Defence refines its aim

Herald Sun, 27 Feb 2003

(with sections in italics re-inserted from draft)

More is implied than spelt out in the Government’s "A Defence Update", issued yesterday by Defence Minister Robert Hill. But all of it is good news, and gives hope of even better.

On the face of it, the document confirms rather than replaces the strategic tasks identified in the white paper Defence 2000. These are: defence of Australia (meaning our territorial integrity); operations in our immediate neighbourhood (a flexible term of varying definition); coalition operations further afield; and peacetime national tasks.

That apparent affirmation of the continuing soundness of our strategic priorities is nevertheless followed by recognition of the need for a rebalancing of military capability, particularly an increased emphasis on mobility, readiness, sustainability, and interoperability (basically with US forces and equipment).

Exactly how these objectives are to be met is not revealed, though reference is made to already announced (and in some cases implemented) measures, such as increasing the size of our Special Forces and better troop-lift helicopters.

What justifies this rebalancing? The need to take account of three developments new since Defence 2000: the rise of international terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and adverse trends in our immediate neighbourhood.

The Defence Update’s analysis of these things is sober, sensible and realistic. It carries conviction.

Whether the rebalancing these developments have prompted will actually meet the need, and how it will be paid for (unfortunately, Senator Hill reportedly lost his Cabinet bid for more money), remain to be seen.

The new developments make a case for lifting the proportion of national resources allocated to defence from the pre World War 11 levels to which they have fallen. But what we already know is welcome.

Even more welcome are the indications that our changing strategic environment and the consequent rebalancing, while said in the Update not to call into question Defence’s long-standing strategic tasks, do in fact and philosophy imply a very considerable modification of those tasks.

No mention is made in Defence Update of the concentric circles theory, from which our defence policy has suffered for so long by wrongly assuming that Australia’s national interests necessarily diminish with distance. But the implication is strong that the theory no longer grips and distorts the Department of Defence’s thinking.

Thus the distant regions of North Asia (Canberra is more distant than Dublin from Peking) and the Middle East are accorded "high strategic significance to Australia"; and the heightened threat and long reach of international terrorists and WMD are emphasised.

Likewise, the update does not openly displace the primacy in Defence’s thinking of the defence of Australia against invasion - long a contingency of vanishingly small probability, with disproportionate effect on Defence’s force structure decisions. But it does acknowledge that the threat of direct military attack on Australia is less than it was in 2000; and the implication is strong that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) needs to be sized and shaped for high priority tasks other than defence against invasion.

Likewise also, Defence Update does not mention the bogus doctrine of self-reliance - the capability to defeat an invasion without calling in aid from US combat forces. But again, the implication is strong that Defence now realises the importance to Australia’s security of our working in with the USA in coalition operations far distant from Australia, and realises also that those operations require different or enhanced capabilities from the ADF, not least interoperability.

The recognition that many values and interests are shared with the USA supports this approach.

Those, hitherto including Defence, with a narrow view of Australia’s needs have been dubbed regionalists; those with a wider view, who recognise that security and defence, though different, are connected by time, are called globalists. Senator Hill himself says it is not a question of "or" but "and". It’s a welcome recognition of a new global reality.

Des Moore is Director, Institute of Private Enterprise and Councillor, Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The views are his own.