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A common interpretation of the confusion within the White Paper is that the strategic environment is uncertain, and the White Paper has sought to respond to such uncertainty.

But the strategic environment has been ever uncertain: we don’t expect our strategic policy guidance to reflect confusion in both words and form.

It’s more worrying too, as the White Paper now is the centrepiece of the Government’s new strategic risk-based approach to defence planning:

Defence policy must be based on clear objectives. Not all strategic risks necessarily require our full attention, while those that are the most remote might require our fullest attention because of their potential consequences.  We have to be very clear about what matters most, so that we can provision against the right risks and do not waste resources. (Defence 2009, p11-12)

But it is hard to see how, if so, the understanding of risk differs from the understanding of risk employed since 1987, despite the geopolitical changes since that time.  It is still based on geography, and not based on strategic national interests.  And as such, it represents misunderstanding of risk and misrepresentation of national interests.

For example, take its absolutism:

Our most basic strategic interest remains the defence of Australia against armed attack…Before we attend to anything else, we must secure this strategic interest (5.3).

We should be wary of such statements.  They risk providing the military with a distorted view of priorities.  They accord primacy to the unlikely over the likely.  They ignore causation and consequences: not taking preventative action, including at a distance and well out of the range and possibility of conventional attack, may well increase the likelihood and repercussions of conventional attack.

And in a democratic society absolutism requires moderation.  In such defence—against what?—the over-riding priority for government and society as stated by the White Paper?  If so, why do we bother with putting government money elsewhere, such as education, health and roads?  If not, then what costs is the voter prepared to bear supporting a military and defence capability given the likely threat?  (Of course, Defence of Australia advocates have a silver bullet response to this question—two per cent of GDP—which has not been tested satisfactorily.)

Alan Dupont  put his finger on the problem in 2003:

[DoA advocates] concede that a direct military attack is unlikely, or even ‘highly unlikely’, but that since a military attack would be a serious event, with potentially grave ramifications for Australia’s security, prudent decision-makers must consider outcomes as well as probability.

This curious inversion of strategic logic contradicts the first principle of risk management which is that the consequences of an action must be carefully weighed against the probability of its occurrence. To argue that a highly unlikely event should command the lion’s share of an organisation’s resources or be the principal focus of its attention would not get past first base in the political or corporate world. It is certainly not the basis for a sensible defence strategy given the diversity and immediacy of the security challenges now confronting the ADF. (Dupont 2003, p59)

Aside from the ‘inversion of strategic logic’, the White Paper is breezily unaware that the use of risk management as a tool for strategy comes with its own traps for the unwary.

The reliance on risk as strategic policy-making blinkers decision-makers.  They are constantly tempted to deal with future risk—the possible problems of the future—rather than focussing on the real, hard problems of the now.  One can understand the political temptation: they cannot be held responsible now for the future, and creating a future myth is addictive and, properly managed, can sell well in the electorate.

Reliance on a risk management approach is based on the false premise that future risks can be assessed correctly.  But that’s impossible in the real world.  We cannot even identify and catalogue all risks, let alone assess their importance to our national interests.

The White Paper chooses a deliberate hobble—geography.  Geographically close risks, it assumes, are inherently worse than geographically distant risks:

all other things being equal, our capacity for influence and our imperative for action are going to be a function of proximity. (5.27)

But what is proximity in a highly interconnected world?  Threats, agents and the application of force, through technology, can traverse physical distances with ease, from unexpected places and in unanticipated ways.  Yet Defence persists in assessing threats and opportunities through a linear ‘steaming day’ lens.

The conceptual difficulty for Defence in identifying and assessing threats and so risks arises from

  • Defence’s boundedness by its platforms—what is the reach of a C-17 and how long before a tanker reaches its destination, for example;
  • its persistant top-down nation-state view of the world, and so often casual dismissal on non-state actors and phenomena; and
  • its inherent bias towards risks and behaviours it knows and understands.

We reach an uncomfortable dichotomy.  On one side, bureaucracies—including the military bureaucracy—feel more comfortable handling the known, everyday risks, substituting the immediate for strategy.  On the other, absent a clear conceptual understanding of the strategic environment, needs and drivers over the longer-term, strategy collapses to the absolutism expressed above.  Little wonder defence policy follow the prevailing winds, held down only by its own inertia.

Last, reliance on a risk management approach is disingenuous.  It suggests that the government in its wisdom will chose the ever-safe course, avoiding risk.  But as we know, such a path leads into stagnation.  And in geopolitics there is no fail-safe course.

Risk management is a useful tool—but only one of many.  There are smarter approaches to dealing sensibly with uncertainty than an over-reliance on a misapplication of risk and risk management.  These require a deeper understanding of strategy, the environment and of the available tools than is evident in WP2009.

References

Defence (2009), ‘Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030’, (Canberra).

Dupont, Alan (2003), ‘Transformation or stagnation? Rethinking Australia’s defence’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 57 (1), 55-76.

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