Herewith my initial thoughts on the Defence White Paper 2013, with the usual caveat that this is the result of a first quick read and thus subject to revision.

All the talk about this White Paper is that it takes a softer line on China, and although Minister Stephen Smith says the Government has been consistent, David Wroe's language comparison of the 2009 and 2013 White Papers in the SMH tells its own story. More broadly, there's a strong emphasis in this White Paper on defence diplomacy, reinforcing the idea that we must seek our security in the region, rather than defending ourselves from it.

The other big theme is money: major projects are being cut or delayed because of the Government simply cannot afford them.

What's missing from this White Paper, as far as I can see, is any acknowledgment that the second big theme is actually driving the first. Because we cannot afford all the insurance we would like in the form of weapons systems, we have to take on slightly more risk and, to some extent, we compensate by substituting diplomacy.

Like Andrew Davies at ASPI, I don't think the additional risk is huge. For example, the Government has stumbled into the right policy by delaying (and almost certainly reducing) our Joint Strike Fighter purchase. The mixed Hornet/Super Hornet fleet is quite sufficient to preserve our regional advantage.

But what's worrying is the Government's inability to acknowledge that it has made a conscious choice to do less and take on more risk. The document insists that the Government 'remains committed to delivering the core capabilities identified in the 2009 Defence White Paper', even though not a single credible strategic analyst thinks this is doable under present financial constraints.

This is worrying because it suggests we're not being fair dinkum with ourselves. To again cite Davies, New Zealand is a country that 'took a hard look at its strategic situation' and prudently reduced its capabilities. We don't seem ready to make a conscious choice to have less strategic weight, so we fudge and drift into into our strategic future.

Some further stray thoughts and notable quotes:

  • 'China's defence capabilities are growing and its military is modernising, as a natural and legitimate outcome of its economic growth. This will inevitably affect the strategic calculations and posture of regional countries and is changing the balance of military power in the western Pacific.' That's as clear a statement as you could hope for in this kind of document about what is going on in the region.
  • 'Over the next three decades, Australia’s relative strategic weight will be challenged as the major Asian states continue to grow their economies and modernise their military forces.' Again, an admirably clear statement.
  • Australia is to become 'the only operator of the Growler capability outside the United States'. That could make it a useful niche capability for Coalition operations.
  • The section on ballistic missile defence (BMD) refers to the missile threat from states 'such as' the DPRK and Iran. Who else?
  • The BMD section also reveals that Australia has an interest in defending its strategic interests, including Australian cities. BMD will have to get a lot cheaper for that to be viable.
  • On the new amphibious ships: 'The initial focus will be on developing the capability to contribute to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts and support regional security and stabilisation operations.' Like I said, national logistical assets.
  • Just 'concerned'? An almost British piece of understatement: 'We would be concerned if potentially hostile powers established a presence in Southeast Asia that could be used to project military power against Australia.'
  • There's a full-page close-up of Stephen Smith just ahead of his Minister's Foreword. He clearly doesn't mind owning this document.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.