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The latest Defence Update reveals an inability to deal with new realities

By Gary Brown - posted Saturday, 4 January 2003

The Government's new defence update 2003 paper is a frustrating mixture of good sense, unrealistic ambitions and bad judgement.

There is good sense in the recognition of significant strategic change since the publication of the defence white paper in late 2000.

The unrealistic ambitions flow from an unwillingness to accept that needed changes are in the nature of "instead of" rather than "as well as". This imposes heavy new burdens on the long-suffering taxpayer, who is already picking up the tab for some low-grade management of important projects (like the Collins submarines, the Seasprite helicopter, etc, etc).


The bad judgement lies in the servile acceptance of US positions on issues like Iraq - particularly the pre-emption doctrine - and the Bush administration's relentless, dangerous (and probably futile) push for a defence against ballistic missile attack.

Certainly, as the new paper says, we live in a changed strategic environment. There is even less risk today of Australia's being attacked by an aggressive foreign state than there has been for years. Instead we face different security issues: terrorism, possibly at the strategic or catastrophic level; some regional instability; border protection; weapons of mass destruction.

But a revealing supporting paper for the new strategic document says that "the [2000 White Paper] description of our strategic interests and objectives, military strategy, capability priorities and so on are still a robust framework for our defence. Within this framework, we need to rebalance capability priorities and expenditure to reflect the new strategic environment."

This is not acceptance of the real implications of change; it is an attempt to suppress them.

In truth the old framework, focused on conventional conflict with foreign military forces, is past its use-by date. "Rebalancing" within it only rearranges deck chairs on the Titanic. Today's framework requires focus on counter-terrorism, maritime surveillance and interdiction and regional peace-support.

The Government, however, wants to do both: maintain the large conventional war-fighting establishment and address the new issues too, whereas it should be de-emphasising traditional capabilities and expanding others with the resources this releases.


Hence we are confronted with unrealistic ambitions and the threat of yet more dollars going down the Defence black hole.

To take one example: there is a real need to upgrade maritime and air surveillance of the approaches to Australia. This requires adequate numbers of suitable ships and aircraft. These can be funded by taking a few major warships out of the Navy inventory and scaling down the RAAF's love-affair with the highest of high-technology. But the government wants to have its cake and eat it too, at the taxpayer's expense.

The natural conservatism of defence establishments (both uniform and civilian) accounts for some of this, and the rest is explained by the government's attitude to the United States, which wants our conventional forces to lend legitimacy to its pre-emptive wars.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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