected. And the Pacific Patrol Boat program, a key plank in Australia's engagement with South Pacific neighbours, will be renewed rather than scrapped.

There are also so tough decisions which have been delayed. After three years, the government is no closer to deciding how to replace the Army's multitude of fighting vehicles. And despite thousands of pages of study and years of development analysis, no tough decision on the future submarine project has been made - beyond deciding to build it in South Australia. The Defence Minister outlined that the life of the Collins submarine could be extended an additional 13 years to 2038. That means those navy officer cadets flanking the Prime Minister this morning will probably retire before the first new submarine hits the water.

As expected, the White Paper focuses on defence diplomacy to manage the region's rising tensions. The thinking behind this is that the more militaries know each other, the less likely they are to go to war. And so there is much talk of humanitarian and disaster relief exercises, joint postings, and security agreements and forums. But there is surprisingly little detail about how this enhanced defence diplomacy will be achieved. On Indonesia, the country looming as Australia's most important security partner after the US, there is very little detail in this White Paper. How will the government pursue closer security partnerships with Indonesia? What opportunities are there for the ADF as the Indonesian military grows and modernises? What common challenges do our two countries face and what specific initiatives will the Australian government pursue? Much of this is still left to the imagination.

So too, the Defence White Paper is largely quiet on the future direction of Australia's military integration with the US. Beyond vague and restated commitments to consider future naval force posture options with the US, and a summary of announcements made at last year's AUSMIN, there is little to show what the government's detailed thinning is on pursuing closer integration with the US. We already have senior Australian defence staff in leadership positions within the US Pacific Command, and have recently embedded a Royal Australian Navy ship within the US 7th Fleet. An Australian general is leading US military exercises in South Korea. Do all of these developments make us more or less dependant on the US military, and what is the opportunity cost for our other defence relationships in the Indo Pacific?

On defence funding, a measly 700 words in this 132 page policy document. The Defence Minister is right, there has been "an outbreak of bipartisanship" on defence spending - an unspoken truce between Liberal and Labor as both promise no more than that they will aspire to lift defence spending to 2% of GDP. Think about what that means, both political parties acknowledge openly that they are underfunding defence by almost $7.6bn. The consequences of underfunding health or education by that amount would be difficult to hide, unions and interest groups would be vocal and the detail would be known. But the defence policy space is far more murky, and this white paper does little to explain what it is that the Australian Defence Force can't do and what risk we are carrying whilst defence remains underfunded.

There is no more important area of the government's responsibility than defence, the Prime Minister said today. But barely five minutes into the launch of the Defence White Paper the Prime Minister was back to tweeting about the NDIS.