(AAP Image/Supplied by Cpl. Cameron Hermanet/U.S. Department of Defense)

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Originally published in The Australian on May 28, 2024

The 2024 National Defence Strategy (NDS) looks more like the impactless pronouncements of consultants’ “decks” than a persuasive guide to the government’s security plans for the next decade or two.

It is a dismal document. Defence argot and clunky phrases present what is little more than portentous persiflage – where it is not just self-serving.

The breathless opening ­sentence tells us that there is no greater responsibility for the government than defending Australia.

But what does that mean?

The second sentence explains it: the government is committed to “deploying all elements of national power” to protect our security, interests and way of life.

Nowhere are any of these concepts explained. What is national power? How much of it does Australia have? How does Australia use it? Is it just armed force? What is security? What are our interests? What is our way of life? Did anyone ask the First Peoples? What about climate?

The document ends with the same sort of logorrhoea. It announces a biennial NDS cycle that “provides a structured basis to regularly evaluate and prioritise efforts to maintain a more lethal ADF that is capable of credibly holding potential adversaries at risk – including as military forces modernise and strategic challenges continue to evolve”.

So there you are: everything’s quite clear! And we know where the next iteration of Australia’s defence strategy might take us. The US now talks about “integrated deterrence” (whatever that means). It is just a matter of time before the Australian echo sounds. We are already on the way to an “Objective Integrated Force”, whatever that might be.

In a document that has lots of photos but fewer than 70 pages of text, the terms “strategy” and “strategic” are used (we might have said deployed, but you know what we mean) 258 times. That’s more than three per page. By the document’s end, however, no one knows what either word means. It is flummery.

There are some new terms of art, such as the Defence Minister’s “impactful projection”, which one might suppose supports a “strategy of denial”. And this, of course, feeds seamlessly into a “force posture” built around “minimum viable capabilities”, “deterrence” and “asymmetric advantage” to give us this policy prescription: “Defence must posture to enable the impactful projection of military effects from Australia” (4.14).

This document is permeated by underthink and overreach. Try this. “The integrated, focused force is designed using the minimum viable capabilities required to ensure resources are maximised and military capabilities are brought into service as quickly as possible … To enable the shift to an integrated, focused force, Defence is moving away from a domain-centric approach to ADF force design. Force design will instead be focused on capability development that addresses specific strategic and operational needs based on realistic and prioritised scenarios” (6.2-3). Wow! Now you know.

Like similar documents over the past two decades, the 2024 NDS does not come to terms with the key determinants of Australia’s place in the world: its identity and interests; the neighbourhood (the expansive term “Indo-Pacific” is used every two pages); China’s role; and the place of the United States. Instead, it talks repeatedly about “strategic balance” and “collective security” without any sense of irony.

So, as we muscle up (along with the US, of course) to “balance” China and to defeat it if the strategy of denial fails, we refuse to address the question whether “collective security” includes China’s security, or where the US fits into “collective security”.

The “strategic environment” is dynamic. It is multidimensional. It is chaotic, and change is unpredictable. Yet our “strategic” analysts reduce everything to comfortable binaries: balance between autocracy and democracy (does that mean that we need autocracy to achieve balance? – just asking for a friend); “a world where no country is dominated and no country dominates (except the US)”; “agreement where we can, disagreement where we must”.

The pervasive vagueness of policy expression is untested by the realities of our immediate neighbourhood.

The conclusive test of good planning is quick action when needed – something the ADF handled well in Timor Leste in 1999/2000.

But how would the ADF, and the Australian government more generally, handle a similar scenario today, such as the collapse of PNG’s governmental institutions and the country’s descent into lawlessness? A couple of rebel trucks on the single runway at Jackson airport outside Port Moresby would certainly stymie any early response. The most expensive components of the ADF’s “integrated focused force” would be useless.

For all its braggadocio, Australia would look flat-footed: if a few boat arrivals at Truscott in the far Northwest are problematic, a PNG scenario could prove to be overwhelming.

If the 2024 NDS is in any way emblematic of Australia’s current public policy enterprise, we’re in a bad way.

Ambition and aspiration are fine, though the practical realities of money, population dynamics, changing political expectations, national and international human rights, fear of global warming, nuclear proliferation and pandemics all inject reality into the world of strategic imagination. And that’s where we are – too much imagination, not enough reality.

If the much-trumpeted 2023 Defence Strategic Review was a stable of hobby horses out for a canter, as we described it last year, the 2024 NDS is a congress of kites in search of convergence.

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