A Radical New Defence Policy - Brendan Sargeant

28 September 2018

This is the transcript of the speech delivered by Honorary Professor Brendan Sargeant at the public panel event ‘Why Australia Needs a Radically New Defence Policy’ on 27 September 2018.

Two other speeches were also given, by Professor Paul Dibb and Honorary Professor Richard Brabin-Smith.

Video of the event is available on the Coral Bell School Youtube channel.

We know that the world we have lived in is changing in profound ways; we do not know what the future will look like.

Any genuine crisis is a challenge to imagination. Such a crisis will challenge who we are and what we can be.

The challenges to our security in the emerging strategic order of the Indo-Pacific are first a challenge to our strategic imagination. To respond effectively, we will need to imagine our place in this order and work to shape it to our interests.

So, we must think radically about policy and strategy. I say “radically” because thinking must, over time, consider the fundamentals of our strategic environment, the ways in which it is changing, our place in it, and the measures we need to take to ensure security and prosperity. The changes we are seeing call into question the utility of current policy frameworks as a guide to action in the future.

For decades, Australian defence and strategic policy has been guided by the overriding goal of maintaining strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific in ways that supports our national interests.

Australia has pursued this goal in three ways.

  • We have supported and participated in the creation of regional communities of interest.
  • We have pursued regional capability and capacity building through bilateral and multilateral defence cooperation.
  • We have intervened to help resolve regional crises, either in the context of natural disasters or in relation to political challenges such as Cambodia, Timor and the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), or more recently, Marawi.

This has occurred in an environment that has been stable and underpinned by US power and broadly agreed assumptions, now under challenge, about the nature of the strategic order and how it should work.

Our strategic goal may not change that much, but we are going to have work a lot harder to achieve it.

Strong defence capability signals both the willingness and the capacity to defend our national interests, with force if necessary. It ensures that we are taken seriously in our region.

Australia’s strong defence capability has for decades been one of the foundations of Australia’s ability to build community, build regional capability, and ensure Australia’s influence in regional decision-making. How we build capability in the future will be the key to our capacity to continue to exercise influence and support regional security.

Policy is important. It is much more than words.

Policy establishes how we understand the reality we are in and guides our decisions. The question for policy is not only what does it enable us to see so that we may make decisions with confidence, but what does it prevent us from seeing?

What does current policy suggest are our blind spots?

The DFAT White Paper, the central foreign policy document of the government, argues that the world is changing but that we have an abiding interest in the continuation of the current rules-based order.

The question that lies on the other side of the White Paper is how might we operate in a world where the rules-based order we are comfortable with is being supplanted by something with which we are not comfortable, such as a different conception of what the rules must be, or a world where we see coercion as a policy instrument used more frequently. The DFAT White Paper speaks to this with its focus on strengthening our regional relationships. But the pace of and extent of change in our strategic environment raises the question of whether we are putting sufficient resources into implementation.

The border has emerged as a major, indeed, perhaps the central organising idea for much of our national security thinking. Central to this is the idea of the border and the necessity of border integrity. This goes with a trend in thinking that suggests that the border embraces and mediates every aspect of our relations with the rest of the world.

This gives policy and strategy development an operational focus because most threats to border integrity, real or imagined, demand a short-term operational response. Strengthened policing and a hardening of the border, in the context of the challenge of the changing strategic order in the Indo-Pacific, is insufficient as a conceptual framework to guide policy and decisions about future engagement in the Indo-Pacific strategic system. More profoundly, it suggests a failure of strategic imagination because it turns us inwards, embodies a fear of the world, and either narrows or takes us away from engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

The 2016 Defence White Paper was a landmark document because it established a funded investment program that will guide development of the ADF for the next decade, particularly the rebuilding of the Australian Navy.

The White Paper does not establish priorities for force structure planning, but focuses on Australia’s Strategic Defence Interests and consequential Strategic Defence Objectives. These Strategic Defence interests are:

  • a secure, resilient Australia, with secure northern approaches and proximate sea lines of communication;
  • a secure near a region, encompassing Maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific;
  • a stable Indo Pacific region and a rule-based global order.

Each of these Strategic Defence Interests has allocated to them corresponding Strategic Defence Objectives.

The conceptual problem is that the White Paper gives equal priority to each of these Interests and, by extension, the Defence Strategic Objectives.

The problem of having Strategic Defence Interests and Strategic Objectives of equal priority is that priorities for capability building and strategic decision making are then conditioned by whatever the current crisis is. Short-term crises, which are visible, will often take precedence over longer term crises, which are not so visible.

We are in a period of transition.

A characteristic of periods of transition is that the strategic environment will be ambiguous. We see experiments and hedging. We will see countries, large and small, across the Indo-Pacific behaving in unexpected ways as they seek to position themselves in a potentially different strategic order.

Because we don’t know what the future will bring, the past can become very seductive because it is what we know.

Policy therefore becomes very important because the task of policy must be to help us see the reality of our strategic environment and to guide decisions to respond.

So, what should we do? I have four suggestions.

We need to increase presence and build integration at the force level.

In times of transition, presence matters. Presence means you are there, and that you can respond both operationally and strategically to events, both to solve problems now and to create the decision-making structures of the future.

We should increase our presence in the region, both in diplomacy and Defence.

For Defence, the guiding policy framework should be on capability building to create the capacity for forces to integrate to deal with both strategic and operational challenges.

Forces should be capable of integration to respond to contingencies at every level of potential threat. Integration must embody partnership, including acceptance of leadership from other countries when that is appropriate.

With Indonesia, the country of most importance to Australia and our long-term security, we should build integrated capability to a level where we can create and operate a combined task force that can be led by either Indonesia or Australia and be capable of dealing with a major regional security challenge.

The operational test for capability building should be the capacity to integrate forces.

The strategic test should be the capacity to operate as an integrated force in high intensity contingencies, to either resist coercion or signal willingness and capacity to do so.

Increased presence that reflects genuine partnership aimed at building integration, requires a profound change in strategic and operational culture both for Australia and for our regional partners.

We need to understand, build and use defence capability strategically.

We build and use Defence capability to strengthen our position in our strategic environment – to make us more powerful.

An ADF that possesses major strategic capability increases Australia’s ability to act independently or in coalition. The primary lens for future capability development should be on the extent to which it contributes to this goal.

Emerging capabilities such as the Joint Strike Fighter, the Future Frigate and the Future Submarine will change our strategic environment, increase Australia’s military power and will create new opportunities for engagement and capability building in the Indo-Pacific.

We need to understand what these capabilities represent strategically - how and where they can increase Australia’s power - and the ways in which we might continue to develop and use them to increase our ability to act independently and support our national interests.

One of the major implications of these capabilities is that in giving Australia more power, they will give Australia more capacity and opportunities for leadership.

I make the point that our experience of leading in response to a major security crisis in our region is limited. In recent history, it is only the Independence of Timor Leste that I would consider a major security crisis that directly engaged our interests and where Australia had to exercise leadership.

We should build deterrence capability that is independent of Alliance systems.

The Alliance enhances our deterrence because our deterrence capabilities are integrated into larger Alliance systems.

Policy should focus on strengthening our capacity to exercise deterrence without necessarily drawing on Alliance systems. It may mean a greater focus on developing indigenous capabilities that have deterrent effect. It may also condition how we want to think about and use some of the emerging strategic capabilities such as the Future Frigate and the Joint Strike Fighter.

We should understand that budgets drive capability, which in turn determines our capacity to operate effectively in our region.

We are getting smaller in relation to other economies of the Indo-Pacific. This means that if nothing changes, we will over time have less power, including military power.

To offset this, we will need to increase our defence capability. This means that we will need to put more resources into Defence.

The Defence budget ($31.2B in 2018-19) is significant, but by no means the largest item of projected Commonwealth expenditure. It is less than expenditures on Health ($78.8B), Education ($34.7B), Social Security and Welfare ($176.6B).

The measure of the adequacy of the Defence budget does not lie in how much a proportion of GDP it represents. Nor does it lie in the share of annual budget allocations across Commonwealth expenditures.

The only meaningful measure of whether the Defence budget is adequate lies in how much capability it allows us to acquire or develop.

It is the level of capability that determines the contribution of Defence to our ability to support our national interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Ultimately, ‘how much is enough’ rests on a judgement about the level and nature of strategic risk and the extent to which we want to try and mitigate it through capability building. As each of us tonight has argued from different perspectives, our strategic risk is increasing.

In summary…

The changes to how we participate in the Indo-Pacific will be profound. We will not only have to reimagine what we do, but in some ways who we are.

We need to build much greater defence integration with countries of the Indo-Pacific, particularly Indonesia.

We need to build capabilities that give us more deterrence with less reliance on Alliance systems.

Priority for capability development should focus on increasing our capacity to support our strategic interests in the region where we live.

We need to be ready for leadership in the event of a major security crisis that engages our national interests.

In summary, we need defence capability they can support our participation in a world where the “rules” are likely to be negotiated continually and where the capacity to exercise force will be an essential foundation of our ability to live in this world as we want.

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