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I see with a certain wry humour that the authors of WP2009 have found it necessary to devote an entire section to justifying geography as the fundamental shaper of WP2009’s strategy and force structure.  

Wind back to the Defence Update 2007:

Australia’s national interests are not spread uniformly across the globe, but nor do they decline in proportion to the distance from our shoreline. For the foreseeable future, we can expect there will need to be a Defence focus on security in both the Asia–Pacific and the Middle East for the reasons outlined earlier: the Asia–Pacific is our neighbourhood, while our strategic interests are vitally engaged in the Middle East. (Defence 2007, p28)

This statement was a direct counter to the DoA doctrine, which saw geography dictating how Australia would structure and deploy its forces—and by extension, exert its power and influence in the world. 

That’s not to deny geography is a factor, even a significant factor, in shaping Australia’s strategic posture, reach and capability.  To argue otherwise would be foolish: we are constrained by a physical world. 

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In 2007, when on contract in Defence, I was asked to write the Defence Update.  While instructed to ensure that the Update lay within the fold of the Defence 2000 White Paper, it was clear the strategic landscape had changed sufficiently that I believed we were at last able to remove the ‘Defence of Australia’ (DoA) doctrine that had crippled Australian defence policy.  That effort was tempered by the inclusion of paragraphs on page 26 of the Update, paragraphs held by DoA advocates as the core of the document. 

Nonetheless, I felt that Defence Update 2007, which extended the themes of the 2003 and 2005 Updates, presented a sound base for the ongoing development of Australian strategic policy in the complex, non-linear, globalised—and even post-Westphalian—world of the 21st century.

With the 2009 White Paper, that progression of strategic policy has been reversed, back even beyond the 2000 White Paper

Its key failings are twofold.

First, it clings to the strategically inadequate ideas of DoA: indeed, much has been ‘borrowed’ from the 1987 White Paper.  Those ideas are so parsimonious that they allow Government decision-makers to peer only through the pinhole of geography, and so fail to render any clear understanding of the changing strategic environment and of Australia’s national interests.  They do not allow the flexibility, diversity and plasticity of structure, doctrine, capability or operations needed to adapt to new challenges, including of the space and cyber environment.

Yet, second, the 2009 White Paper is so muddled that any one of Greg Sheridan’s 50 Talmudic scholars will find a sentence to call their own and justify some position, program or funding.  Such decisions could be made, for example, not just on the basis of proximity—the 2009 shaper of force structure—but alliance obligations, international legal obligations, whole-of-government support, and regional military capability, amongst others.

The result will be a failure to understand, prepare and, where needed, act in Australia’s national interests and a complete lack of strategic rigour, coherence and discipline. 

It is true that Defence needs a major overhaul.  But contrary to Government statements, the new bureaucratic processes imposed by the White Paper are likely to make Defence even less responsive, less adaptable and more inwardly focussed, as well as entail further costs.  

There is a larger question beyond simply funding the proposed force structure: how does the Government propose to avoid the inevitable wasted capability, sunk costs, missed opportunities and the incapacity rendered by a return to DoA?

December 2017
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