One of the early tasks of the new defence minister, Senator Marise Payne, is apparently to complete the long-delayed new Defence White Paper. This is considered so important that the outgoing defence minister, Kevin Andrews, pleaded to stay to ensure its release. The delays, however, suggest that maybe we don't actually need a new white paper. There have been many big decisions made already that will shape the Australian Defence Force for the next couple of decades. What can a new Defence White Paper add?
The latest budget papers have set out how the promised 2% of GDP funding target will be met. The Air Force's future force structure has mostly been finalised with decisions on buying Joint Strike Fighters, P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft and Global Hawk surveillance drones. The Navy's future fleet seems set with new tankers, patrol boats, an aviation support ship, a continuous ship-build approach, eight new super-frigates and eight big submarines. Meanwhile, the Army's flagship Land Combat Vehicle System project is well advanced. And with the First Principles Review now released and being implemented, nor can the Defence White Paper say much about making the Department more efficient.
So a new Defence White Paper seems redundant, except as a compiled list of the Abbott Government's announcements. But maybe the missing element in all this is strategy.
A word search for 'strategy' in the 2014 Defence Issues Paper, a public consultation document to inform the Defence White Paper, finds the word only four times in the 65-page document. But that was the Abbott Government, not the Turnbull Government. The Abbott Defence White Paper seemed to be going the way of many of its predecessors in taking a risk management approach, not a strategy-led approach. Risk management involves being ready to respond to events, whereas strategy tries to shape the future. The Turnbull Government seems more interested in the latter, with the new PM declaring 'We will be a government for the future'.
The Abbott Government initially treated defence as somehow separate and remote to other matters. The warship-building and new submarine sagas changed this. The Abbott Government eventually determined that these big, costly decisions could not be made independent of other issues. Defence was a whole-of-nation matter, not just a narrow, single department concern.
The Turnbull Government might be well placed to learn from this politically costly experience. PM Turnbull has stressed the growing importance of science, innovation, and new technology while recognising that a sound economy underpins all. The traditional risk management approach ignores such issues with a narrow focus on acquisition. But a strategy-led approach can integrate these various aspects into a coherent whole.
Defence can have a multiplier effect across industry, science, innovation, and the economy, if properly focused. Some will argue that defence money should mainly be spent offshore (in Dallas, not Sydney) to get the most bang for the buck. Australian money should fund American science, innovation, and new technology, not be wasted in Australia. This somewhat narrow procurement argument neglects the fact that defence capabilities are much more then just hardware. The equipment needs to be funded by all Australians, crewed and maintained by skilled people and continuously upgraded to stay at the military leading edge. And all across several decades.
Adopting a simple 'spend and forget' approach has real shortcomings. A sound, long-term, sustainable defence posture both nation-builds and is built by the nation. It is a two-way street where a well-founded strategy optimises the traffic flow.
A new Defence White Paper would be useful if it sets out a comprehensive whole-of-nation defence strategy but if not, it seems unnecessary. Senator Payne's time, and that of her department, might be better spent elsewhere.