An Australian Perspective on the Way Ahead for a Pacific Strategy


2012-09-06 In a wide-ranging discussion with Air Vice-Marshal (Ret.) John Blackburn, now the Chairman of the influential Australian think tank, the Kokoda Foundation, the key challenges and contributions, which Australia can bring to an evolving Pacific challenge, were highlighted.

John Blackburn Biography

A key opportunity for getting it right is rooted in getting past platform-centric acquisition and working various platforms – new and old – into a synergistic whole. 

And this is especially important for Australia in intersecting with the United States in shaping convergent capability in the Western Pacific and beyond.  The F-35 is certainly a core element of shaping convergent synergy and in shaping a way ahead.

Question: What is the current state of play in Australia with regard to the ambitious and clear-cut 2009 defense plan?


Blackburn:  It is just that: a defense plan.  Unfortunately, it has not been fully funded.

With the scale of deferral of funding and the reductions announced in the 2012 defense budget, Australians are now spending a smaller percentage of our GDP on defense that at any time in past 20 years.  Having said that, we are still spending considerable sums on defense in comparison to our regional neighbors, but not enough to implement the ambitious 2009 plan.

While the deferrals and budget reductions have been met with considerable angst by defense commentators, I do not think there is not enough appreciation among Australians of what this means for our ability to conduct defense operations in the future or the impact on our ability to operate with the United States in regional and global operations.

Question: Let us go back to the 2009 Defense White Paper.  What was envisaged?

Blackburn:  Nothing less than a significant augmentation of our ability to play a significant role in our own and in regional and global defense operations in partnership with our allies, primarily the United States.

A number of core capabilities were envisaged to grow, such as from 6 to 12 submarines, new air warfare destroyers, helicopter amphibious ships, 24 naval helicopters and up to 100 JSFs.  In all there were 180 projects envisaged in the 2009 Defense White Paper to build up our capabilities.

But almost immediately, investment in new capabilities was deferred and in the past few years the projected growth in budgets was not delivered.   For example, the Defense budget for this year will cut the budget in real terms by 10.5% with some $5.5 billion in spending to be cut over the next four years.


What this means is that it is physically impossible to build the capabilities envisaged in the 2009 white paper.  

Despite that, the Government recently announced that the tasks in that white paper remain valid.   We seem to have a disconnect between our ambitions and our resources.

Question: From an American point of view, Australia is really a key ally in shaping the kind of Pacific strategy which the U.S. could build interactively with allies in the decades ahead.

How might Australia sort out its public discussion to get focus on a proper convergence, synergy or interactive strategy?

Australia has put together an ambitious plan for modernization, but needs to fund it. It is also important to get the US on board with shaping a networked or honeycombed strategy for the Pacific that plugs into and works with an evolving Australian strategy. Credit Image: Bigstock 

Blackburn:  We have not had a comprehensive public discussion of what our defense forces should be capable of and how we envisage they will fight.   In other words we haven’t described what we actually want our defense forces to do and how they will do it.

Consequently, we focus on buying platforms and not how we can achieve the best fighting system within the available resources. 

We need to explain how we will operate in the future complex security environment and what kind of architecture, systems and platforms will be necessary to operate in what you call the honeycombed grid.

The model you describe is even more essential for defense forces faced with decreasing budgets – we have to maximize the fighting capability of our forces by networking them in the grid.   

A good example of the problem of not explaining how we will operate and what we want to achieve is the acquisition of our new amphibious ships. We have purchased two Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ships without clearly defining what we will use them for, how we will fight them and how we will integrate the relevant capabilities of our three Services, the Navy, Army and Air Force to operate in an amphibious mission.

If you don’t have that discussion, you end up buying a couple of big ships, and then finding out there’s a range of capabilities that still need to be acquired to deliver an integrated amphibious force.  That’s a risky approach to building joint capability.

Another challenge we have results from buying only two of these ships. Some commentators have since suggested putting F-35Bs on the LHDs.  However, if we did that we would not room to fit the full complement of Army force elements on the LHDs … the whole reason we bought the ships.  So, air support of our amphibious forces will need to be land based with all the associated logistics challenges that result.

Question: I know that the Aussies have discussed with the French how the French used the Tigers aboard the Mistral off of the Libyan coast, and the Aussies have Tigers in the force.  Also, the Aussies are working with the USMC to sort out ways to think about operating the new ship.

Blackburn:  All true, but the buying of platforms in isolation is clearly a problem that limits the kind of synergy and integration that should be possible.  The Tigers we bought have proprietary data links and cannot link directly with other air systems such as the F/A-18s.

They operate through a proprietary ground base station.  The proprietary link is a significant impediment to integrated air operations and shared situational awareness.

I think we bought a platform without understanding the operational system with which it had to integrate.

Question: How might one generate an appreciation for how to drive synergy, beyond the obvious challenge of putting more dollars into the defense budget?

Blackburn:  You have written that no platform fights alone.  That is an essential key to get through to the wider public audience and to our political leaders.

Buying the F-35 is a crucial piece of the puzzle, but understanding that the aircraft is an enabler of the network or the honeycomb is essential to shaping the total design of our Defense Forces. 

We need to help people understand that an effective force is not the platforms by themselves, but the effectiveness of the platforms as a part of a larger networked or “honeycombed” force. Such a force will not be just Australian or American – it will be an alliance force enable by a common grid framework … if we design it as such.

Question: And budgetary stringency further reduces innovation by not getting folks to think out of the box about synergy and convergence of systems.  Has this affected a system like the new A330 tanker, which has the potential to be a ISR asset?

Blackburn: It think it has.  Imagine how the Air Force tanker could set up a network with every other platform flying leverage that network?  Our focus has been upon getting the basic platform, not on how to use it beyond the role of a tanker.

The lack of conceptual thinking and joint experimentation in this space is a force limiter.  

The reality is that to move forward in building a 21st century force, we need to shape a network enabled or synergy capable force regardless of the level of defense funding.

While the Australian Defense Force has a Network Centric focus, the current budget pressures and the challenges of dealing with uncertain future funding levels results in a near term focus at the expense of the longer term force effectiveness.  

We have a great team in our Defence Department and I am confident that given the opportunity they will develop and deliver the fighting force we need.   Informing the wider public audience and our political leaders of the complexity of our future operating environments is a key step in convincing them to give our forces the opportunity they need to deliver.

For an article which examines the participation of Australia in the F-35 program please go to the following:

And for our piece in the Joint Forces Quarterly which looks at the overall approach to the F-35 interacting across the global fleet in enhancing power projection see the following: