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Op-Ed: On orientation, political discourse and national strategy

Op-Ed: On orientation, political discourse and national strategy

In a time of genuine strategic uncertainty, any significant, albeit incremental, increase in defence capability that keeps extant capabilities up to date and meets emerging threats is only positive, explains retired Australian Army officer Jason Thomas.

In a time of genuine strategic uncertainty, any significant, albeit incremental, increase in defence capability that keeps extant capabilities up to date and meets emerging threats is only positive, explains retired Australian Army officer Jason Thomas.

The realisation in the Department of Defence’s Strategic Update 2020 of the inferred requirements of the 2016 Defence White Paper has mostly received praise and notice from not only the strategic community in Australia but globally.

Delivering such guidance with the resumption of the more practical and necessary 10-year expenditure forecast is an achievement those involved should rightfully be proud of.


The debates on how to achieve the aims of the 2020 guidance have commenced, many revolve around the necessary increase in industry capacity. Major defence CEO publicly reassure us that they are “ready”.

Critical technical skills such as naval architecture are beginning to be fostered in new academies, while other tertiary institutions are eagerly looking at ways to support the demands of the next 10 years.

There has been an acknowledgement that Defence’s own internal bureaucratic processes, including procurement, will need to evolve to keep tempo. A need to increase tempo seems to be a recurring theme, Australia needs to be more resilient to be more agile (sic tempo) in responding to threats, and the Australian Army is accelerating.

Yet so far in the debate, one essential part of the strategic landscape is not receiving much attention concerning the effect of tempo – national strategic decision making.

I will use John Body’s decision cycle – observe, orient, decide, act – and Australia’s response to Xi Jinping’s “Wolf Warrior” China as an example.

  • Observation: 2013 – Chinese artificial island construction commences in the South China Sea.
  • Orientation: 2016 – Thematically, a return to a regional focus is mooted; however, commitments to SW Asia continue, including new minor deployments.
  • Decision: 2020 – Strategic update brings Chinese action into sharp focus, and close regional priority is strategically confirmed.
  • Action complete: 2030 when forecasted (not yet committed) capability expenditure is delivered.

It is an oversimplified example, but I believe still carries a valid concern. Commendably, many essential initiatives, such as cyber security, were already underway, and the nature of many defence capabilities is that they are strategically ambivalent.

The rifleman, the loadmaster and the signaller have great utility in many scenarios. The rise and behaviour of China came as no surprise to experts in the area.

Despite the recent protestations of those with entrenched self-interest, the general public has been accepting of the change. However, from the first warnings, it will still take 17 years to adapt thoroughly.

Is this good enough? Additionally, dictators, like the Berlin Wall, have a habit of falling fast and hard, so strategic environments can shift very quickly.

The esteemed strategist Colin Gray placed John Boyd in the same company as Bernard Brodie, Edward Luttwak and Basil Liddell Hart. The version of John Boyd’s decision cycle that I have used is a cut down version of his final model. It should not just be interpreted as “faster is better”. In later years, Boyd focused on the issue: is any part of the cycle more critical than the other? His deduction: orientation was the most important.

It is here we seem to have a shortcoming. The ideological basis of the current political debate poses a security risk. In the debate around the strategic update, we have already been warned about a China-only trope:

“What we do in Australia to ensure our security, prosperity, independence and safety matters to 25 million Australians, but it also matters for our role in the community of nations as we face multiple collective challenges – not just China or the health and economic destruction of the pandemic, but climate change, population movement and natural disasters,” Michael Shoebridge said.

Others have given similar warnings about the multipolar nature of threats, likewise concerned about the long-term threats that will emerge as part of climate change.

Yet, politically, there is incongruence; for example, currently, there is an aversion to discussing the impact of climate change. It is still not a strong theme in current defence guidance. Perhaps time for a green paper on this topic and others?

Strangely, lost in the chaotic miasma of fire and plague that is 2020, few publically were concerned when Australia expressed disquiet about the utility of the only global governance organisation the world has – the United Nations.

Yes, it is far from perfect, and the lack of US focus on this institution (to put it politely) has made it even weaker. But for one of the most energetic of founding nations to undermine the institution does not bode well for a collective vision.

The leadership of national strategy is the responsibility of the federal government of the day; long-term vision is futile if it is blinkered by firm beliefs or constrained by party ideology.

This is not railing against one political party, both carry in varying measures across multiple factions unbroachable dogmas and the inviolate principles of interest groups, further amplified by the horrible decay in productive political discourse in democracies.

A measure of this is the inherent nature of politics. However, the automatic and visceral polarity of the contemporary political environment is and will continue to damage strategic orientation and hence risk the effectiveness of national security initiatives. We can see this being writ large at present in US foreign policy.

The next set of strategic challenges may place those of 2020 into the “oh well, that was not so bad” bucket; 17 years will be too long to adjust. There is generally a lack of public focus on defence and security issues, and this only adds a greater responsibility to the duties of political leadership, because as George Clemancau put it, “War is too important to be left to generals”.

The mercifully improving clarity of the 2020 Defence Strategic update and its positive reception, as I have said, is a credit to the current defence leadership group.

Defence seems to enjoy a considerable level of bipartisan support; it would be nice to see more bipartisan thinking and then some. It is not just about faster, but faster, smarter and maybe even a touch of cunning. That takes everyone.

Jason Thomas is a retired Australian Army officer who is currently contracting as a strategic planning and risk consultant. He lives in Melbourne and is currently studying part-time, reading in a PhD dealing with the broader application of mission command beyond its present use in the military. Like everyone else, he is looking forward to the resumption of normal services with his life. 

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