Shortcomings of the next defence white paper (part 1)
12 Dec 2013|

white paperThe title of this post sounds outrageous. How can there be any shortcomings of the next Defence White Paper (DWP) when it’s yet to be written? But the next DWP won’t emerge from thin air—it’ll be built upon earlier ones. These collectively form a most helpful model upon which to build, while effectively setting the mental boundaries within which the next DWP will be developed. (For readers keen to remind themselves of the contents of previous efforts, Defence has very usefully collected five earlier WPs together and the 2013 variant is still available.)

Moreover, time is running short. Defence Minister Johnston has recently expressed a preference for a mid-to-late 2014 release date—only 6-12 months from now. As this timeline further includes an industry policy paper and a new Defence Capability Plan (DCP), there are busy times ahead at Russell Offices.

All this suggests that that the basic parameters, structure and subject matter of the next White Paper are probably pretty much already determined. And, if so, at least some of the shortcomings of earlier tomes will probably be replicated anew. These shortcomings reflect institutionalised perspectives and internalised positions that are a combination of deliberate choices and unintentional outcomes.

A constant worry today is resourcing so this is a good place to start. While the focus is often money, it also encompasses manpower, materiel, legitimacy and soft power. Let’s talk money first. If history is a guide, the DWP and follow-on DCP will contain a long-term, tightly scheduled, highly integrated spending plan based on both considerable optimism about the future global and domestic financial environment and on project costs estimated before analysis is complete (or often even started). Not surprisingly then, only one of the six DWPs—the Howard Government’s 2000 effort—achieved its financial plan. The Rudd DWP was the most spectacular failure, gestating through the global financial crisis then completely disregarding economic reality. The new DWP emerges in an improving global economic environment but with strong domestic headwinds, including the end of resource boom investment, the collapse of a large part of the manufacturing sector and a sustained decline in the tax base. This is all a proven recipe for DWP fragility.

While all DWPs announce exciting new equipment acquisitions, manning is always under-examined. Finding and keeping skilled people is problematic, but seen as secondary at best. In recent DWPs, there have been several large Naval projects announced, yet there are serious doubts these can be manned. The Rudd DWP’s 12 submarines seems almost ludicrous in this regard, although the proposed fourth AWD might be similar. Moreover, the Rizzo Review found a long-term systematic disregard for maintenance and engineering skills that the five previous DWPs seemingly missed when formulating grandiose plans. In DWPs, manning is generally assumed away and so usually a shaky area.

In terms of materiel, DWPs assume Australian defence industry policy is a subset of defence policy, whereas outside Defence it gets confused with national industrial policy, employment and regional development. Each DWP creates new interest groups while often damaging existing ones, and the latter are the noisiest for obvious reasons. The shipbuilding ‘valley of death’ is an interesting problem. It arose from the Howard DWP ordering ships to be built in Australia, which unintentionally created a large, vociferous and influential pressure group that today seeks guaranteed long-term financial support. From a different direction, but again arising from the Howard era, the aerospace industry is now crying poor (PDF). It seems it’s hard to compete when contracts are sole-sourced to the US Government. Successive DWPs have taken a narrow, short-term view of industry, creating some real headaches for today’s politicians and defence planners. The next DWP could be expected to attract similar criticism.

Moving away from such tangible matters, a major innovation introduced in developing the Howard DWP was a bipartisan, public consultation program. Its principal aim was to get the public and defence commentators onside for a hefty rise in Defence spending. The program found that this was indeed just what people wanted! Such programs are always looked at sceptically (PDF) but they can act as powerful legitimating devices that give concerned citizens a sense of being involved.

While Defence is a technocratic organisation that prides itself on being directive rather than democratic, having the taxpayers and the general society engaged and onside is always useful. The Howard DWP’s really stunning success in convincing all—including within Government itself—of the need to increase defence spending relative to other spending suggests the gains possible by exploiting such a public consultation process. But the next DWP seems headed towards being a pre-Howard document handed down from the Olympian heights—just like Julia Gillard’s 2013 DWP—and accordingly may suffer some inbuilt legitimacy deficit problems.

Soft power involves shaping the structure of ideas that swirl around us. Kim Beazley’s 1987 DWP did this most effectively and so set the defence debate for decades to come. Political opponents might have disliked his ideas, but they embraced them anyway as they had intellectual depth and rigor. This shaping of the environment didn’t happen by accident, but by design and hard work, including the Dibb Report. There’s no sign of such an active process being developed to build the soft power of the next DWP. Like many earlier DWPs then, the next one looks set to be subject to the external ideational environment rather than actively shaping it in some positive and supportive direction.

While inadequate resourcing for the plans announced and some of the pitfalls described above are almost de rigueur in DWPs, there are some less obvious traps. In my next post, I’ll explore some of those.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW, and has been an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University. Image courtesy of Flickr user paloetic.