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White Paper update should make sovereign capability ‘new normal’

Amidst a year of unprecedented global turmoil, the looming update to the national White Paper poses a unique opportunity to overhaul outdated practices and policies. Disruptions to global supply chains, civil unrest in the US… more questions arise than ever before.

Amidst a year of unprecedented global turmoil, the looming update to the national White Paper poses a unique opportunity to overhaul outdated practices and policies. Disruptions to global supply chains, civil unrest in the US… more questions arise than ever before.

Many have pushed a refocus back towards the nation-state, as opposed to a holistic view of international security. The most obvious manifestation of that has been the closing of international borders by Australia and many of her allies – which would have been all but unthinkable just a few short months ago. Writing in ASPI’s The Strategist, Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests that “instead of widening our definition of national security, we need to start narrowing it”.

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As an American, she advocates distinguishing national security from global security and putting military security in its place alongside many other equally important but distinct priorities. While world leaders may draw on the current crisis as a means to promote great-power competition, it should be an opportune moment to reflect on how to shore up domestic resilience. 

However, Slaughter also recognises that a host of modern-day problems require integrated solutions. Particularly in view of the pandemic, many have taken the view that our national security is, to a degree, interdependent on our allies. Even with borders closed, social media platforms have ensured that issues like disinformation campaigns are a shared responsibility. Related cyber security and health initiatives – including drives to develop a vaccine – have been co-ordinated across countries in both the public and private sphere. As ambassador Arthur Culvahouse noted in Defence Connect last month, the US-Australia alliance is key to combating both the current outbreak, and any crises that lay ahead. 

A long overdue update to the 2016 Defence White Paper looms on the horizon. The paper, which was laid down too early to account even for Russia’s annexation of the Crimea or China’s push to assert the “Nine Dash Line”, now needs to quickly account for a rapidly changing foreign policy environment. Several major policy analysts and professors in the IR space – most notably Hugh White – have long called for an updated document, which accounts for modern realities. 

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As ASPI’s Malcolm Davis put it in the past, “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.” 

White Paper 2020

So, are we free-riding our way through the current crisis? We’ve certainly punched above our grade in terms of research, with the federal government recently ramping up investment to the $66 million mark. Given our relatively low infection rate, it seems we’re certainly pulling our weight in the research department. And, through co-operation with research institutions in the UK, the US, and continental Europe, it seems that we’ve struck the balance right in this respect. 

While this and other forms of intelligence sharing, at least for the minute, lean into Culvahouse’s notion of an “Unbreakable Alliance”, where it gets a little more cloudy is over broader future strategic relations, in 2020 and beyond. A “two-track” approach to the Australia-US alliance, notes author Michael Shoebridge, accounts for both the strength of Five Eyes solidarity as well as a perception of a shifting world power balance. Given current civil unrest domestically (and a presidential election looming in November), it is understandable that the US is likely to refocus its priorities inwards, at least for the rest of the year. 

Sovereign capability and supply chains

If the pandemic has made anything clear, it’s that the global supply chains we have come to rely on are nowhere near as secure as once thought. Even the current crisis aside, a broader trend towards isolationism seen throughout the Western world means that once stable jobs can evaporate overnight. The F-35 program is one germane example, where critical supply chain jobs have been pulled from Turkey. And beyond that, the Trump administration recently made suggestions that all F-35 manufacturing processes should be brought stateside. 

And even more curiously, in March Naval Group awarded a subcontract to Greek company Sunlight Systems for battery production for the Attack Class submarine. Certainly, the next White Paper needs to rethink foreign policy considerations in the Pacific, Japan, Indonesia and India; but we also need to focus on setting the industrial scene to produce locally.  

Shoebridge makes the argument that Australia should be open to abandoning the status quo, pursuing aggressive change in terms of how we think about defence production. As he aptly notes, it’s not enough to double down on weapons purchases without concerning ourselves with where those weapons are made. 

“New purchases will work only if they’re accompanied by new production lines for Australian-built weapons,” he reasons. “The US, Israel and Norway come to mind as partners whose weapons are already in use in the Australian Defence Force and who may also benefit from having alternative centres of production in times of crisis — particularly if Australian government investment were to help create the new facilities.”

And of course, current circumstances dictate that any review of Australia’s defence capability must also be founded in science and technology. With a serious push towards cutting-edge virtual reality and training platforms in the space, a call by Industry and Science Minister Karen Andrews for the country to develop greater sovereign capability in these sectors was backed by Australia’s peak science body. 

Associate professor Jeremy Brownlie, Science and Technology Australia president, recently pointed out that the pandemic had thrown into stark relief the need for greater self-reliance.

“This pandemic should be a reminder about the essential equipment, supplies and technical knowledge we should always have onshore, so we aren’t so heavily dependent on offshore suppliers and open transport routes to meet our critical needs,” he said.

“Our medical manufacturers and researchers have responded brilliantly in the circumstances – rapidly redeploying factories and intellectual property to meet some of the nation’s immediate needs with ventilators and sanitisers.

“But this should prompt us to take a fresh look at the capabilities we should always look to have local capacity to deliver. And we should see that capability as squarely part of Australia’s national defence.”

Your thoughts

As always, your thoughts and input are greatly valued. Let us know what you think about industrial sovereign capability, the upcoming White Paper, and the changing geopolitical environment in the comments section, or by emailing 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..

White Paper update should make sovereign capability ‘new normal’
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