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What is 'Forward defence' these days?

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21 July 2010 08:41

Dr Stephan Frühling is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

Soldier X makes very good points about a lack of leadership by governments from both sides of the aisle, who committed Australian forces to US-led operations in the Middle East without properly articulating a clear narrative and strategic rationale. I agree with almost all of his argument and would like to commend him for his courage in contributing to the debate. 

That said, I take issue with the suggestion that Australia's engagement in Afghanistan is part of a strategy of 'forward defence'. 

It is an unfortunate characteristic of the wider Australian defence debate that any Australian participation in larger allied operations is often classified as 'forward defence'. Certainly, such operations form the overwhelming part of Australian military history and culture, from the very early beginnings in the Boer War over the two World Wars, to Korea, Konfrontasi and Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan. What is often forgotten, however, is that the strategic rationale for these operations falls into two very distinct categories that ultimately endure to this day.

The first and oldest category are those operations that saw Australia contribute to conflicts anywhere on the globe where the British Empire as a whole, the UK and later the US were militarily engaged. This was essentially the sole mode of Australian military operations until 1941. It was based on the strategic rationale that Australian assistance would secure goodwill in case of threats closer to home, and that Australia's security ultimately depended on its allies' global military predominance, which Australia would support wherever that predominance was under threat.

The concept of 'forward defence', however, is distinct and arose out of the failure of this earlier strategy in 1941. 'Forward defence' operations and planning focused on Australia's own region, and specifically on the main approaches to maritime South East Asia, especially the Malay peninsula.

Again, Australia would support its allies in operations (eg. in the Malay emergency, Konfrontasi or SEATO operations in Thailand) but it would do so because these operations had a direct benefit to the security of Australia itself. 

Now declassified guidance documents from the late 1940s onwards make quite clear that Australian governments were consistently willing to engage (if necessary, with much larger forces than were actually deployed) should threats to Australia's vital interests make this necessary. (Interestingly, and despite its prominence in Australian military history, the strategic rationale for Australia's contribution to the Vietnam War was much more akin to the earlier, global support to Australia's allies.)

'Forward defence' as a strategy could not continue after the end of the direct UK and US military presence in the region in the early 1970s. It is an intriguing thought whether, as the Asia-Pacific strategic environment becomes more fluid, they may re-appear in a new form. 

Comments in the 2000 and 2009 Defence White Papers regarding high-intensity operations to support the security of maritime South East Asia carry many connotations of the 'forward defence' concept of old, although the role of major allies is much less central than it once was. 

But should we ever see a true 'forward defence' operation, in support of direct vital Australian strategic interests and with a commensurate military effort not seen in this country in the past 60 years, it would be very different from the global coalition contributions that we have seen in the Middle East in recent years — not least since it would require the ADF to operate jointly and provide the main strategic weight of a regional coalition.

Photo by Flickr user jamestee, used under a Creative Commons license.

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