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History's echoes in new Defence review

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COMMENTS

24 February 2012 09:35

The US is hastening out of two wars and rethinking its defence interests in Asia, while Australia realigns the alliance and moves more military might to the north and west of the continent. With all that in flux, two ex-Defence Secretaries, Ric Smith and Allan Hawke, are well placed to produce one of those rare Canberra reviews that actually helps reshape the way Defence imagines and structures its future. 

The previous column looked at the Hawke-Smith progress report on their Australian Defence Force Posture Review.

To see the possible significance of their signpost, place it beside two of the landmark Defence reviews that rank beside any White Paper: the Tange Report and the Dibb Review. The Hawke-Smith effort has nowhere near the revolutionary ambition of Tange's complete remaking of Defence in the 1970s nor quite the scope of Dibb's work in 1986. Yet comparing the Posture Review with Tange and Dibb hints at the importance of the shifts that Smith and Hawke are working on.

The two ex-secretaries will do much to set the terms of the 2014 Defence White Paper, just as Tange's remaking of Defence defined the post-Vietnam 1976 Defence White Paper and Dibb provided the intellectual framework for the 1987 White Paper. To understand the import of those markers, consider this expression of what amounts to the standard Canberra narrative up until the 9/11 decade gave us the Global War on Terrorism:

The 1976 Defence White Paper was the first to set out a self-reliant Defence policy for Australia. But, we had to wait for the 1987 Defence White Paper to flesh out the concept, following many years of intense – and not always productive – debate and discussion within Defence. Defence policy no longer rested primarily on attracting the protective attention of powerful friends. When it came to defending Australian Territory, we would, for most credible contingencies, not rely on allied combat forces – although we would welcome their assistance and rely on their logistic, intelligence and diplomatic support.

Those words were uttered by Dr Hawke as Defence Secretary in February, 2000. Hawke and Smith will be well satisfied if their Posture Review sets the terms for a White Paper in the same way as Tange and Dibb managed for the Papers that followed their reports.

Consider some parallels. Tange's remaking of the Defence Department and championing of a self-reliant posture were what Canberra did as it drew lessons from the disaster that Australia had shared with the US in Vietnam. Out of Iraq and hastening towards the exit in Afghanistan, Canberra again reconsiders in much the same way.

The Dibb parallels are even closer. Smith and Hawke (ADF Posture Review) are building directly on the foundations set by Dibb (Review of Australia's defence capabilities). Dibb's review and the Kim Beazley White Paper the following year marked the real start of the ADF's march to the north and the west. Defence started to leave the population centres in the south-east to go out and take up positions in the rest of the continent. The map in the Hawke-Smith interim report gives an idea of how far this process has run and how much more is yet to be done.

Comparisons with Tange and Dibb also reveal the great difference today. 

Since Vietnam, one of the great tensions in Australian defence policy has been between the demands of the alliance and requirements for self-reliance. The tension between what Australia needs for itself and what it wants from the US plays out in many ways, producing almost constant push, pull and shuffle.

For instance, the self-reliant-defence-of-Australia stance of the Dibb Review – both in language and detail – so spooked the Americans that Kim Beazley felt the need to inject a lot of alliance-loving declarations into the White Paper the following year. And so it has gone, back and forth for four decades, ever since the last US helicopter lifted off from Saigon. 

The difference today is the emerging convergence between the US and Australia on both philosophy and needs. The Australian Posture Review even mimics the name of the US Posture Review. Washington and Canberra seem to have come to a lot of similar views on China, Southeast Asia, and even the suitability of northern Australia as a place for the US military to spend a lot of time. The US is getting out of two wars and pivoting, turning its eyes to the same place that Australia is staring. 

The Hawke-Smith process will do more than set the scene for the next White Paper. A fascinating element – call it, perhaps, the underlying dynamic — will be how much the Review plays into a greater convergence with a revised US approach to the region. Our Posture Review meets their Posture Review and both sides adjust their posture.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

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