Shortcomings of the next defence white paper (part 2)
9 Jan 2014|

In part 1 of my post, I observed that the next Defence White Paper (DWP) will build upon its seven predecessors. That post looked inward at the resourcing shortcomings that DWPs generally feature. This post reverses tack and looks outward. Together, they provide a model of how to write such documents but also create a cognitive cage that policymakers have trouble breaking out of. Known shortcomings reoccur.

The underlying problem with DWPs is that they generally conflate the function of national defence with the Department of Defence. While the Department may write each DWP, the defence of Australia and its interests is much more than just the Department of Defence. There’s a big difference between small ‘d’ defence and the big ‘D’ Defence Department but sometimes this subtle distinction gets lost.

Other white papers have at times taken a whole-of-government—even whole-of-nation—approach, but not DWPs. For example, the recent Energy White Paper (PDF) was not just about the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism but broadly based across government, business and society. The new Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper will be this way from the start. A cross-agency taskforce within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet will develop this new White Paper rather than it being devised wholly within the Department of Agriculture. The traditional naval-gazing posture of DWPs creates several shortcomings.

Firstly, the strategic setting upon which the DWP builds a desired force structure is devised by the Defence Department for the Defence Department. This an internalised departmental perspective but Australia has a whole department—DFAT—whose raison d’etre is carefully understanding—the international environment in a balanced and nuanced way. The Defence Department has a completely different raison d’etre so should it attempt to devise its own unique assessment of the international system? A counter argument is that DFAT takes a more holistic view whereas Defence wants a narrower, military perspective. But this is problematic because any analysis that separates a country’s military capabilities from its political, economic and social context runs the risk of appearing a misleading and simplistic caricature. Using a unique, Departmentally specific view of reality has many risks and is vulnerable to critiques—including being somewhat self-interested.

Secondly, successive DWPs have usually taken a view of war as only a matter for the Defence Department. The recent Iraq War, the on-going Afghanistan conflict, the Timor intervention and the Solomon Islands operation remind us that success in such ventures depends on more than just military actions. Other governmental agencies also need to be involved and their capabilities and capacities purposefully integrated with Defence’s. Arguably, this is best done not ‘on the fly’ when war calls but rather in a deliberate and considered manner beforehand.

Thirdly, offshore conflicts can easily and surprisingly quickly come home in the modern globalised world—and in multiple ways. Non-state actors may seek to raise the costs of Australian interventions offshore through terrorist actions against Australia both on and offshore. Alternatively, distant civil wars may be actively supported and financed by non-state groups in Australia in ways that can have adverse impacts on Australian interests. Moreover, returnees from conflicts overseas can bring strife home with them. Lastly, overseas conflicts can generate sizeable refugee flows that are generally unwanted. Defending against wars coming home has become important in modern conflicts and can involve multiple government agencies, however this aspect is generally overlooked by DWPs.

Fourthly, the other side of the coin is that the ADF and some parts of the Defence Department are deeply involved with many other federal Departments and agencies in a range of activities and operations. In the age of globalisation with extensive transnational links and deep complex interdependence between countries, this is much more than the traditional episodic, occasional aid to the civil power. Defence works closely and continually with many other Departments across issues as diverse as countering violent extremists, maritime security, and cyber threats. But, at best, DWPs treat all this as secondary and do not integrate these important ongoing national activities and operations into the broader Defence strategy, force structure, capabilities or capacities.

Lastly, and more narrowly, defence industry is also not a Defence Department issue alone. DWPs focus solely on the role of Australia’s defence industry in supporting Defence. Such a focus means the companies and businesses that are developed and sustained under this policy are fragile and highly vulnerable to changes in defence strategic guidance, posture, funding and acquisition preferences. To survive they must develop strong lobbying techniques and try to build some form of military-industrial complex; naval shipbuilding is the pre-eminent current example. For all concerned, Australian defence industry would be better placed if integrated into a national industrial policy. The Department of Industry has such policy as its raison d’etre but DWPs frequently avoid incorporating a broad approach and proceed to advocate and fund unsustainable defence industry stances. All this is arguably not to Australia’s long-term benefit.

In developing DWPs from a rather narrow single-Department perspective, the drafters of such documents unintentionally build-in particular shortcomings. Shifting to a whole-of-government/whole-of-nation perspective could both help overcome these and make the next DWP more appropriate to our strategic circumstances and requirements. It may be worth a try.

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.