Monday 27 Jun 2022 | 11:45 | SYDNEY
Monday 27 Jun 2022 | 11:45 | SYDNEY


Hugh White

5 December 2007 11:06

FROM:  Hugh White, Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute and Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University

TO: Hon. Joel Fitzgibbon, Minister for Defence

Once the introductory briefings are out of the way, your first priority in Defence will be to commission a new White Paper. This was a clear election campaign commitment, and it is also a very good idea. The current White Paper, Defence 2000, was produced seven eventful years ago. Since then we have seen global upheavals like September 11 and the invasion of Iraq, and local crises in East Timor and Solomon Islands, while in the background the rise of China and India have continued the tectonic transformation of Australia’s strategic environment in Asia. The previous government did not respond well to these challenges to their defence policy. The important questions which these events raised were never effectively answered, and in the resulting confusion they committed a lot of money on new capabilities which are unlikely to earn their keep.

Before you start, though, it would be a good idea to think carefully about what exactly you want the White Paper to achieve. Defence White Papers are rather specialised documents.  They do not, or should not, aim to cover the whole gamut of defence policy. The successful ones focus on a very specific but very fundamental question: what kinds of capabilities will Australia need in the ADF over the long term, and what decisions do we need to make over the next few years to ensure that Australia has the capabilities it will need fifteen, twenty or thirty years into the future?

The White Paper has to look that far ahead because it takes a decade to deliver new capabilities, and once in service they last for decades more. The big defence decisions you take in this term of government will determine the forces Australia has to face the challenges of the Asian Century. Over the next few years you will decide, for example, the kinds of air combat, strike and submarine capabilities Australia will have up to around 2040. The White Paper will need to provide the foundation for you to make those decisions in a responsible, evidence-based and defensible way.

To do that it has to define and align Australia’s strategic objectives, capability priorities and defence funding commitments. That has important implications for the shape of the document.  It cannot be simply an essay on the evolving global order and Australia’s interests in it: it needs to explain as specifically as possible what our strategic objectives will be and how armed force will contribute to them. This definition of strategic and operational objectives must in turn drive decisions about the kinds of forces we need to build, and those decisions in turn need to fit a realistic and sustainable defence budget.

This is the heart of the task the White Paper needs to address. Australia today lacks the policy framework to ensure that the capabilities we invest in are those that will most cost-effectively achieve our long-term national strategic objectives. The key purpose of your new Defence White Paper should be to build that framework and embed it in your Government’s defence decision-making.