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Defence in depth: Is Australia's defence strategy smart?

Published 2 Jul 2013 08:55   0 Comments

Dougal Robinson is a Lowy Institute Defence Intern.

In this final video in the Defence in Depth series, we asked experts whether Australia's defence strategy is smart. You can watch the whole Defence in Depth series and read commentary about it on this debate thread.


Peter Cosgrove argues that Australia's strategy has generally been intelligent, but most of those questioned responded negatively.

Rodger Shanahan posits that Australia does not have a defence strategy, and, according to Hugh White, our strategy is either lousy or non-existent, because Australia lacks a coherent conception of the risks it faces and the capabilities it requires. Similarly, there is no logical relationship between our defence strategy and defence expenditure, Peter Jennings argues. 

A critical yardstick of the value of Australia's defence strategy is the orientation of its defence force. According to Ian McPhedran, Australia needs to focus on its region rather than prepare for action alongside the US. We need to have a flexible range of capabilities, says James Goldrick, and must avoid preoccupation with either expeditionary operations or the defence of Australia. Chris Barrie correspondingly contends that Australia should assume a leadership role our immedate region. 

A smart strategy, according to some experts, avoids over-dependence on the US. Australia can espouse the 'Defence of Australia' doctrine and free ride on the US as the guarantors of our security, says Mark Thomson. But we should not therefore go blindly into battle with Washington, warns Brendan Nicholson. 

In the aftermath of the Defence White Paper, and in this atmosphere of pessimism among experts, it seems wise to consider Jim Molan's words: the articulation of strategy is not the end product of a defence policy; rather, Australia's priority must be a defence force that works. 

Defence in depth: Better or worse?

Published 19 Jun 2013 13:19   0 Comments

Dougal Robinson is a Lowy Institute defence intern.

As the Australian Defence Force approaches the end of a period of high operational tempo, this third Defence in Depth video (you can watch the whole series and read commentary about it on this debate thread) asks experts whether the ADF is improving or declining.

There is consensus that extensive action in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Solomon Islands has left the ADF far better than it was at the end of the twentieth century. Our armed forces are much more competent, professional and better equipped, according to ASPI's Peter Jennings. The Australian's Brendan Nicholson agrees that the sharp end of Defence is more experienced.

Despite these improvements, the ADF faces significant challenges in coming years. Australia's capabilities will naturally erode as our armed forces are withdrawn from operations, says Peter Cosgrove. Maintaining effective, war-ready equipment in an era of budgetary pressure will be difficult, observes Andrew Davies from ASPI.

Perhaps the ADF is best measured by the challenges it may face in the Indo-Pacific. As Asia's middle powers and great powers improve their military capability, wonders Brendan Taylor, will Australia be able to maintain a qualitative edge in the region? Relative to credible regional adversaries, says Hugh White, Australia is in decline.

Is Australia adequately equipped for its strategic environment? In the judgement of retired Major General Jim Molan, the ADF is 'deeply deficient'.

Defence policy: Self-reliant or self-deluded?

Published 14 Jun 2013 16:29   0 Comments

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

The video cameos featured in Dougal Robinson's post, Defence in Depth: Strategic Partners, go to two of the most important concepts in Australian defence: self-reliance and self-delusion.

Jack Georgieff looks more directly at self-reliance and reminds us how much has changed in this key defence concept in 25 years. The concept of self-reliance, says Georgieff:

...has transformed from expectations that Australia can defend its territorial sovereignty on its own, to one that relies on the alliance with the US to maintain self-reliance. In other words, 'self-reliance' has become 'alliance-reliance'. Little debate has taken place over this. A one-liner referring to self-reliance in the Defence White Paper is merely deluding ourselves and the US that we are not free-riding off of their unrivalled military might.

And even when 'self-reliance' as a concept meant something, Australia was never able to achieve it in reality, thus bringing to the fore self-reliance's twin: self-delusion.

I remember being in the part of Defence which tried to interpret policy and strategy to create defence capability. We were always asking ourselves what this 'self-reliance' concept meant for the doers in defence and we concluded we had no idea how to interpret these clever words from above.

We accepted that self-reliance was always going to have limits, nuclear deterrence being the obvious one. We argued that self-reliance meant we could shelter under the US nuclear deterrent, buy the best defence equipment from overseas, and establish logistic sustainment agreements. But for self-reliance purposes, the systems we acquired had to be at least maintainable in Australia, a thought that should have flowed into effective industry policy. The term we came up with was that Australian operations should be, at worst, 'Australian led, Australian supported, but US enabled'. [fold]

Clearly the Defence White Paper cannot tell the unvarnished truth. It would be politically difficult to state publicly that a central plank of our defence policy is that Australia free-rides on the US. And it is clever, in a way, to state a policy term like 'self-reliance', then dumb it down over many years without ever achieving even the dumbed down version. But the danger is that we start actually believing this version of 'self-reliance'. Self-delusion spreads confusion.

What chance of clarity in the defence debate when we have a drive-by offering on defence from the economics editor of The Australian, David Uren, in a long economics article, where almost as a one-liner, Uren writes: 'The next defence white paper, unlike the previous two, needs to reconcile a realistic assessment of strategic challenges with limited financial resources. Again, hard choices will be required.'

As a defence commentator, Uren might be a very good economist. But his words have a touch of the conveniently defined 'self-reliance' about them. And because they are self-delusional, they are just as dangerous. Uren accepts what anecdotally so much of Australia seems to accept: that we must spend less on defence regardless of the strategic challenge. In fact, he advocates redefining the strategic challenge down to meet what he calls our 'limited financial resources'. What if the real strategic environment does not limit itself to what Uren thinks we should spend?

Words have a real impact on thought and attitude, and conveniently defined terms such as 'self-reliance' are not just clever policy. Such duplicity has a real impact on how Australians think of defence. Uren is prepared to define down the strategic environment to reach a level of spending which he has decided is appropriate. But this same strategic environment finally has both sides of politics now admitting that they are spending about 20% less on defence than they should be (though without this resonating anywhere).

I desperately and naively grasp at a Charter of Defence Honesty as a means to impose some clarity on this debate, but if not a Charter, surely there is some mechanism that publicly links the strategic environment with the security and defence outcomes that are needed, and the risk of underfunding defence? Once that is established, then governments themselves, as well as economists, can decide how much they are prepared to spend on defence, and we the voters can assess the risks they are taking.

But perhaps if we were so honest in our use of words and concepts, voters would be far too self-reliant in their ability to assess government and ministers' performance in defence.

Photo by Flickr user tropical.pete.

Reader riposte: China-US surprises

Published 11 Jun 2013 11:25   0 Comments

Cecelia O'Brien responds to last Friday's Defence in Depth video:

When I was a young grad student I had a professor who told us that if we had ten data sets and nine of those sets all had the same result, we should then devote our utmost attention to the one data set that did not get the same results. I have always thought this to be wise. Consider our tendency towards groupthink and confirmation bias. There is also that nasty tendency for surprises to pop up. The list of things we never expected is long and recent examples include the collapse of the Soviet Union, the so called Arab Spring and even the state of affairs in the EU. One would have to agree the failure to predict these events is not a minor shortcoming so a consideration of the outlying possibilities is worth some effort.


All of your commentators have identified the contentious relationship between China and the US as being a concern for Australia and the region. I do not hear anyone speaking about an alternative — that the US and China could come to recognise that superpowers have much in common and that both China and the US might serve their national interests better by teaming up. What would be the implications for the region if the US and China worked together? It seems to me that a somewhat contentious relationship between these two countries has the advantage that they balance each other so that neither can dominate the region, which leaves the rest some freedom.

But a US-China that cooperates, that seeks to advance their common interests means total domination of the region. It seems to me that possibility is worth some consideration. We might find two friendly giants much less to our liking.

Defence in depth: Strategic partners

Published 7 Jun 2013 17:48   0 Comments

Dougal Robinson is a Lowy Institute defence intern.


In this second video of the Defence in Depth series (part 1 on the defence budget), we asked defence experts to identify Australia's two most important strategic relationships.

There was a strong consensus that the US is Australia's most important security partnership. The alliance will remain 'pre-eminent' for the foreseeable future, according to General (Ret'd) Peter Cosgrove, former Chief of the Defence Force. Peter Jennings, the Executive Director of ASPI, agrees that the US provides a 'force multiplier' that greatly enhances the ADF's operational capability.

Views on the importance of China were more nuanced. Admiral James Goldrick says we need to focus on an increasingly positive relationship with China. That view, echoed in the Defence White Paper, has become conventional wisdom. But it's clear that some degree of latent concern lingers over Beijing's trajectory. Some of our experts stressed that Australia has a limited ability to shape the strategic environment created by China's rise. For Hugh White, our future depends particularly on the evolution of the bilateral relationship between Washington and Beijing.

And then there is Indonesia. Whereas Australia may be able to avoid the consequences of a conflict between the US and China, Peter Hartcher notes that if something goes awry in Indonesia, it will be impossible for Australia to avoid the consequences. For that reason, Canberra should do more to cultivate ties with Jakarta.

Defence in depth: The budget

Published 13 May 2013 16:41   0 Comments

Today we launch the first in a series of videos looking at Australia's defence and strategic policy. Entitled Defence in Depth, the videos feature interviews with defence and strategic experts on a range of issues, including the defence budget, strategic relationships, Australian Defence Force (ADF) capability, and Australia's military strategy. There is a remarkable degree of consensus among these defence experts as to where things stand with Australia's military capability and thinking.

In this first video we profile expert views on defence funding ahead of the 2013 federal budget. Though these interviews were conducted prior to the launch of the 2013 Defence White Paper, little has changed since. Both major political parties have committed to an aspirational defence budget of 2% of GDP, neither has a clear plan to achieve that goal, and both have agreed that further cuts to the defence budget are unwise. A modest increase in defence funding is expected to be announced tomorrow. But at current levels, are we spending enough on defence?

Former Chief of the Defence Force General Peter Cosgrove declares: 'categorically no, Australian does not spend enough money on defence'. [fold]

Cosgrove says that after a busy decade of operations overseas the ADF needs modernisation. Former Chief of the Defence Force Admiral Chris Barrie similarly expresses concern about the impact of ongoing cuts to the capability of the ADF: 'if you keep cutting into the defence budget you will inevitably lead us down the path to a second rate defence force'.

Fairfax's International Editor Peter Hartcher concludes it is a 'serious national error' to reduce defence funding to the lowest levels since World War II, and The Australian's defence editor Brendan Nicholson concludes that 'if we are going to modernise the defence force then clearly the budget will need to be increased'. But Ian McPhedran points to waste and excess still to be found in the defence budget, noting a tendency for Defence to go for 'gold-plated' solutions.   

My own view is that Australia pays too much for the military capability we have, and not nearly enough for the future military capability our government says it wants, and which we will in all likelihood need.

It's quite clear is that there is a strong consensus among defence and strategic experts about a widening gap between defence funding and defence aspirations. Two options emerge: lower government expectations about what the ADF can do in the Asian century, or increase the defence budget.

Between the bipartisan aspiration to fund defence at 2% of GDP and current levels stands a gap of approximately $7.5 billion. Neither major party is willing to invest the political capital to make up this shortfall, nor do I think there is sufficient domestic political pressure to force them to do so. But sooner or later government will have to own the consequences of what Peter Jennings calls a 'two-card trick' on defence funding.

The Defence in Depth video series has been produced by Lowy Institute interns Dougal Robinson and Nirupam Gupta.