Originally published in The Australian on May 25, 2023

For a document that self-advertises as “the most substantial and ambitious approach to Defence … since the second World War”, the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) is neither.

It delivers a narrative of sorts that is propositional, imperative (the word “must” appears 157 times) and acceptable to the government. The fact that its 62 recommendations are either agreed or agreed-in-principle must set a record for reviews and inquiries – a bespoke review tailored to meet a political need perhaps.

The lack of supporting argument for the propositions advanced is a sure sign of haste. The most demanding and expensive capability acquisition in Australia’s defence history – nuclear-powered submarines – is unsupported by the detailed argument and justification that should distinguish serious defence planning documents. There are sound albeit debatable arguments for nuclear propulsion for Australia’s submarine force. But if those arguments are incapable of articulation, the Australian taxpayer is being taken for a ride.

Those with any serious exposure to the evolution of Australian defence planning know that the 1976 Defence White Paper, substantially written by Bill Pritchett (subsequently Defence secretary) and Bob Hamilton (subsequently head of the Strategic and International Policy division), and the 1987 Defence White Paper, substantially written by Paul Dibb (subsequently Professor of Strategic Studies at the ANU), provided the Fraser and Hawke governments with policy platforms that re-legitimised Australia’s alliance with the US and our national defence effort and expenditure after the disaster of the Vietnam War.

The work initiated by Kim Beazley that culminated in the Dibb Review in 1986 was a particular watershed. It premised the national defence effort on two key planning principles: the objective characteristics of armed conflict that involve space, time, distance, physical geography, force capability and determined leadership, regardless of what the threat might be; and the ongoing assessment of strategic risk (as distinct from specific threat). “Credible contingencies” – a concept ignored in the current document – provided both a justification for significant defence expenditures and a brake on enthusiasm.

Importantly, Beazley’s legacy was a coherent logic that underpinned both strategic policy making and force capability planning. This legacy has sustained the national defence enterprise for almost four decades.

Now, however, it is found wanting, ostensibly because China threatens the region and, consequently, Australia. So the DSR recommends a renewed “statecraft” – advocated by Morton Kaplan back in the 1950s – apparently oblivious to the fact that Australia has a significant record in realising its security interests in the Indo-Pacific. Beazley and his Foreign Minister counterpart Gareth Evans took parallel policy reviews to Cabinet at the end of 1989 precisely to further that end. Statecraft is the product of integrated planning and action, not lone-ranger moralising for the benefit of other key agencies.

The DSR sets itself the task of going back to fundamentals and taking a “first-principles” approach to avoiding major conflict in the region.

A statement of the fundamentals of defence planning and identification of first principles would be an important contribution to ongoing policy development. Sadly, the review provides neither. It fails its first test.

If the creation of a new defence planning lexicon is a measure of success, the DSR is a triumph, a field day for logodaedalists. “Defence of Australia” becomes “National Defence”, and a “Strategy of Denial” rather than “a capability edge” will stop an adversary from threatening coercion to achieve dominance. This will be delivered by a “focused force” replacing the “balanced force” of yore – and it will be “integrated” rather than “joint”. The review avoids the minister’s “porcupine” analogy, though it does recommend a substantial reliance on long-range missiles. Nor does it channel the minister’s “impactful projection”, which nonetheless finds a home in the minister’s foreword.

The DSR dumps “warning time”, replacing it with “three distinct time periods for Defence planning” (2023 to 2025, 2026 to 2030 and 2031 and beyond), which is curious. Warning consists of much more than time: it includes both material cause (territorial disputes, for instance) and intent (to resolve the matter by force of arms). The review is entirely innocent of any such analysis.

The term that carries the greatest weight is “posture”. In the sense that then-CDF General John Baker intended when he proposed the concept in the mid-1990s, posture connotes a force where capability, disposition, preparedness, readiness, sustainment and, critically, professionalism are fully integrated. For the review, however, it simply means “basing”, generally the further north the better. Of course, “posture” is much more impactful when preceded by “sovereign Australian”!

The sloppy prose that permeates the DSR – its indiscriminate use of adjectives to qualify undefined concepts is just one indicator – reflects the sloppy thinking that underpins it. This is both a “many hands” phenomenon and a symptom of the absence of a thought-leader – drafting by committee at its best (or worst).

Its fixation on contemporary buzzwords such as “alliance”, “AUKUS” and “Quad” (mentioned once, though India and Japan are referred to half a dozen times) ignores the pressing realities of our immediate region. A review blind to the place of Indonesia in our region belongs more to the world of fancy than to the real world of power, politics, demography and population, and the physical geography that establishes the space and time constraints within which armed conflict is conducted.

It is not often that Defence prime contractors win a mention in a policy document as self-consciously crucial and enduring as the review is intended to be. Boeing and Sikorsky must be especially proud. This is emblematic of a more fundamental shift away from defence self-reliance, albeit within the framework of the alliance with the US, to a significantly greater dependence on the US for our national defence. In the review’s words, “our Alliance with the US is becoming even more important to Australia”.

The bilateral relationship is of paramount importance to Australia, as it should be to the US. But the relationship extends far beyond the military alliance as embodied in the ANZUS Treaty, an artefact of the immediate post-WWII world. To place defence at the centre of the Australia-US relationship is to base Australia’s security on an article of faith. And faith-based policy is no substitute for the single-minded pursuit of our national interests.

Like its many predecessors, this
review sets out to measure national defence against our national interests and to “avoid … major conflict in the region that directly threatens our national interest”. But just as the term “strategic” (used more than 300 times) is nowhere defined, so too “national interests” are unidentified and the “national interest” left vague, particularly so where it refers to “areas of core national interest”.

Overall, the DSR is more a stable of hobbyhorses out for a canter than a coherent plan for addressing the inherent unpredictability of the region in which we live and work. Its policy deficiencies notwithstanding, it is, however, an outstanding example of political manoeuvre. It has stolen the mantle of security guardianship from the conservatives and draped it around the Albanese Labor government while deferring the massive expenditures way beyond the forward estimates – shrewd politics masquerading as pedestrian policy. That is clever.

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