Australia’s Defence White Paper 2015: The Story So Far

By Andrew Smith

The Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Anzac operating in the Gulf of Aden. Source: U.S. Department of Defense photo, U.S. Government Work.

The Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Anzac operating in the Gulf of Aden. Source: U.S. Department of Defense photo, U.S. Government Work.

Development of Australia’s Defence White Paper 2015, formally announced in April, has been under way for over four months. It is worth taking stock of the process thus far.

In announcing the White Paper, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it would be informed by a first-principles review of the Department of Defence, focused on efficiency and effectiveness, especially in acquisition and logistics. The team for that review has now been announced and consists of experienced, independent experts who will likely make tough recommendations and won’t necessarily be swayed by conventional wisdom or accept out of hand the defense reform ideas of the National Commission of Audit.

The White Paper environment is also influenced by this year’s budget, which is better for the Department of Defence than many anticipated and, most importantly, established a feasible path to grow defense spending to two percent of gross domestic product by 2023-24, as the Abbott government has promised. Along with the budget, major acquisition decisions have been made throughout the year, including commitments to purchase more Joint Strike Fighters, new maritime surveillance aircraft, and high-end unmanned surveillance aircraft.

Directly impacting the White Paper was the quiet launch a few weeks ago of a public consultation process, which will inform the authors’ deliberations. Public consultation has been part of previous White Paper processes, enabling interested individuals, organizations, and industry groups to have direct input to the White Paper team. The launch was accompanied by an issues paper setting out major things that the White Paper must consider. Nothing in the issues paper is very surprising: it reaffirms the importance of the U.S.-Australia alliance; establishes the priority given to the “defense of Australia” (meaning Australian territory) over tasks further afield while recognizing, as a lower priority, the need to protect Australia’s global interests; and commits to a thorough, costed Force Structure Review.

But reading between the lines, one could construe warnings to the defense industry and regional centers that the government will demand cost-effectiveness in supplies, equipment, and services, and that pork barreling will not be tolerated. Pointedly, it does not guarantee the preservation of an indigenous shipbuilding industry “at any cost.”

In addition, at the recently concluded annual Australian-U.S. ministerial (AUSMIN) talks between respective defense and foreign affairs departments, the two countries signed a 25-year Force Posture Agreement allowing a substantial U.S. Marine Corps presence in Australia.

Given all the above, as Peter Layton points out, Australia continues to make important defense policy decisions ahead of the White Paper, begging the question as to what is left for the document to do, or what room to maneuver remains for its authors.

Decisions on future submarines and, potentially, ground combat vehicles are still needed, but could also be made before the White Paper is released next year. At best, the document may provide retrospectively the overarching strategic rationale for decisions already made. Although this would reverse a normal development process, a well-articulated and coherent strategy would still provide valuable transparency for Australia’s neighbors and partners further afield, which is one of the objectives of a White Paper.

Whatever discretion is left for the White Paper, a speech last week by the Chief of Australia’s Air Force provided the first hint of the inter-service rivalry that featured in policy processes of old. In particular, he made a strong pitch for the centrality of air power in Australian national security strategy and warned that the wrong lessons should not be drawn from the predominance of ground forces in the wars of the last decade, an assessment that is at odds with some strong opinions in the United States. This is significant for the United States, as it shows there may be in Australia a constituency for a strategy that could use force structure to limit Canberra’s liability to commit to the costs and risks of “boots on the ground” in future coalition efforts with the United States. That thinking is not evident in the Abbott government’s messaging or behavior thus far, but a great deal can happen between now and the White Paper’s release next year.

Dr. Andrew Smith is a retired Australian Army Brigadier who now researches and writes independently on national and international security issues.


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