Australian Defence Policy in Flux: The Perspective of Brendan Sargeant


By Robbin Laird

The strategic shift from the land wars in the Middle East to the challenges of facing the 21st century authoritarian powers has recast the defense challenges facing the liberal democracies.

Direct defense has returned as the core challenge facing the European states, even while the EU is in crises and the question of how to defend Europe with the forces that exist is an open question.

Australia has had growing impact on European defense through its deployment of integrated capabilities into the fight in the Middle East, and its growing relationships with a number of key states in Europe as well.

This means that any rethink by Australia has an impact beyond the Pacific back into Europe itself.

This certainly can be seen in Canada and the UK where a common frigate is being worked, one in which Canada and Australia are overwhelmingly the major players, and will certainly shape what that frigate ends up deploying in terms of its combat systems as well as other aspects.

The new build submarine in France is also about a dynamic interaction and reshaping between Australian and French industries with the French reintroducing emphasis on the Chinese challenge along with dealing with any reset of defense policy in Europe itself.

And as Australia considers how best to prepare for the crises facing it in the Pacific region, there is a growing recognition of the force evolution which they are working requires integration of their own force to be able to exercise sovereign options as well as close integration of that force evolution with the United States and Japan as the primary allies in the region.

In effect, the working relationship among the militaries of the liberal democracies have become the eco-skeleton for how those states can work together in practical terms during a crisis.

But what remains is the major question of how the diverse states of the “West” will work together diplomatically and politically in a crisis.

The strategic shift from the land wars to full spectrum crisis management is a significant one requiring major shifts in how states will operate independently and collectivley.

At the recent Williams Foundation seminar dealing with the strategic shift, one of the most experienced Australian defense policy makers look at the nature of that shift in his presentation at the seminar.

Professor Brendan Sargeant provided his thoughts in his contribution entitled, “Australian Defence Policy in Flux,’ and given that Australia is soon to face a major rewrite of its defense policy with a new government coming to power, the issues presented by Sargeant are hardly only of academic interest.

His presentation follows.

The topic – Australian Defence Policy in Flux – is a large topic, which can be approached from many different perspectives.

The approach I want to take is to discuss the three recent White Papers (2009, 2013 and 2016) and how they have embodied a response to changes in the world. I want to put forward some propositions about what they mean when looked at in the perspective of the last twenty years and the changes we have seen in the world, and what they might say about the future

The Nature of Defence Policy

But first some thoughts about policy. The defence policy challenge for Australia is relatively enduring, and the tensions that policymakers seek to deal with are stable over time. Some of these tensions, or perhaps a better description is the poles that shape policy choices, include:

Our strategic ambition, which is large, against the limits of our capacity.

We need to and want to be able to operate autonomously, particularly in our near region, but the alliance with United States exerts tremendous gravitational pull on policy and has an enormous shaping influence that flows into the force structure.

Another tension is in how much power we want to create for ourselves against the limits of our size.

How much focus should we give to any region, as opposed to deployments and operations that are more distant.

Related to this is how much we want to invest for strike and deterrence against other capabilities that might have more immediate utility.

Most policy debates revolve around these and some other fundamental questions. If you consider defence policy over a long period of time, there is a great deal of continuity in the arguments and debates, and often these arguments, always resolved provisionally, express that resolution in differences of emphasis. Internal stakeholders tend to magnify difference for reasons of institutional and political imperative.

Yet, from the perspective of time and distance, I think it is fair to say that we are going through a period of major change in our strategic environment and that policy responses, as expressed in both official documents and decisions governments have made, including the allocation of resources, show that we are and have been for the last two decades in a period of uncertainty about the direction of defence policy and the nature of the choices before us.

The Strategic Order is Changing

I believe that there is now a broad consensus in the policy and academic community that we are going through a fundamental period of change in the world, and that the strategic order in which we have lived and prospered for the last 70 years is now in question and changing.

My view is that we are in a new world, but we don’t yet understand what that world is. Another way of putting it, is that we are at the beginning of the birth of a new strategic order across the Indo Pacific. There is much debate about what this means, and no agreement about the future. And I don’t think we’re going to get clarity anytime soon,  so we can expect to live with uncertainty for some time to come.

The focus of much discussion is on China, because of the spectacular growth in the Chinese economy and the extraordinary changes we are seeing within that country. China’s posture to the world has changed. At the centre has been the pursuit of the Belt and Road strategy, which is emerging as a geostrategic intervention in the global system, as well as a geo-economic initiative. Activities such as island building in the South China Sea, including the militarisation of the islands has called into question China’s strategic goals and whether they are as benign as Chinese government statements suggest.

It is clear that neither China nor the US are now status quo powers. Both seek change in the strategic order and, in different ways, want to reset it. But we are also seeing extraordinary economic growth in other countries – India and the ASEAN countries, and Japan remains economically and militarily powerful. The United States also continues to be an economic powerhouse across the Indo Pacific.

These changes have been gathering pace, and what I have noticed is that the conversation in the last eighteen months has changed. Even if some discussion is about preservation of past patterns of policy and frameworks, and if the level of change has not yet entered the public political discourse in proportion to what is going on, I think there is broad agreement in academic and policy communities that we are in a new world.

As time passes, I think it is increasing apparent that we have been in a new world for some time.

Within institutions and government, the discussion on policy and strategy is usually focused on specific decisions and on budgets. So, to really understand a government’s policy, one must not only to look at declaratory statements, such as white papers, but also the cumulative impact of decisions over time. I think it is now possible to discern a broad pattern over the last 20 years and to draw some preliminary conclusions, which I propose to do in remainder of this discussion. I want to do this through the lens of the three white papers I mentioned above.

The Strategic Challenge for Policy

My broad proposition is that the story of defence policy over the last two decades has been a slow coming to terms with the limits of our power. Reflecting on the major documents and decisions, I would argue that there is a thread of anxiety that pulls through all of them. This anxiety might be expressed in the question:

Are we capable of marshaling and deploying defence resources sufficient to deal with the challenges of the Indo Pacific strategic environment?

So, what do the White Papers say?

The Nature of White Papers

First, the word about white papers. Every white paper tells the story of this moment, even as it tries to set direction for the future. White papers are collective efforts, and even though there may be a single presiding author, they contain many voices and many ideas.

They try to impose a narrative on events, but events have a way of evading this.

They function as high level policy documents and are important for setting strategic direction for Defence as a whole, but they do not resolve every argument, nor do they provide definitive clarity on the many micro choices involved in developing and implementing Defence policies.

It is important to recognise that they are provisional documents, and to some extent they are out of date as soon as they are printed.

However, that said, they also represent part of a conversation over time. This conversation is about the nature of Australia’s strategic environment, how it is changing, and how the risk that accrues as a result of this change might be mitigated. So, when reading white papers, it is important to see them within a longer continuum of thought and activity around defence policy and strategy, and understand that their significance will change as the future changes our understanding of the present.

2009 White Paper

In many ways the 2009 White Paper was a landmark document. Reading it now, one is struck by its ambitions and the multitude of policy directions that is laid down. Its ambition means that at some point it laboured to reconcile many of the tensions within it and of which are a feature of the Australian conversation about defence policy. It brings a refreshing focus to the near region, but it also places the alliance at the centre of defence and strategic policy.

There was some debate when it came out as to what it was saying about our strategic environment. Some commentators identified the paper as a document directed against China. It certainly can sustain this interpretation, though this is not necessarily how some of those who developed the document see it.

Its most important contribution was that it laid down the architecture and the program for a wholesale rebuild and renovation of the ADF.

At the time, we had absorbed the lessons of Timor and we had experienced the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we wanted to develop a force structure that strengthened our combat capability, and mobility, and our ability to operate with our Alliance partner at the high end. The White Paper’s most important achievement was to recognise that the world of 2030 – the world we needed Force 2030 for  – was going to be very different to the world of 2009, and it recognised that the force structure and capability underpinning the ADF had to embody a step change. So, my reading is that the underlying strategy was to hedge against future uncertainty by building capability through a significant investment in the development of ADF capability. This idea has lasted, while many other elements of the White Paper can be disputed or have suffered the ravages of time and experience.

The problem with the 2009 White Paper was that it was developed just as a global financial crisis was being dealt with by the government, and subsequent years demonstrated that the policy aspirations embodied in the vision of the future force were not sustainable within the parameters of the government’s fiscal policy.

The 2013 White Paper

The 2013 White Paper was developed by the government to try and close the gap between policy aspirations and budgetary reality. It did this by adjusting the level resources that might be devoted to developing the force structure, which meant in practical terms and parts of the investment program scheduled in the 2009 White Paper would slip. But importantly, it preserved the design of the force.

It was also more focused on our immediate regions as the area of priority for Australia in establishing force structure priorities. It was very much a document that sought to close the gap between policy aspiration and budget.

However, it did have one very important policy achievement, which was to express the idea of the Indo Pacific as a framework for thinking about our strategic environment and understanding how policy might respond to that environment. It was a first time that the idea of the Indo Pacific was expressed in an Australian defence document. There are, of course, many Indo Pacific’s, but what the White Paper was trying to do this was return Australian strategic policy to a much older conception of our national interests, which was to focus on the archipelago to our north. It argued that this was where our interests are most directly engaged. By implication, the most significant strategic relationship for Australia remained with Indonesia.

The other big idea was it Indo Pacific was a community of nations, and notwithstanding the economic growth of China, it was important to recognise that there were other major countries; an alternative’s future might be the establishment of a sense of shared community of interest, rather than a world dominated by one power or bifurcated between two. In this respect, the White Paper’s argument was that the single biggest strategic challenge for Australia was the establishment of a regional or Indo Pacific architecture that enabled countries to understand and  respond effectively to the problems that would emerge in the future.

The 2016 White Paper

The 2016 White Paper was an important document because it restored the underlying funding framework that the 2009 White Paper envisaged but was never able to sustain. The underlying vision of the force that was evident in 2009 was reinvigorated in the 2016 White Paper and a funded investment program was established. This was an important achievement.

The 2016 White Paper also recognised that Defence was more than the ADF, but also included the broader Defence system. We saw a much more sophisticated recognition of the importance of enablers (what Nick Warner in a landmark speech when he was Secretary had called the broken backbone of Defence). It put renewed emphasis on defence industry, particularly with the recognition that industry is an element of capability.

At the heart of this White Paper was a recognition that we needed to rebuild the Australian Navy, so the shipbuilding agenda, which we are all now grappling with, was born in that document.

But it also had two other very interesting features. One was that it removed the prioritisation framework for the development of the force structure that had been evident in the 2013 and 2009 papers, and in preceding papers such as the one in 2000, 1994 and most importantly, the one in 1987. It was a significant break with the past. This is perhaps the most controversial element of the paper.

But perhaps the most interesting element of the 2016 document was that it gave enormous priority to the maintenance of the Rules Based Order, a theme that also occurs in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. The 2016 Defence White Paper has many achievements, but its focus on the Rules Based Order is now starting to look a bit wistful.

Different Strategies for the Same Large Challenge

When we look at this conversation over time, we can see one common thread. We are trying to think through the strategic challenge of an Indo Pacific that is undergoing enormous change. We are seeing what I would describe as provisional response to a number of tectonic shifts – the emergence of China as a pre-eminent regional power and potentially a global power; and the emergence of thinking that suggests that though the United States may not leave the region (as some of the more apocalyptic analysis suggests), the terms of its engagement and therefore its alliance and partnership arrangements are likely to change. At minimum, allies and partners will be required to do more to secure their own defence.

In these white papers, we therefore have three different strategies responding to a single problem.

What they have in common is that they recognise the need for a larger, more capable ADF and supporting defence system. Capability building has been the golden thread that links the work of the last twenty years. But it has been capability building as a hedge against uncertainty.

I think that it’s now time to ask the question whether building capability is sufficient as a defence policy response to the future.

The development of capability is important, perhaps the most important element of defence policy, but also important is understanding how they capabilities might need to be used in the future. How should we shape the force to respond to future crises? How we think about that question will in part determine how we want to evolve capabilities, and how powerful and sustainable we will want the force to be. Have we thought sufficiently about how we might need to use defence capability in the future, and are we building for that day or days?

When I look at the three white papers, and I stand back and reflect on what they are saying, my sense is that they are are not sure (which means that we are not sure) of how the world is going to evolve or of Australia’s place in it. We manage this risk by building defence capability that allows us to hedge against the future while we wait for the future to tell us what it is going to be. The significant changes we have seen in our strategic environment in the last few years suggests that this is an insufficient response.

The Defence Policy Challenge for the Future

I would frame the defence policy challenge for the future as thus:

How do we maximise our national power through the ADF? Or, how do we ensure that the ADF can support our capacity as a country to sustain our strategic space?

This question is not primarily of how much capability we might have in the existing and prospective force structure. It is also a question of the direction in which we want to develop that latent capability on the basis of how we might want or need to use it in the future. To be blunt: for example, how are we going to use the joint strike fighter  and Growler strategically to maximise our strategic space? How will we use our new maritime capabilities to secure and advance our strategic position in an increasingly crowded Indo Pacific?

Defence policy will continue to be in flux. We need a larger conversation not only about how the world might change and how the strategic order might evolve, but the role of Defence in helping Australia manage its response to a changing strategic order, and of the circumstances in which we might want to use the force in the future.

Some Final Observations

I am currently working my way through the official history of the Internet Operation in East Timor as part of the process of declassifying the book before it is published. It has led me to reflect on many things. There are some big lessons.

One is that we don’t know what crises might emerge in the future, and responding to them always brings major risk, both to capability and to operational capacity.

The second is that we need to be prepared to lead when there is a crisis. Leadership means understanding not only the capability of the force, but also how it might be used strategically to shape the broader environment within which the crisis occurs and is resolved through operational interventions.

Additional Observations About the Way Ahead

In comments on the Sargeant presentation, one observer added the following:

I see the 1994 Defence White Paper and the ‘here and now’ realities of our strategic environment in 2019 as two book ends of a 25 year story.  This 25 year story bears out your framework.  From 1994 to 2009 the strategic assessments were sound and the capability plans were sound, but until 2009 we didn’t really contemplate using the ADF or other Defence capabilities in a major contingency for most of this period; and that’s not to down-play our role in the Middle East and Central Asia since the early 2000s.
The 2009 DWP didn’t anticipate the pace of Chinese military modernisation. Did anyone?

We now need to contemplate force being against us and Australia using serious force in response. That’s your key point I believe.

Looking back, the 1994 DWP, 1997 review of Australia’s Strategic Policy and the 2000 DWP were in my view quite strong on capability. The chapter on capability in the 1994 DWP continues the narrative that was developed in the Dibb Review and 1987 DWP. It’s still respectable 25 years later as an overview of the essentials of the force structure; the debate now is around self-protection and lethality of our systems – maritime (air and sea), undersea, on land. And now I’m space and cyberspace.

The Defence Capability Plan that was developed in support of the 2000 DWP was the intellectual and actual start point for the 2008 FSR that supported the 2009 DWP, notwithstanding the iterations the DCP went through in the mid-2000s.

The 1994 DWP says ‘Our strategic circumstances at present are not threatening, but they are likely to become more demanding over the next fifteen years.’

Interestingly it says ‘Australia’s strategic stance is, in the broadest possible sense, defensive. We will not use armed force except to defend our national interests, and we do not envisage resorting to armed force other than in response to the threat of force by others. We have no disputes with other countries which might be expected to give rise to the use of force, and no reason to expect that disputes of that sort will develop.’

Those words were written 25 years ago. In the minds of the writers (good FDA types), there was the sense that the substantial threat of force against us or our interests was a remote prospect in the 15 year horizon. Compare that sense with what the next 25 years may look like.

The 1994 DWP also says ‘We recognise that at some time in the future armed force could be used against us and that we need to be prepared to meet it.’ Again though the sense us that this contingency is a distant prospect.

The 1997 review ‘Australia’s Strategic Policy’ is worth a look. It is good on North Asian evolving dynamics. Ínter alía it says ‘China is already the most important factor for change in the regional strategic environment.’ It adds     further on that ‘This expansion of China’s military capabilities does not constitute a threat to Australia or to the security of the region as a whole.’

The 2000 DWP was strong on capability. It assumed globalisation and continued US primacy as the two key trends that would shape our strategic environment. In 2019 we would have different words about both.

The 2009 DWP was the first to seriously contemplate upping our strategic weight, especially through the force structure. It also contemplated serious use of force against us.

The 2008 FSR was the start point for the work done on the FSR in the 2016 DWP. In effect the 2016 FSR built on the 2008 foundations but sought to redouble efforts to fund enabling capabilities.

Government did not have the appetite for a force structure review in 2013 but as you say the utility of that DWP was around the Indo-Pacific construct.

We have spent 2 decades iteratively building a force to meet our broad capability needs, but apart from the well-established and successful practice of niche contributions to coalition operations we have not really had the need for a serious discussion about how we might use those capabilities in a higher-end, contested conflict in the Indo-Pacific.

Editor’s Note: The strategic shift started for the liberal democracies with the 2014 Russian actions.

In the featured photo, Assistant Australian Federal Police (AFP) commissioner Michael Outrim (L) is seen showing then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (2-L) an aerial view of the MH17 crash site during a visit to the Coordination Centre at the AFP headquarters in Canberra, Australia, 25 July 2014. Photo by Alan Porritt/EPA

In a recent interview with the former head of the Australian Defence Force, who took over as chief of the ADF, during this crisis, the beginning of the strategic shift was highlighted.

In effect, the events of 2014 have proven to be the launch point for the next phase of ADF development and enhanced recognition of its role in the defense of Australian sovereignty.

Air Marshal (Retired) Mark Binsken looked back at 2014 and the beginning of the reset.

“The government wanted to make national statement about the emerging threats and our ability, as a Nation, to respond.

“The ADF was at the forefront of that strategy.

“In addition, we had significant regional humanitarian operations to conduct in that timeframe as well.

“The ADF showed a lot of agility in being able to conduct operations globally, but we always did this in a whole of government approach in partnership with Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian intelligence organizations and the Australian Federal Police.

1914 and 2014: Two Key Strategic Turning Points