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Stimulating debate: Looking ahead to the next Defence White Paper

As both the global and regional power paradigms continue to change, Australia’s defence capabilities will accordingly need to evolve. The 2016 Defence White Paper laid the foundation for a growing Australian capability and role in the Indo-Pacific however, the rapidly evolving geo-strategic environment and technological leaps have prompted many to begin conversations about the next Defence White Paper.

Australia emerged from the Second World War as a middle power, essential to maintaining the post-war economic, political and strategic power paradigm established and led by the US – this relationship, established as a result of the direct threat to Australia, replaced Australia's strategic relationship of dependence on the British Empire and continues to serve as the basis of the nation's strategic policy direction and planning.

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However, as a nation Australia has often walked the line, balancing traditional middle power and minor power characteristics, which have served to exacerbate the partisan nature of the nation's strategic and defence policy making. The 2016 Defence White Paper and its supporting Industry Capability and Export Plans sought to respond to the rapidly evolving geo-strategic environment and Australia's industrial limitations.

This has been achieved through the largest peace time modernisation and capability acquisition for the Australian Defence Force, including:

  • The delivery of the first unit as part of the $5.2 billion LAND 400 Phase 2 Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles;
  • Industry partners presented their bids as part of the $10-15 billion LAND 400 Phase 3 armoured fighting vehicle program; 
  • The announcement of BAE Systems Australia as the successful tender for the $35 billion SEA 5000 Hunter Class guided missile frigate program;
  • Construction commencement and milestones at the $535 million SEA 5000 Shipyard facility at Osborne, South Australia;
  • The arrival of Australia's first two Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighters; and
  • The signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between Naval Group and the Commonwealth and the Framework Agreement between Naval Group and ASC as part of the $$50 billion SEA 1000 Attack Class future submarine program.

The 2016 Defence White Paper moved quickly to recognise the rapidly evolving nature of the economic, political and strategic status quo of the Indo-Pacific – the DWP correctly identifies: "Australia’s strategic outlook to 2035 also includes a number of challenges which we need to prepare for. While there is no more than a remote prospect of a military attack by another country on Australian territory in the foreseeable future, our strategic planning is not limited to defending our borders."

Assessing the strategic challenges

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The rise of Indo-Pacific Asia means the ‘tyranny of distance’ has been replaced by a ‘predicament of proximity’. China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and several other regional nations are reshaping the economic and strategic paradigms with an unprecedented period of economic, political and arms build-up, competing interests and rising animosity towards the post-Second World War order Australia is a pivotal part of in the region. 

Further compounding the geo-strategic challenges facing Australia is the introduction of increasingly reliable and capable weapons systems and platforms, including: 

  • Autonomous and unmanned systems;
  • Increasingly capable hypersonic, long range strike weapons systems;
  • Integrated air and missile defence and anti-access, area denial networks;
  • State and non-state based malignant cyber warfare capabilities; and
  • Traditional 'hard power' platforms from highly capable fifth-generation fighter and bomber aircraft, aircraft carriers, advanced conventional and nuclear submarines and land systems.

With the rapidly evolving geo-political, economic and strategic realities of the contemporary international political environment, Australia's approach to developing a cohesive, holistic national security strategy requires updating.

This is echoed by NSW senator and former Army Major General Jim Molan, who explained to Defence Connect, "Australia has had one previous attempt at putting a national security strategy in place under the Gillard government in 2013. Although it was a decent first attempt, it is has already been overtaken by events. Terrorism was the principal security challenge it focused on, and although the threat of terrorism has not disappeared, other changes in the world are demanding our focus.

"The world has changed dramatically in the six years since the release of the last national security strategy. Of primary concern is the decline of American power. At the end of the Cold War, the US planned for the contingency of fighting, and winning, ‘two and a half wars’ simultaneously. This meant it could wage two large scale regional wars and a small scale conflict elsewhere and prevail in all of them." 

Recognising this critical factor – how does Australia respond to the rapidly evolving regional environment and strategic capabilities and respond? 

Enhancing Australia's industrial capabilities 

While Australia’s defence industry has gone from strength to strength in a short period of time – relying solely on domestic consumption is a fateful trap that has previously hindered the sustainable development of Australia’s broader manufacturing industries. Avoiding this pitfall requires a dramatically different approach to the policies that have been used in the past, paired with a growing focus on leveraging the nation's key economic and strategic partnerships.

Recognising the importance of the export market, the government established the Defence Export Strategy, which identifies that "Australian industry cannot sustain itself on the needs of the Australian Defence Force alone. New markets and opportunities to diversify are required to help unlock the full potential of Australian defence industry to grow, innovate, and support Defence’s future needs".

The Defence Export Strategy stated purpose is to "achieve greater export success to build a stronger, more sustainable and more globally competitive Australian defence industry to support Australia’s defence capability needs" by 2028, which is supported by five key objectives:

  • Strengthen the partnership between the Australian government and industry to pursue defence export opportunities;
  • Sustain Australia's defence industrial capabilities across peaks and troughs in domestic demand;
  • Enable greater innovation and productivity in Australia's defence industry to deliver world-leading defence capabilities;
  • Maintain the capability edge of the Australian Defence Force and leverage defence capability development for export opportunities; and
  • Grow Australia's defence industry to become a top 10 global defence exporter.

Meanwhile, the growing complexity and increasing commonality of major defence acquisition programs between a number of allied nations – particularly five eye nations like the US, Australia, Canada and the UK – provides avenues for greater diplomatic and economic partnerships to support increased industry capability, strategic dispersal and interoperability.

While the 2016 DWP set the scene for developing Australia's domestic defence industrial base. The changing nature of economic and industry, combined with increasingly interconnected defence programs presents a number of opportunities to support Australia's industry how does Australia take advantage of it? 

What does Defence White Paper 2020-21 look like? 

Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.  

While the continued defence budget growth is expected to be widely welcomed by industry, the growing challenges to the Indo-Pacific region are raising questions about whether Australia's commitment to 2 per cent of GDP is suitable to support the growing role and responsibilities that Australia will be required to undertake as regional security load sharing between the US and allies becomes a reality.

Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute reinforced this, telling Defence Connect at the Avalon Airshow in late February, "The government aspiration of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence is simply not enough any more. We need to look at planning our force structure, our capability requirements and spending on a number of factors, including allied strengths and potential adversarial capabilities, not arbitrary figures.

"It is time for us to throw open the debate about our force structure. It is time to ask what more do we need to do and what do we need to be capable of doing."

Let us know your thoughts and ideas about the development of the next Defence White Paper and a broader holistic national security strategy in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Stimulating debate: Looking ahead to the next Defence White Paper
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