Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 17:55 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 17:55 | SYDNEY

Good posture: A new Defence blueprint


Graeme Dobell

16 February 2012 14:35

On the top tier of Defence Department reports, where White Papers reside, there are also a few reviews that reshape the way Defence thinks, plans and builds.

Defence does reviews by the dozens. Those that rise to the level of lasting blueprint are rare. The canny pair of warhorses, Ric Smith and Allan Hawke, seem to be in the process of constructing a lasting landmark with their Australian Defence Force Posture Review.

Originally, the above sentence was going to call Smith and Hawke 'canny and cunning civil servants', but that didn't quite hit the right note. These are ex-mandarins of long experience who have the great strength of no longer being serving public servants. Both Hawke and Smith did distinguished service as secretaries of the Defence Department. They have wrestled long and hard in the bowels of Russell and now get the chance to speak as the most intimate of outsiders. 

Bear in mind that, even when they were insiders, these were public service leaders who exemplified a certain rough-hewn Canberra tradition, as able to say 'no bloody way' as 'Yes, Minister'. As evidence, consider Hawke's report on his first 100 days as Secretary back in 2000, when he bashed and booted his own organisation, decrying 'a culture of learned helplessness among some Defence senior managers – both military and civilian. Their perspective is one of disempowerment.' The phrase 'learned helplessness' has attained minor classic status.

Ric Smith generated his share of pithy sayings too, not least over his gargantuan struggle to get Defence accounts into an order that would actually pass muster with the Auditor-General. That excruciating experience gives some context to the wry Smith line that the way Defence calculated his own salary, factoring in the value of all benefits, meant the published figure included the 'accrued value of the view from my toilet.'

No Defence-bashing or jokes about money are in evidence this time round. Smith and Hawke are constructing a document that they want implemented. These are practical blokes trying to do big, practical things. That means getting broad agreement in Russell, not swearing at the horses nor scaring the politicians.

The practical approach points to the cunning of releasing a 'Progress Report' to get a lot of the thinking on the table before it becomes a formal blueprint. And as the two warhorses assured the Minister in the letter with their interim report: 'We have discussed this progress report with the Secretary and the Chief of the Defence Force and they are broadly comfortable with where the Review is heading.'

Translation: We think everyone is on board, but we want put out our findings now and give everyone in Russell a last chance to iron out any kinks.

Hawke and Smith know as intimately as anyone that Defence is far better at sinking reviews than it is implementing them. Getting the Force Posture Review right will do much to set the scene for the Force Structure Review and the White Paper which must eventually follow.

The nuts and bolts of what the two ex-Secretaries are doing is about how much more of the Australian Defence Force needs to be shifted to the north and west. The Progress Report does this in commendable detail. The big picture stuff is sharply drawn. In order, here are the first six Strategic Judgements Smith and Hawke offer, drawing on the 2009 White Paper and Defence's current strategic guidance. The report uses dot points but I've numbered them (after all, Defence always likes to see the hierarchy of the issues):

  1. A competitive multipolar order is emerging with the shift of economic and strategic power to Asia, and the Global Economic Crisis has accelerated this shift.
  2. The Obama Administration has announced a 'pivot' in US national security priorities from the Middle East and Afghanistan to the Asia Pacific.
  3. China has become more confident; it has developed significant anti-access and area-denial capabilities; China's power projection and sea control capabilities are currently more limited, but they are steadily expanding.
  4. India is gradually moving towards great power status; its security policies remain South Asia-centric but will place an increasing priority on the Indian Ocean and the wider Asia Pacific.
  5. Securing sea lines of communication and energy supplies will be a strategic driver for both competition and cooperation in the Indian Ocean region to 2030, and Australia's defence posture will need to place greater emphasis on the Indian Ocean.
  6. Southeast Asia is becoming more important to the wider Asia Pacific strategic balance and great power competition than at any time since the 1970s.

Translations: Canberra thinks the US pivot will matter, but its extent and actual import is still to come. The words for China are 'confident' and 'expanding'. By contrast, the word for India is 'gradual' and it may be a long time yet before it arrives. Oh, and Southeast Asia matters more now than it has since the Vietnam War.
The next column will line up this first glimpse of the Hawke-Smith vision against some of the big blueprints of the past (Tange and Dibb) and ponder what having lots of US Marines around might mean for an Australian Army that is set on becoming more like the US Marines.

Photo by Flickr user Grand Velas Riviera Maya.