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The fundamental flaw in the ‘Defence of Australia’ strategy and constantly rehashing it

It has formed the basis of Australia’s defensive doctrine since the 1980s, but the Defence of Australia doctrine leaves the nation dangerously exposed to the whims and capabilities of our regional partners, as we hedge our bets on a belief of “their security is our security”.

It has formed the basis of Australia’s defensive doctrine since the 1980s, but the Defence of Australia doctrine leaves the nation dangerously exposed to the whims and capabilities of our regional partners, as we hedge our bets on a belief of “their security is our security”.

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, which reshaped global history in the most calamitous manner since the fall of Rome. 

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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, with the most dynamic shifts occurring in the aftermath of the Second World War. 

The experience of direct threat to the Australian homeland served to dramatically impact the nation's strategic doctrine, alliances and force structure in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, resulting in not only a shift towards the US as strategic benefactor, but also an interventionist policy of 'Forward Defence'. 

'Forward Defence' enabled Australia to take a more direct, engaged hand in regional security affairs – where it sought to actively deter aggression and hostility in Malaya during the Konfrontasi and communist aggression in Korea and Vietnam as the domino theory mimicked the war-time advances of Imperial Japan. 

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However, this doctrine was short lived as increasing domestic political unrest in response to the nation's costly involvement in the Vietnam conflict saw a dramatic shift in the nation’s defence policy and the rise of the “Defence of Australia” doctrine.

The doctrine 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 – deferring true regional security and engagement in favour of dependence upon the broader US strategic umbrella, ironically something the doctrine was established to limit. 

Instead, the Defence of Australia doctrine established the 'sea-air gap' and the 'warning time' concepts as the primary focus for Australian defence acquisition, force structure planning and capability development – often with a dramatic hindrance on Australia's capacity to respond to regional contingencies. 

Architect of the 1986 Review of Australia's defence capabilities and the supporting 1987 Defence White Paper: The Defence of Australia, which have served as the continuing foundation for the nation's defence posture, Professor Paul Dibb has entered the conversation surrounding the release of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan

More of the same?

In his piece 'Is Morrison's strategic update the defence of Australia doctrine reborn?', Dibb articulates the overlapping similarities between the Prime Minister's recent announcements, the 2016 Defence White Paper and the original 1986 review, stating: 

"Last week, Morrison noted that the 2016 defence white paper gave an equal weighting to Australia and its northern approaches, south-east Asia and the south Pacific, and operations in support of the rules-based global order.

"He now emphasises that his government has directed Defence to prioritise the Australian Defence Force’s geographical focus on our immediate region, which he said is the area ranging from the north-east Indian Ocean through maritime and mainland south-east Asia to Papua New Guinea and the south-west Pacific.

"That is precisely the area described in the 1986 Review of Australia’s defence capabilities as Australia’s area of primary strategic interest, encompassing south-east Asia and the south Pacific. So, at least in terms of strategic geography and force structure priorities, Australia is now returning home to the defence of Australia."

Perhaps most interestingly, Dibb adds, "Morrison made it clear that we cannot allow consideration of contingencies outside of our immediate region to drive the ADF’s force structure to the detriment of ensuring that we have credible capability to respond to any challenge in our immediate region."

However, the most important and perhaps most glaring question to ask is how, if it all, have any of Australia's major defence acquisition, force structure reviews and capability development programs over the last 20-to-30 years ever shifted our focus from the region and continental defence?

It wasn't until the delivery of the Canberra Class LHDs that Australia had the beginnings of a true amphibious expeditionary capability for the first time since the retirement of the HMAS Kanimbla and HMAS Manoora, which saw extensive service during East Timor and highlighted the need for an enhanced expeditionary capacity. 

Another example is the Air Force's C-17 heavy airlift aircraft, which served to provide a major capability increase for the ADF, but didn't seriously detract from the nation's overall focus upon homeland defence and the 'sea-air gap'. 

Building on this, the 'sea-air gap' prioritises Australia's 'control' and, as the Prime Minister highlighted, 'area denial' of key maritime and aerial choke points at critical junctions, however it based Australia's capacity to implement such a strategy upon the capacity and willingness of regional partners to intervene. 

Your security is our security, or is it? 

The central premise of Defence of Australia as it was established by Dibb and has subsequently been refreshed by the Prime Minister is its focus on two interconnected assumptions: 

  1. Our regional partners, particularly emerging powers like Indonesia, India and Vietnam will always be benign actors and at least consider Australia's interests and investment in the post-Second World War order above their own geo-strategic, economic and political interests and ambitions; and 
  2. These same nations and more broadly, regional partners like Japan, South Korea and the US will have the capacity and will to intervene on our behalf, acting to stabilise the broader regional security environment. 

These dangerous assumptions fly in the face of the Prime Minister's own stated objectives for Australia's defence capabilities moving forward, namely to "shape, deter and respond" as it materially fails to reshape the Australian Defence Force beyond the Force Structure first identified in the original 1986 and 1987 documents. 

This is something Dibb at least in some part recognises, stating, "Australia’s security environment is described in the 2020 defence strategic update as being markedly different from the relatively more benign one of even four years ago, with greater potential for military miscalculation.

"This could conceivably include state-on-state conflict that could engage the ADF where Australia’s interests are threatened. Accordingly, Defence must be better prepared for the prospect of high-intensity conflict."

Recognising this, Dibb admits that significant consideration needs to be given to expanding the size and capability of the ADF, stating: "Much more thought needs to be given to planning for the expansion of the ADF and its capacity to engage in high-intensity conflict in our own defence — in a way that we haven’t previously had to consider."

While both the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure do identify a greater need for a credible Australian deterrent capability, particularly in the form of long-range strike missiles, including the potential for yet-to-be developed land-based hypersonic missiles, it fails to address the underlying force structure and capability constraints.

In light of this, can it be reasonably and legitimately argued that the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the Force Structure Plan represent a "new defence paradigm", or is it a case of more of the same? 

Your thoughts

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 chokepoints 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 Australias 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 Australias sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. 

Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the long-standing strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's strategic approach to our regional partners.

We would also like to hear your thoughts on the avenues Australia should pursue to support long-term economic growth and development in support of national security 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 at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The fundamental flaw in the ‘Defence of Australia’ strategy and constantly rehashing it
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