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Tinker with defence policy and risk attack

By Paul Dibb - posted Thursday, 15 November 2001

We must be careful not to let today's surprise determine our long-term force structure because tomorrow's surprise may be quite different. Since the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, there has been an outpouring of articles in the Australian press proclaiming that our defence strategy is completely out of date and should be junked.

The main themes are that the defence of Australia is irrelevant because we will never be attacked and we should restructure the Australian Defence Force to fight terrorism and other transnational threats (Alan Dupont, The Australian, October 24).

Some want us to have a defence force designed for distant operations with the US, as distinct from concentrating on our region (Anthony Bergin and Gary Brown, The Australian Financial Review). For others, it involves increasing the size of the army from 25,000 to 32,000 (Greg Sheridan and Major-General Mike Jeffrey, The Australian, October 20). Yet others take the view that we need to plan for worst-case and extreme threats (Adam Cobb, The Australian Financial Review, October 25).


What these commentators have in common is a lack of any precise proposals on how to restructure the ADF, in what order of priority and at what cost, and which other key elements of our defence force should be eliminated or deferred.

A general waving of the hands is easy. But defence policy is about the rigorous application of force structure priorities within a limited budget. It is also about having a clearly defined and intellectually tough-minded conceptual framework.

Successive governments in Australia have come to this realisation during the past 15 years. They have all given the first priority to the defence of Australia and our direct approaches.

As the defence white paper that was issued in December last year says:

preventing or defeating any armed attack on Australia "is the bedrock of our security, and the most fundamental responsibility of government". Yet there are those who believe that the likelihood of a military attack on Australia is remote and "becoming less likely with each passing year".

But Australia is not New Zealand or Canada. We face an arc of instability to our north, a weakened South-East Asia and an uncertain balance of power with the rise of China. Indonesia -- the fourth largest country – has an unpredictable future. Prudent Australian defence planners must consider that Indonesia has the attributes of a friend and a potential adversary. That is an enduring geopolitical hazard for Australia, as our deployment to East Timor demonstrated.


In any case, even if the risk of any armed attack on Australia is low, the consequences of misjudging it would be serious.

Australia enjoys security from conventional threats, even though it is resource-rich and sparsely populated. But that is at least in part because the ADF has the demonstrable capability to deal with credible threats that could arise at short notice.

A downgraded ADF, structured to meet so-called transnational threats, would result in a shift in the regional balance and a lower sense of security for Australia in times of tension or instability. When the Prime Minister tabled the defence white paper in parliament, he made it quite clear that Australia "will not develop capabilities specifically to undertake operations beyond our immediate region". That remains the case in my view.

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This article was first published in The Australian on October 30, 2001.

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About the Author

Professor Paul Dibb, former deputy secretary of defence and director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, is head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

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