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Keeping our armed forces at home is a dangerous defence strategy

By Des Moore - posted Thursday, 12 December 2002

The admirable aim of the Howard Government last year in establishing the Australian Strategic Policy Institute was to provide an alternative input into strategic decision-making processes and encourage public debate on strategic issues. The governing Council, of which I am a member, exercises no control over the views the director, Hugh White, and staff espouse in Institute publications and individual Council members have to decide whether to publicly debate those views.

The Institute's latest effusion, Strategic Assessment 2002 (which can be read at, issued under the names of White and a senior Institute staff member, certainly warrants debate. It was published after Defence Minister Senator Robert Hill had already written his own strategic review, and sent it to Cabinet. So on this occasion the Institute has not fulfilled its desire to be a "contributor to the policy process".

More important is whether it contributes effectively to the debate on Australia's strategy. Naturally enough, the Institute says it wants to be "a source of new ideas and innovative solutions for government". Yet in this strategic assessment the authors defend - indeed, extend to terrorism - the dated "concentric circles" views on Australia's defence that have been so closely associated with strategic analysts Paul Dibb and White.

To that disadvantage of staleness in advice must be added a more important large defect: the advice is wrong. For the authors, in what they say about both terrorism and security, have succumbed to the tyranny of proximity - the mistaken notion that interests diminish with distance, that our priorities in fighting terrorism and in looking after our security and defence are easily settled by recourse to a schoolroom ruler. Past acceptance of this thesis by successive governments has undoubtedly contributed to the declining proportion of national resources allocated to defence.


But importance in international affairs is measured by weight, not distance. Nearby East Timor matters little to Australia, except sentimentally; far-away America matters hugely. Even in the elastic-sided "our region", distant but huge China and Japan matter far more than the nearer but less substantial Indonesia.

The authors' failure to understand this basic truth leads them into absurdities, such as advocating concentrating all our international anti-terrorism effort on our "neighbours", simply because of geography, at the expense of dealing with terrorism at its main inspirational and directional and financial source, which is the general Gulf area of the Middle East.

Another such absurdity is to advocate primacy for the defence of Australia on its beaches and near approaches, and to rubbish the view that Australia is better defended by fighting, if fight we must, further out in time and space - even, as in the past, as far out as the other side of the world. In that way, we would effect the better purpose of prevention, by averting such a deterioration in our security circumstances as would lead in time to our having to defend ourselves against invasion and coercive intimidation.

Yet another absurdity is that White, even while advocating that the Australian Defence Force be primarily sized, shaped and equipped to defend Australia on its beaches and in its near approaches, states elsewhere that no scenario "I regard as credible would encompass a sustained attempt to seize and hold significant territory on our continent. In plain words, we are not talking invasion here".

Why then have powerful conventional forces at all? In order, the Institute's director has also said elsewhere, "to meet US expectations of support" for " a US-led coalition in some more distant crisis … such as [a] US-China conflict".

Note that our joining a US-led coalition is represented as our obeying a US summons, not because - though it is the truth - Australia's national interest would be deeply involved in the USA's winning any such conflict.


In such clever ways are the dice loaded against clear thinking about how best to defend Australia, where, when and against whom - and with whom.

Finally, what are we to make of the authors' suggestions for reform of the management of our terrorism effort, and of the Defence Department itself - oddly described as "the most urgent long-term defence policy challenge the Government faces"?

The idea for a National Director of Counter-Terrorism, with substantial staff, is asserted rather than argued, and the agency's composition is not detailed other than it would be much smaller than the Homeland Security department recently established in the US. But would that leave the Australian equivalents of the CIA and the FBI as separate organizations, as they are in the US?

Inadequate justifications of asserted needs, and of asserted deficiencies in defence management, leave serious questions about the authors' analyses, even their underlying motives. Such inadequacies, and the accompanying failures to recognise modern conditions, are unfortunate for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute as an institution, and for sensible strategic debate more generally.

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About the Author

Des Moore is Director, Institute for Private Enterprise and a former Deputy Secretary, Treasury. He authored Schooling Victorians, 1992, Institute of Public Affairs as part of the Project Victoria series which contributed to the educational and other reforms instituted by the Kennett Government. The views are his own.

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