Australia’s new defense white paper: How can the United States Help?

By Andrew Smith

Australian Army Warrant Officer performs pre-flight maintenance. Australia's new white paper will shape the future of the Australian Defence Force and its capabilities to work with allies. Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet's flickr photostream, U.S. Government work

An Australian Army Warrant Officer performs preflight maintenance during Talisman Sabre 2011. Australia’s new white paper will shape the future of the Australian Defence Force and its capabilities to work with allies such as the United States. Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government work

This month sees the now-familiar annual celebration and examination of the relationship between Australia and the United States. Beginning with the trade and culturally-oriented G’day USA program and the upcoming conference on the U.S.-Australia alliance at CSIS, the next few weeks will bring some of the heavy hitters of Australian foreign and security policy to the United States. This is an excellent opportunity to gain early insight into what the Coalition government expects of its new defense white paper, which was heralded late last year by Defence Minister David Johnston.

Details regarding the drafting of the white paper have not yet been revealed, although Alan Dupont, a well-respected national security academic, and former diplomat and Army officer, is expected to head up the process. Having no experience as a senior defense official, Dupont’s would be an unprecedented appointment that indicates the Coalition is seeking a fresh and innovative policy perspective.

The white paper matters for the United States because, among other things, it will determine the way Canberra interacts with U.S. security policy in the Asia-Pacific as the rebalance develops. It will likely include a forecast of Australia’s strategic environment for the next decade, covering geopolitical factors such as China’s place in the Indo-Pacific region as well as economic ones, like energy security.

Another area of interest to the United States is what the white paper says about investment in and the future structure of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Writing the paper will almost certainly involve a thorough force structure review leading to prescriptive guidance on the ADF’s size and capabilities. Setting a structure that can be achieved within budget is always a challenge: the previous Labor government’s failure to do so with its 2009 white paper, subsequently resulting in an under-funded Defence Capability Plan, provided the Coalition with a very effective political cudgel when it was in opposition. But now that it is in government, the Coalition faces the same challenge.

With Australian defense spending unlikely to exceed two percent of gross domestic product anytime soon, a structure offering meaningful capability will be difficult to achieve. Yet U.S. policy makers may have high expectations, if comments like former U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage’s about Australian “free riding” are any indication. White paper decisions will impact forthcoming acquisitions such as the Joint Strike Fighter and new submarines, defining Australia’s military reach and its ability to interoperate with U.S. forces in its near region and globally.

The new Australian government also inherited problems that constrained its predecessor’s Defence Capability Plan. Notably, the need to prepare Australia’s economy for a soft landing when the country’s mineral boom ends, while continuing to deliver the level of government services that the electorate has come to expect, will likely attract more attention from the government in coming years. The defense portfolio will have to compete hard with other government priorities for the funds it needs.

In this fraught environment, some have suggested ways to boost savings by scaling back Australia’s military ambitions. Yet such an approach might render Australia unable to meet emerging security challenges in the region or partner with the United States and others in global security efforts that support Australian strategic interests. This scenario is clearly neither in U.S. nor Australia’s interests.

Perhaps the challenge for the white paper, then, is to determine where Australia sits on the continuum between being a regional power with regional interests and a regional power with global interests, yet with only the resources of a regional power in either case.  There has been some discussion on this topic in Australia, but no firm conclusions so far. A white paper that articulates a vision around which a lasting consensus can form will be an important step forward. While the white paper is ultimately Australia’s responsibility, robust discussions with its U.S. ally over the next couple of weeks will certainly help.

Dr. Andrew Smith is a retired Australian Army Brigadier who now researches and writes independently on national and international security issues.

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