By Robbin Laird
During my current trip to Australia in support of the Williams Foundation 27 September 2023, I had a chance to talk with my colleague Dr. Andrew Carr of Australian National University. He is a regular interlocutor for me on strategic issues affecting Australia and the broader alliance.
With the main issue in Australia being the impact of the DSR on shaping a way ahead, Dr. Carr argued that underlying the DSR and the shift to deal with the China threat, there was a process change underlying thinking about the way ahead for Australian defence.
He argued that the basic approach of higher-level defence thinking in Australia since the 1970s has been very pragmatic and assessing change and adjusting Australian engagement in response to the particular crisis or event. Government’s commissioned Defence White Papers if and when needed, and the link between strategy and force structure has not always been well-maintained. Instead, the focus has been on correlating what Australian capabilities are available with crafting a response package to today’s events.
This has allowed Australia to be flexible and to think about if not through events and how to protect Australian interests. But now with a clear focus on the region and a direct threat to Australia in the form of the Chinese along with the broader association of 21st century authoritarian powers, this is no longer adequate.
What now does Australia do to defend itself and protect itself in its own region?
How does it work with and manage allies?
How does Australia manage threats and work through how the broader society deals with the comprehensive Chinese challenge?
Dr. Carr argued that the defence processes are having to become more scenario focused and threat focused.
How does Australia built relevant forces in light of core scenarios of the threats and crises to be anticipated?
Australia cannot do everything. What will the government pare down and focus upon within the defence force?
And how will this thinking correlate with broader considerations for security and economic development of Australia?
In other words, because Australia is facing enduring challenges, Dr. Carr asks: “Does the past practices of pragmatism and ad hoc strategic planning, such as irregular Defence White papers’ still make sense?”
Such a shift poses three major challenges.
The first is within the defence establishment. Carr underscored that today’s ADF has been built around a balanced force structure approach and sharing of resources. A threat based or scenario-based approach will prioritize some forces compared to others.
How will defence adjust to a culture of a threat-based force?
The second challenge faces the political class. A threat-based focus will require a discipline in the political class to manage defence in a way it really did not need to do in the age of pragmatic responses. We show up to a crisis and convince ourselves, our allies and, hopefully, our adversaries that we are contributing meaningfully to the crisis. And then we go home.
But now home is precisely the center of the defence challenge.
How to avoid the infamous ‘tyranny of dissonance’ as Michael Evans put it, where defence plans said one thing, but our political class often asked the ADF to do something else?
And the third challenge is to strategic thinking.
How do we build an effective strategy for a world in profound change and in many ways chaos? Strategy has been shaped since the 1990s around the end of the Soviet era, global terrorism and wars of choice and the hidden hand of supporting a “rules-based order.”
But in the context of profound change within the allied world, the growing impact of authoritarian powers and the end of the globalization of the past thirty years, what is our strategy?
As Carr warned: “We’re locking in now to a process that is making bets about what the future will look like, so that we can shape policy in an orderly way. Will such an approach deliver real benefits in coherence and focus tomorrow, and will these offset the inevitable costs to our ability to adapt and innovate in response to what’s happening today?”
My own sense is that we are in era of profound change, different from the three historical eras I have already lived through. We need to consider the nature of that era rather than simply go on auto-pilot from the past twenty hears, or think that our war games really capture in any way the nature of the new historical era.