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A larger Australian Defence Force? Reflections on the Boyer Lectures

A larger Australian Defence Force? Reflections on the Boyer Lectures
Published 9 Dec 2015   Follow @graham_euan

This is the third in a series of posts marking the launch  of A Larger Australia, the book of the 2015 Boyer Lectures, by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove.

In his final Boyer Lecture 'The Birthplace of the Fortunate', Michael Fullilove advocates for a more capable and muscular Australian Defence Force (ADF). What could this look like and how likely is it?

He asserts upfront that the foreign policy debate in Australia is too important to be left to the foreign policy establishment. It strikes me the same could be said of defence, where the expert discourse is over-personalised, and the political debate is strategically under-informed and easily swayed by special interests, above all the defence industry. Michael's contribution is therefore timely and welcome. 

Fullilove argues that we need to beef up the ADF to 'better enable us to protect our territory and our citizens', as a hedge against the strategic shocks outlined in 'Present at the Destruction'. A more capable ADF would improve Australia's security by deterring potential adversaries, but also earn us influence 'in the minds of friends and allies'. 

Deterrence, of course, is a narrowly defined kind of influence. But, to me, the internationalist emphasis that runs through the 2015 Boyer Lectures primarily suggests an enhanced set of military capabilities in service of Australia's values and interests on the world stage. Fullilove posits that because Australia is a beneficiary of the liberal international order, we should be prepared to 'serve in its bodyguard.' A proponent of ANZUS, he sees a more capable defence force contributing to Canberra's credibility with Washington, but also building influence with partners in the region. 

This is not a treatise for armed neutrality or 'fortress Australia' ensconced behind its sea-air moat. Fullilove equates that with being 'a little nation, anxious about the world and disposed to erect barriers against it'. We should not forget either that it would cost much more than 2% of GDP to create a truly independent defence force. [fold]

It follows that a generous slice of the enhanced defence resources that Michael argues for would be directed towards 'engagement' and mobility. Recent acquisitions have already delivered a major boost to sea-and airlift capabilities, which, in conjunction with the Army's embrace of the amphibious force concept, point to an expeditionary orientation for the ADF. Expeditionary, with its imperial connotations, is a loaded term but preferable to 'power projection', capturing a broader spectrum of defence contingencies from stabilisation and humanitarian mission to coalition operations. I believe that regional countries will wear this augmentation of the ADF's deployability without too much angst. Some may welcome it.

Against more capable adversaries (ie China), the key platform in the ADF's future inventory for supplying a heftier, solo punch is likely to be the replacement to the Collins submarine. This is where the divide between engagement and deterrence is keenest, since the submarine's bottom-line purpose is to be an autonomous, stealthy strike platform, much less useful for naval diplomacy than, say, a frigate. Even with a rising budget, the ADF faces trade-offs between deterrence and engagement, given the stratospheric price tag of submarines and other strike assets like the F-35.

Fullilove is not specific about the military means, ie force structure, required to achieve a 'larger Australia'. He concentrates on the political commitment to increase funding for defence, supporting the Coalition's declared aim of boosting defence expenditure to the equivalent of 2% of GDP within a decade. Setting defence spending as a percentage of GDP has widespread appeal because it appears to signal strategic commitment proportional to the funding base. As with overseas aid, the downside to such targets is that they risk becoming ends in themselves, disconnected from any supporting strategic rationale. In practice, even large government departments like Defence struggle to acquit windfall budgets.

Defence has emerged from the First Principles Review and, after a delay necessitated by September's leadership spill and ministerial reshuffle, the Turnbull Government looks set to finalise the defence White Paper (DWP) for release in 2016. Well before Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, the Coalition said it would not repeat the mistake of past DWPs by issuing a document long on strategic ambition but bereft of funding commitments. This time, the White Paper is supposed to be fully costed and will be followed by a 10-year defence capability plan and defence industry policy statement to provide 'greater certainty about the Government's key priorities and timeframes'. 

That could be counted as progress towards the 'properly resourced' defence policy that Michael argues for, although the continuing political commitment to concentrate warship and submarine building in Australia is likely to exact a costly premium based on past experience. However, the willingness of the Turnbull Government to commit to the 2% of GDP defence-spending target, in face of an uncertain fiscal and growth climate, is open to question. 

We will have a better sense whether the Government shares Fullilove's ambition for an up-scaled ADF when the DWP is released. But Turnbull's inclination to use the military, as a tool of policy (or politics), appears cooler than his predecessor. Turnbull has not reversed Abbot's commitment to bombing ISIS targets in Syria. But his administration opposes ADF 'boots on the ground'. Unless a new crisis erupts in Australia's region or our GDP falls precipitously, the 2%GDP goal could prove elusive. 

Michael Fullilove asserts:

'Our voice will only command weight and authority if we accompany it with action. That means working with the US and like-minded countries to support the rule of law and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the region, and to discourage coercion and intimidation.'

This proposition is now being stress-tested in the South China Sea, where Canberra has so far largely restricted itself to verbal support for the US.

The ADF will no doubt continue to be deployed in niche coalition and peacekeeping roles globally. However, the regional stage is the defining one for our future. For that, the ADF needs to be resourced sufficiently to maintain conventional deterrence and high-end war-fighting skills to operate alongside the bigger players, but not so concentrated that this comes at the cost of presence and engagement across Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

If that means larger, so be it.

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