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Defence strategy: old wine in new bottles « Previous | |Next »
May 16, 2006

One perspective on defence strategy after the events of September 11 is that the threat to Australia is more likely than not to be unconventional or asymmetric. This holds that geography is not crucial, that Austalia is a powerful country with global concerns and that Australia is a deputy sheriff in the US empire. Australian forces operate around the world now in different circumstances and so they need to be properly equipped to meet the different tasks give to them by the government.

The ADF is increasingly likely to be deployed well beyond Australia due to the need to make a meaningful contribution to US-led coalition capabilities. That is where Australia's national interest lies and it implies the further integration of the ADF with the United States military. This will result in the protection of Australian interests under the security umbrella of the super-power.

This imperial “forward defence” position is seen as a counter position to the diminishing concentric circles around our coastline approach to national security. The concentric circles strategy was defined in terms of a conventional threat (invasion) to Australia and so the first responsibility is to defend Australia. Hence the strategy needed to think from mainland Australia outwards. This was deemed to be a flawed strategy since an attack on northern Australia by a hostile nation-state is highly unlikely.

Things are not that simple are they?

The historical background is that the Nixon Doctrine and withdrawal of United Kingdom forces from East of the Suez persuaded Australia to develop a more independent strategy, which attempts to develop regional balances of power and cooperative security agreements. Australia's defence forces are required to become self reliant, but within a framework of alliances. Although contemplated throughout the 1970s, this strategy was first articulated in 1986, and was most recently reinforced through the release of the 1994 Defence White Paper "Defending Australia." The dated "concentric circles" views on Australia's defence has been closely associated with strategic analysts Paul Dibb, Hugh White and Kim Beazley.

The strength of the concentric circle approach is that it focuses on the region---East Timor, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Fiji, and the instability in Indonesia's Papua province and its ‘arc of instability’. Paul Dibb, wriitng in todays Australian, states this well:

In terms of priorities for the allocation of resources, closer is more important, something former defence minister Robert Hill seemed not to understand when he proclaimed that geography was no longer important. Guinea-Bissau in Africa will never be as crucial to our national interests as PNG.

The stability of the archipelago to our near north will be a central security preoccupation for Australia in the years ahead. Dibb states that the problem for Australia will arise if we face two important contingencies in our immediate neighbourhood simultaneously. But the way events are unfolding, we could soon be faced with two simultaneous crises on the ground in the Solomons and East Timor. He adds:
None of this is to argue against our modest deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is merely to observe that regional crises must by necessity command our first priority, particularly where the lives of Australians are at stake and the stability of democratically elected regional governments is threatened. We have more than enough troubles looming on our doorstep to keep us occupied for the indefinite future. No one else is going to look after our interests in our immediate neighbourhood for us. In terms of our strategic geography, closer is more important.

The stability of the archipelago to our near north will be a central security preoccupation for Australia in the years ahead.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:49 AM | | Comments (11)


The asymmetric threat in our case turns out require a regional response. It is Indonesia that has been taking the hits for us in terror, and handling them well. So symmetric or asymmetric, regionalism is the right policy response in defence and security over an expeditionary policy.

Terrorism for Australia is a foreign policy issue, not a domestic security one; as the government has made out. By pursuing an expeditionary and domestic security policy they have got it wrong, twice.


Given Bali, I cannot understand the forward defence position in the war on terrorism either.It clearly recognizes that the nation-state versus nation state conflicts of the 20th century are being replaced by hybrid wars and asymmetric contests in which there is no clear-cut distinction between soldiers and civilians and between organised violence, terror, crime and war.

That is Bali. So the concentric circles strategy make good strategic sense.

However, Alan Dupont says that Australia's defence strategy: firmly rooted in the past having remained essentially unchanged since the Dibb Review almost twenty years ago. Its central premise, encapsulated in the Defence of Australia (DOA) doctrine, is that protecting Australia against conventional military attack from a hostile state should determine the structure and capability of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).Given the dramatically different strategic circumstances we now face I think this position is intellectually bankrupt, politically untenable and operationally unsustainable. There is a serious mismatch between strategy, force structure and the emerging threats to Australia’s security.

Yet that hostile conventional military attack on Australia is not what White, Dibbs and Beazley hold. They are concerned about the arc of instability in the region. It is not much of a debate.

What does Dupont say about this? He argues that the traditional defence strategy has four major failings:

It is based on a misplaced geographical determinism that ignores the diverse and globalised nature of modern conflict; it has shaped the ADF for the wrong wars; it gives insufficient weight to the transnational threats which confront us; and it fails to recognise that modern defence forces must win the peace as well as the war.

Dupont then goes through the flaws. The regional 'arc of crisis' comes up in this paragraph on the second fundamental flaw--that the ADF is structured for the wrong wars. Dupont says:
The alleged 'arc of crisis' to Australia’s north has been a convenient peg to hang arguments for increased military spending or to endorse a strategic posture that bears little or no relationship to the region’s underlying problems which are overwhelmingly economic, social and environmental rather than military.

'Alleged'? After East Timor, Bali, Solomon Islands etc.

Dupont attributes to Dibbs & co the implausible view that Australia will be invaded by Indonesia or China, and that the the ADF should be structured for such improbable contingencies.

This is polemics not analysis. What's going on here? Why the straw dog arguments? Do you know?

Gary, A nation defines its defence doctrine by it vulnerabilities. In our case we have an Air-Sea gap to defend and project across. The Air-Sea gap is also our Sea Lines of Communiction [SLOC] with the US, our trade routes as well as contained many natural assets (such as oil and gas in the north west shelf and timor sea).

So Australian defence interests require that we have the structure and capability to hit any potential aggressor before they can control that air-sea gap which is the North-West shelf, the Timor Sea and the Coral Sea. That also means we have to secure the surrounding areas. Indonesia becoming a liberal democracy is a great boon, as Konfrontasi was an undocumented and undeclared war between Australia and Indonesia.

I don't consider asymmetric warfare a mimlitary concern. It targets the civil structures, trying to weaken, panic, and disrupt those rather than military ones. Terror is not a military issue, it is a civil one.

So I dont like that governments seek domestic security and military solutions to terror as it is useless. Civil order comes through a consistent, strong, fair and just police and judicial system.


I missed this piece by Glenn Milne in The Australian yesterday--it was noticed by John Quiggin and Tim Dunlop. Milne says:

the Prime Minister is vulnerable to a national security attack from Labor from the Right...Labor's paradigm on the so far failed war on terror could be about to prevail domestically....That scenario runs thus: Howard's preoccupation with his personal relationship with George W. Bush has meant we are fighting a legitimate war on terror post 9/11, but in the wrong part of the world.

Milne adds that:
Labor not only opposed the Iraq war from the outset, but it has consistently argued that our real national interests in the war on terror lie in our own backyard: places such as Timor, the Solomons, Fiji and PNG.

He then draws this conclusion:
This rests on the logical assumption that given the global nature of terrorism, failed states on Australia's doorstep represent a confirmed threat to national security. Failed states are natural conduits for financial and logistical support for terrorist attacks on domestic soil.

A poweful statement of the ALP case huh? Especially from someone normally aligned with Peter Costello. Now why would he do that?

Milne then adds that Beazley has already sensed Howard's new weakness on his right flank. He says that we should expect the Labor leader to begin mounting the case on Howard's national security competence.

Beazley has already done so in early speeches.

Gary, Prior to the election I wrote an article comparing Liberal and Labor foreign policy in relation to terrorism. From Labor's policy documents it appeared that Latham was taking an Engagement stance, which is superior for combatting terrorism than the GAPF or international liberalism.

I think the Howard government is aenimic in the area of foreign policy and defence. Their foreign policy has lacked any aspect of power politics, which is ultimately political courage. Their defence policy and procurement has been confused and doesn't match the strategic doctrine of the ADF. They have also put off producing a defence white paper.

They are weak there. Downer hasn't helped with his immediately contradictory speeches on "big australia vs small australia" and "Curtin the appeaser". They are too easy to poke holes into and come off sounding silly.

Their best bet IMO is to claim that Labor doesnt care about the US Alliance and that America is the only thing keeping Australia safe - from communists, terrorists, lesbian dolphins, whatever...

Gary,Milne states the Labor Party was against the war in Iraq from the start is not 100% true.Before any difinitive responce was given in relation to the Iraq war it was first checked by the barometer of Public opinion/opinion of which was driven by talk back shock jocks..Beazley has always talked in riddles on this issue,and this is backed up by your ref to his interview Tony Jones Late Line 27/02/2003.

I am going to be howled down in derision here but stand by.Our whole defense policy is dreamed up in Washington and our military does not fart out of turn unless the Pentagon authorizes it.The biggest threat to our Nation comes from the North,and most Australians are paranoid about it. Unless our population goes up to 100 million by next friday we will always be under the umbrella of the only super power left in the world the U.S.

Any one who thinks our little foray into E. Timor not withstanding it was sanctioned by the U.N. would not have gone ahead with out certain guarantee's from the U.S. government is delusional.Australia humiliated Indonesia in the Konfrontasi,however that was over forty years ago they have moved on.I nearly choked on my corn flakes when I heard our omniscient S.E. Asian dictator Howard threaten pre-emptive strikes on Asia to root out terrorists,this was a veiled threat to Indonesia.Yea right.Another Pentagon authoriized media release.

Australia's stategic defense policy is firmly directed to where it should be to the islands to the north of us.In my opinion terrorism,will not be the main threat from this area.As they run out of resources and start to drown in their own excreta etc etc they will be on the move,and not to install an Islamic theocracy but to bloody survive.

No I agree the situation around the the ALP and Iraq is muddy. Isn't that due to the conflict within the ALP?

From memory they would only invade Iraq under a UN flag based on a UN resolution. No resolution no support for invasion. However the ALP was-still is-- full of Big Macs (eg., Kim Beazley) putting the arguments for war

Kevin Rudd spoke for the Americans--he was part of the little Anerican Canberra policy establishment. Mark Latham stood up to the Americans and their dirty little war. No more 'arselicking and holesucking' was how he put it. Crean didn't want to get between the Americans and the war. So UN approval was the best way out of the internal conflict.

Then Latham called for the troops home by Xmas to help protect Australia from terrorists--- but the ALP was going to keep some troops there.Lots of confusion in the media about which ones; confusion fostered by Kevin Rudd with an armful of caveats.

The Little Americans in the ALP leaked like a sieve at this point (Rudd again) and gave Howard the opening he needed to attack and damage.

That's how Latham tells in the Latham Diaries.

nice article. I would qualify by saying that the ALP is deeply divided between the two foreign policy approaches.Iraq bought that conflict out.

Bob Carr and Kevin Rudd would be examples of those expressing the Great and Powerful Friends doctine--we should not offend the Americans over the Iraq by pulling the Australian troops back to protect Australia from terrorists.

Gary,Yes I agree with your point,and the point you make to stray off topic some what, is why the un-able to make traction on the government on this issue.If you were an interested outsider from the Australian political scene,you would swear the country had half a dozen leaders of the opposition. as an e.g. Rudd I have no doubt would have to be asking actors equity rates for his appearances on late line.As I have stated before on your forum,and before it has again become an issue,and I believe it is relavent.Kimbo will not be leading the A.L.P. to the next election.Why the A.L.P. is delaying dumping him???
I await your opinion.Possibly the A.L.P. is waiting to see the lay of the land on Howard.?????

your intuitions are right.

The NSW Right has started making moves to undermine Beazley through its push pull leaked internal polling--what they did so effectively to Simon Crean.

Bill Shorten is their man for the top job. The NSW division of Bill Shorten's union, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) has led the push to relax the ALP's policy on uranium mining to have the NSW Government investigate the viability of nuclear power.