Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:26 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:26 | SYDNEY

Some contradictions in the Defence White Paper

18 May 2009 15:24

Geoff Miller is the former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments. 

The new Defence White Paper, 'Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030', states in para.6.23 that 'The enduring reality of our strategic outlook is that Australia will most likely remain, by virtue of our geostrategic location, a secure country over the period to 2030'.

That is just as well, because the Paper reveals a great deal of confusion over what our defence forces, to be augmented at enormous expense, will be expected to do.

The Paper states in the Executive Summary that Australia’s defence policy should be 'founded on the principle of self-reliance in the direct defence of Australia'. In paragraph 7.2 it states that the principal task for the ADF is to 'deter and defeat armed attacks on Australia by conducting independent military operations without relying on the combat or combat support forces of other countries'.

One could be excused for presuming that it is this perceived need to deter and defeat, by ourselves, armed attacks on Australia that justifies the intention to acquire, for example, twelve enormously costly 'Future Submarines' and 100 Joint Strike Fighters to dominate the maritime and air space to the north of Australia.

Who might launch these attacks? Hugh White, who criticizes the paper on the basis that it does not provide for a large enough force, makes it clear in his Lowy Institute Paper that he sees strategic risks for Australia coming from the major Asian powers. He writes that the 'biggest risk is not that China itself becomes a direct threat to Australia, but that the erosion of American power unleashes strategic competition among Asia’s strongest states, which in turn increases the risk that Australia could face a number of military threats to its interests or even its territorial security'.

He doesn’t say what these threats to our territorial security would be, and it is indeed difficult to imagine what they might be, given (a) that as a supplier of vital raw materials, Australia is a free trader, prepared to sell to any country that can afford them and adheres to the relevant international protocols; (b) that we are quite distant from the North Asian locations most sensitive for great power relations; and (c) that any attack on Australia by a major power would represent such an overturning – or attempt to overturn – the established order in the Pacific that our powerful ally, the US, would certainly become intensely involved.

Indeed, the White Paper acknowledges this. Paragraph 6.24 states:

The ADF’s capabilities are themselves a deterrent against threats posed by all but a handful of the world’s most significant military powers. Our alliances and other international defence relationships, especially with the United States, provide a vital further measure of security.

And paragraph 8.45 notes:

It is conceivable that…we might have to contend with major power adversaries operating in our approaches – in the most drastic of circumstances, as a consequence of a wider conflict in the Asia Pacific region.  In such a circumstance, it is not a current defence planning assumption that Australia would be involved in such a conflict on its own.

So in a case of confrontation with a major power, Australia would look to the US although, as stated in paragraph 6.32, 'Defence  self-reliance means that Australia would only expect the US to come to our aid in circumstances where we were under threat from a major power whose military capabilities were simply beyond our capacity to resist'. That would certainly apply to 'Asia’s strongest states' like China, Japan or India, with their large populations and established or rapidly growing economies.

(We would also rely on the US for protection against nuclear blackmail. As stated in paragraph 6.34, 'It also means that, for so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are able to rely on the nuclear forces of the United States to deter nuclear attack on Australia'.)

This then must call into question the meaning and intention of the second part of paragraph 8.45. After noting that Australian defence planning does not assume that we would be on our own in a conflict with a major power adversary, it says that 'we do assume that, except in the case of nuclear attack, Australia has to provide for its own local defence needs without relying on the combat forces of other countries'.

But what is the force of 'local' as applied to defence needs? Presumably it does not refer to what would be needed for 'the remote but plausible potential of confrontation with a major power adversary' (paragraph 8.44), since in such circumstances we would expect (a) not to be on our own (paragraph 8.45) and (b) to have the US come to our aid (paragraph 6.32).

So 'local defence needs' refers to lesser contingencies than possible confrontations with major power adversaries. It seems unlikely that it refers to Indonesia, given the paper’s treatment of that country (paragraphs 4.32- 33; 5.10; 11.21-22). So what are these 'local defence needs', and do we really need 12 Future Submarines and 100 Joint Strike Fighters to cope with them?

Even more to the point, do we need long-range land attack cruise missiles to cope with them? The missiles are said to be intended to 'undertake strategic strike missions if that is necessary to defend Australia' (paragraph 10.9), against 'hardened, defended and difficult to access targets' (paragraphs 9.73-76), but the paper says nothing more about what kinds of targets these might be or, more importantly, where they might be located.

In my view, the White Paper only makes the case for the huge expenditure it projects by focusing on the stated principal task of 'deterring and defeating attacks on Australia without relying on the combat or combat support forces of other countries', while ignoring its own conclusions about the limits to self-reliance and about the likelihood of Australia having to defend against a major power adversary on its own.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.