ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre academic Stephan Frühling has penned an introductory piece ahead of Australia’s next Defence White Paper, raising important questions about the role of the ADF and the key factors informing the development of the future White Paper and Force Structure Reviews.
Global history has been defined by the competing economic, political and strategic ambitions and the ensuing conflagrations of “great powers” as these interests bring them into direct, kinetic confrontation with one another.
These powers typically combine a range of characteristics that set them apart from lower-tier middle and minor powers, including a complementary balance of hard and soft power dynamics, such as military and economic strength and diplomatic and cultural influence.
Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flash points of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century. Blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and industrial potential, the nation has been able to embrace vastly different approaches to the nation’s strategic role and responsibilities.
The nation’s history of strategic policy has evolved a great deal since the end of the Second World War – when the nation was once directly engaged in regional strategic and security affairs, actively deterring aggression and hostility in Malaya during the Konfrontasi and communist aggression in Korea and Vietnam as part of the “Forward Defence” policy.
However, growing domestic political changes following Vietnam saw a dramatic shift in the nation’s defence policy and the rise of the “Defence of Australia” doctrine – a doctrine that advocated for the retreat of Australia’s forward military presence in the Indo-Pacific and a focus on the defence of the Australian continent and its direct approaches.
This shift towards focusing on the direct defence of the Australian mainland dramatically altered the nation’s approach to intervention in subsequent regional security matters.
These included Australia’s intervention in East Timor and later, to a lesser extent, in the Solomon Islands and Fiji during the early to mid-2000s. Each of these missions were further followed by subsequent humanitarian and disaster relief deployments throughout the region, each stretching the Australian Defence Force’s capacity to juggle multiple concurrent operations.
Further complicating the nation’s strategic capabilities is the evolution of modern warfare, with high-tempo, manoeuvre-based operations that leveraged the combined capabilities of air, sea, land and space forces to direct troops, equipment and firepower around the battlefield yielding to low-intensity humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in southern Europe and the south Pacific, and the eventual rise of asymmetrical, guerilla conflicts in the mountains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq.
However, the rise of China as a peer or near-peer competitor, driven by its unprecedented military build-up – namely, the development of key power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial and strategic nuclear forces – combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region is serving to shake-up Australia’s way of thinking.
Enter ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre academic Stephan Frühling in his piece, “Reassessing Australia’s Defence Policy: What is the ADF for?’ in which Frühling articulates the growing consensus that the nation requires a drastically different approach to its defence and strategic policies, with the ADF front and centre of any modernisation and evolution.
“Four years have now passed since the release of the 2016 Defence White Paper, the most recent comprehensive review of Australia’s defence policy and capability. The main contours of that document were set down as early as 2014, which was arguably too early to take full account of the geostrategic implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s island-building in the South China Sea.
“Since that time, the defence policy of Australia’s friends and allies in the northern hemisphere has changed dramatically and now focuses on major-power conflict with Russia and China. Calls for a new white paper or a reassessment of defence policy in Australia are also getting louder – Hugh White has provided the most eloquent and radical, but far from only, call for action,” Frühling articulates, setting the scene.
Government and Defence have been slow to respond to the changing reality
One of Frühling’s central points is the delayed response of both government and Defence to the rapidly changing dynamics of both the global and regional, Indo-Pacific balance of power and geostrategic paradigm.
Frühling is quick to identify that while Australia has some room for maneuver given its geographic isolation and strategic partnerships, the nation’s political and strategic leaders have, in some ways, just kicked the can of challenges further down the road, raising important questions
“Why did it take three years for the government to announce a ‘reassessment of the strategic underpinnings of the 2016 Defence White Paper’? Compared with Scandinavia, NATO or Japan, Australia is less immediately exposed to Chinese and Russian military adventurism. In addition, three elements of the 2016 white paper have contributed to a relatively stable defence policy but also present particular challenges for the future:
- a strategic policy setting that is so undefined that proponents of various policies could project their preferences onto the document
- a stable defence investment plan that the Defence Department has been able to deliver with unusual fidelity, thanks to sufficient and predictable government funding, but which will deliver significant growth to critical capabilities only from the late 2020s at the earliest
- the development of a continuous shipbuilding program that has already consumed much leadership attention and infrastructure investment but will now lock in a significant part of the defence budget in perpetuity in return for efficiency and strategic agility that will, if at all, be realised only in future decades.
“Although the 2016 white paper set out force structure priorities that reflected the demands of air and maritime operations in the Indo-Pacific, it nominally gave equal priority to the defence of Australia and its approaches, to security in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood, and to a stable Indo-Pacific region and rules-based global order.”
This growing need for a “reset” in the nation’s strategic and defence planning has gained increasing traction in recent months, with opposition defence spokesperson Richard Marles using the election to commit the ALP to conducting a new Defence Force Posture Review – the first such review since 2012.
Shifting away from ‘Defence of Australia’
Much to the dismay of many within Australia’s strategic policy community, the 2016 Defence White Paper saw a slight yet marked shift away from the post-Vietnam “Defence of Australia” doctrine to focus on a slightly more outwardly focused strategic policy while still recognising the challenges developing throughout the Indo-Pacific and the broader global order.
“It was the first white paper not to prioritise the defence of Australia, but it contained clear acknowledgement of the practical challenges that this entails. And while it was vague on what a ‘rules-based order’ might be, not restricting defence objectives geographically made it clear that Australia would consider supporting international coalition operations globally. Giving a central place to the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ acknowledged the major challenge of the rise of China.
“Eschewing the politically charged term ‘self-reliance’, the paper emphasised the need for Australian forces to be able to operate ‘independently’ instead. In this way, the white paper successfully skirted all the major policy debates of earlier years, which perhaps accounted most for its generally positive reception,” Frühling articulated.
Building on this, Frühling recognised that the ADF will be faced with increasing challenges, stretching the manpower and platforms in service and coming into service with the ADF as part of the government’s record $200 million recapitalisation and modernisation program, when he said:
“At the same time, the operational tempo for regional engagement isn’t slowing down. Whereas events since 2014 have pushed the US and its NATO allies to refocus on the possibility of major war, in Australia the ‘Pacific step-up’ has had the opposite effect. As a result, the ADF today remains focused on strategic demands that are ‘like the past, only more so’. That this continues to be appropriate to deal with the risks from an increasingly assertive China, and an increasingly unreliable US, is a difficult judgement to sustain.”
These comments echo the sentiments made by former South Australian governor and retired Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce who recently hit out at the status quo during a speech in Adelaide, describing the whirlpool of geopolitical, strategic and economic competition:
“These issues are fast-moving and complex... Yet, our leaders both political and military seem outwardly reluctant to engage in fulsome public debate.”
Scarce was clear in articulating his concerns about the rising global and regional powerhouse, China, believing that while it does not pose a territorial threat to Australia, its growing influence, ambitions and increasing assertiveness are key factors that need to be included in the nation’s broader public debate and policy calculations.
Building on this, Frühling poses an important question for consideration, “Reassessing what the ADF is for is thus the most urgent question facing the current defence review – and it’s not a question that can be answered by simply narrating developments in Beijing, Washington or Tehran. The next post in this series will propose one way in which it might be done.”
Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute summarised the predicament perfectly when he told Defence Connect: “We need to burden share to a much greater degree than before and accept that we can no longer base our defence planning on the assumption that in a major military crisis or a period leading up to a future war, the US will automatically be there for us.
“In fact, if we want to avoid that major military crisis, we have to do more than adopt a purely defensive/denial posture, and be postured well forward to counterbalance a rising China or to be able to assist the US and other key allies, notably Japan, to respond to challenges. We can’t be free-riders.”
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.