Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 12:02 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 12:02 | SYDNEY

Defence policy: Tailored for uncertainty

23 November 2012 12:13

Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

There is an underlying point Hugh White makes in his recent post concerning what he calls 'the bigger issue' of defence budget cuts and the real strategic risks associated with that. This is worth examining further.

Hugh talks of the need to argue for future levels of defence spending by calling for a three-step process incorporating analysis and description of the strategic risks faced, the military options we would need to meet those risks and the forces those military options would require. He says Australia 'has not yet seriously tried to do this'.

I would contend this overstates the matter and that Australia has repeatedly tried to do this within the normal constraints of a parliamentary democracy through the successive Defence White Paper processes in recent decades. Even the much-maligned 2009 Defence White Paper sought to follow this model and outlined force options based on a viable and endorsed funding premise. The problem was that as soon as the ink was dry the Government cut back on the allocated funding.

On reflection, the 2009 Defence White Paper was contentious but there was a fair amount of rigour applied by Michael Pezzulo's team within the bureaucracy and through the community consultation process. I'm not sure that, with a prescribed budgetary context, the same level of rigour is being applied this time.

Interestingly, each time a Defence White Paper has been prepared, including the one Hugh helped author in 2000, the final versions propose that Australia needs to maintain, with various permutations, what is described as a 'balanced force' that incorporates a suite of capabilities for military operations in the land, maritime and air domains. Even the 2009 White Paper, with its cover featuring only submarines, made reasonably balanced provisions for all three domains. This is a sensible approach because we simply don't know what force we will need. We have to hedge our bets and I suspect the writers of the 2013 White Paper will come to the same conclusion.

Elsewhere on The Interpreter, Hugh has argued with James Goldrick about the apparent benefits of placing our bets on one option by focusing on sea denial. On balance, most pundits still see the need for more than one strategic option as being a prudent way to manage the risk we face in an unpredictable future. This is what I argued recently in the Canberra Times.

There is a real risk of 'situating the appreciation'; that is, making the preferred military options shape the assessment of the risks faced. An analogy to house insurance is useful here. We purchase house insurance to mitigate against the risk of untoward events, not just against a particular threat, say from a thief who may appear on a particular day. Similarly, with the military capabilities we develop, we don't tailor the force just for a specific threat at a particular time. Instead we tailor it to be flexible for uncertainty. That uncertainty does not focus exclusively on a major global conflagration between superpowers but caters for a host of contingencies across the spectrum of conflict ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping, peace enforcement and outright war. Given the level of uncertainty in our region, as evinced by the rivalry at play even at the East Asia Summit in Cambodia, the need for a properly-funded and balanced force is becoming all the more apparent.

I have a gnawing concern that the 2013 White Paper deliberations are being shaped more by ministerial budgetary priorities than the kind of dispassionate reflection Hugh and others are calling for.

Photo by Lauren Black/ADF.