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Defence White Paper 2013: Treading water in the Indo-Pacific

Defence White Paper 2013: Treading water in the Indo-Pacific

The Australian Government was right not to set up grand expectations for its 2013 Defence White Paper released today. This is a less ambitious and in some ways more sophisticated document than the 2009 plan released by Kevin Rudd. Here are a few initial impressions.

The Government is to be commended for its unequivocal redefinition of Australia's region of security concern as the Indo-Pacific rather than the Asia Pacific. This recognises the arc of trade routes, energy flows and strategic connections between the Indian and Pacific oceans, arising especially from the rise of China and India as outward-looking economic and military powers with growing maritime interests and ambitions.

It's a welcome shift. It's wrong to claim the Indo-Pacific is too big to be a meaningful construct: this does not mean that Canberra can or should act on every security contingency from Mozambique to the Marshall Islands. Rather, this is a region with Asia at its core: the White Paper rightly defines Southeast Asia as the key part of the Indo-Pacific for Australia to be engaged in.

Even so, the logical Indo-Pacific expansion of Australia's region of interest does not sit well with the continued low levels of defence spending that will accompany this White Paper. The Prime Minister and Defence Minister implied today that they know they are underfunding defence: they indicated that Australia's interests require, in the longer run, a defence budget closer to 2% of GDP and that they want to move towards that mark.

But they offered little joy or clarity about how they, or a future government, would get there from the historically low 1.5% to which their Government abruptly brought the defence budget last year. For instance, the promised 12 new Growler electronic warfare aircraft will cost around $1.5 billion spread somewhere over the next four years of budget forward estimates. But that's not to say we will necessarily see an increase in the forthcoming defence budget for that purchase. [fold]

And while the White Paper contains some sensible articulation about the risks and opportunities facing Australia in the Indo-Pacific Asian century, it is not blunt about the security risks the nation will accrue if year-on-year political calculations mean that aspirations towards serious levels of defence spending do not materialise.

The biggest headline about capabilities should be about the promised new submarine fleet. The Government has narrowed the range of options for those boats, pushed out the time horizon, and bequeathed massive expenses on future governments. The idea of buying an off-the-shelf boat – an existing, cheaper, albeit more limited capability – has been taken off the agenda. The nuclear-powered notion has been categorically killed. We don't know exactly what the new boats will do or cost, but we do know they will be built in Adelaide.

Kevin Rudd's 2009 White Paper envisioned 12 next-generation submarines, armed with cruise missiles, in service by perhaps 2030. Stephen Smith starkly declared today that, with upgrades, the existing Collins fleet could still be in service until 2038. That's another 25 years. To put that in perspective, it's the same time-span between 1914 and 1939. World events, strategic threats and military technology can change rather a lot over such a time.

And it's a little baffling why Australia's security can tolerate a naval capability gap for so much longer than it can tolerate the much-warned-of air capability gap caused by delays to the Joint Strike Fighter program.

Speaking of gaps, this White Paper is silent on the 2009 ambition to equip fairly much the entire Australian combat fleet – surface and sub-surface – with land-attack cruise missiles. The 2009 idea of a new hybrid naval vessel, an offshore combatant vessel adaptable to patrol, mine-hunting and hydrographic roles, seems also fairly much dead in the water. And, true to Australian Labor sensitivities, ballistic missile defences still get cautious treatment, even though North Korea's latest provocations should be changing a few minds.

One thing the Government gets right in this White Paper is its decision to improve the Cocos Islands' air facility to take the RAAF's P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft, when they arrive, as well as US aircraft if a future access arrangement can be negotiated. It would be absurd for Australia not to make full use of such a strategic piece of Indo-Pacific real estate.

At the same time, there is a peculiar pattern to the document's emphasis on the US alliance, combined with optimism about other kinds of defence diplomacy (especially Asian multilateralism and ties with China). More than ever in recent years, and whatever the usual rhetoric about self-reliance, Australia is looking to others for its security. Yet further neglect of Australia's own strategic weight will diminish the quality of alliance contributions and security partnership we can offer others in return. Don't think they won't notice.

Dedicated work by officials has helped ensure that this White Paper is neither a disgrace, as some would claim, nor solely a political pamphlet. But it is much more about treading water in the Indo-Pacific than charting a new course for the Asian century.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

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