Symposium: Advancing the National Interest?

The 2003 Defence Statement: The failure to marry politics and policy

Derek Woolner, Australian Defence Studies Centre

Australia’s National Security: A Defence Update was released by the Minister for Defence at the end of February 2003 (Department of Defence 2003). The document is intended to present the implications for national security policy assessed as the result of recent changes in Australia’s strategic environment, most notably the emergence of global terrorism.

Although not a formal extension of the foreign affairs White Paper, Advancing the National Interest (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2003), Australia’s National Security was expected to discuss the defence aspects of trends and pressures noted in the foreign affairs document. Described as a ‘statement’, this slim volume is not one of the usual two types of Defence Department public policy document: the Strategic Review and the White Paper. Strategic Reviews assess the security implications of changes in the national strategic environment, while White Papers present policy prescriptions for development of what the Australian Defence Force (ADF) can do (its capabilities) and what it is being prepared to do (its posture).

Yet, as a review of Australia’s strategic interests only two years after the Defence White Paper of December 2000, this statement is meant to have an impact on both the capabilities and posture of the ADF. The judgments in the statement are intended to determine when the national interest justifies overseas deployment of the ADF, and to guide planning for acquisition of equipment to support ADF operational capabilities.

Released shortly after the tabling of Advancing the National Interest, the defence statement is similarly influenced by the consequences of United States’ hegemony. Unsurprisingly, Australia’s National Security focuses on the military superiority of the United States and the perceived advantages of the ANZUS alliance to Australia. The statement also emphasises interoperability with American forces more than any other defence policy document in 25 years. Thus it seems to elevate the alliance from an important consideration to a determining influence over the likely deployment and future capability development of the ADF.

The Debate Over Defence Policy

To assess these developments, a little background is necessary. The practical difficulties the ADF experienced in its East Timor mission in 1999 provoked challenges to defence policy orthodoxy of the last fifteen years. In brief, the issues are these. Since at least the end of the Second World War there has been no significant threat of military subjugation of Australia. Immediately after the war, policy sought to counter potentially deleterious strategic developments in Asia by basing elements of the ADF overseas to work with the local or great powers to maintain a favourable strategic environment. Following its failure in Vietnam, this policy was abandoned.

The 2003 Defence Statement is meant to have an impact on both the capabilities and posture of the ADF.

From the mid-1970s, Australian defence policy has focused on developing and maintaining appropriate defence capabilities over a period when direct military threats to Australia’s independence seem unlikely. Debate was effectively curtailed by the 1987 White Paper (Department of Defence 1987), which judged that Australia’s geography indicated the significant features of an appropriate defence structure. Air and naval forces to defeat an opponent attempting to cross the ocean gap between Australia and its neighbouring islands states would best defend this vast and mostly thinly populated island.

Although not a necessary outcome, implementing this policy saw a comparative neglect of land forces. Resulting limitations to operational capabilities were revealed in 1999, when a strident public demanded the ADF intervene to control pro-Indonesian militia groups following the independence referendum in East Timor. Critics of the ‘defence of Australia’ strategic policy argued that defence of continental Australia was unlikely to be required in the foreseeable future. Yet pursuit of this policy had allowed numbers, training, and equipment for land warfare forces (particularly infantry) to decline, despite having been in consistent demand for almost two decades of peace keeping and disaster relief.

The Coalition government has been sympathetic to this view. Nonetheless, in the 2000 White Paper (Department of Defence 2000), the dominant strategic policy of defending the sea-air gap to the northwest of Australia remained in place. The strength of land forces was increased and their capacity to deploy overseas was boosted, but rather in the light of experience from the previous eighteen months of operations than as any measure of deviation from existing policies.

The terrorist attacks in the north-eastern United States on 11 September 2001 appears to have worked to change the Government’s position. It invoked the ANZUS Treaty on 14 September 2001 and some 1,300 ADF personnel took part in operations against the Taliban Government and al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan later that year.

Australian support for American actions against terrorism extended beyond the field of operations. Throughout 2002, Government spokesmen readily endorsed United States political and intellectual positions, lending support to early American lobbying against the regime of Saddam Hussein and disparaging the United Nations whenever the United States seemed to be losing patience with its considerations.

Australian support for American actions against terrorism extended beyond the field of operations.

The most outspoken endorsement of the developing American response to the threat of global terrorism came from Senator Hill, the Minister for Defence, in June 2002. Senator Hill agreed that pre-emptive strike is a valid national security measure against countries thought to be supporting terrorist activities, when terrorist groups might gain access to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Prime Minister enunciated this position even more strongly in December 2002, suggesting that it would be valid policy for Australian forces to conduct a pre-emptive strike on the territory of a regional neighbour in order to thwart a terrorist attack.

Throughout the year the Government awaited delivery of a Strategic Review of the impact of global terrorism on Australia’s security. The review was repeatedly stillborn, reportedly received and rejected three times by Cabinet, while the Minister publicly disparaged the basis of his Government’s endorsed strategic policy.

A Series of Flawed Arguments

So, what has Australia’s National Security delivered? Given its rather indefinite status, we can look for either insight on the security consequences of the changing strategic environment or the implications for the ADF of changed Government policy. The blunt answer is that this statement has delivered little. It does not mention the contentious issue of pre-emptive strike and provides no criteria for assessing the case for participation in distant coalitions (read, with the United States). In any case, the statement confirmed that such participation will be limited to ‘niche capabilities’ (Defence, 2003, p. 24).

In his forward to the statement, the Minister notes that the salient changes in the Australian security environment are global terrorism and the proliferation of WMD, while concerns about developments in Australia’s immediate region continue. However, the Minister proposes no fundamental change to the size, structure, or roles of the ADF but rather some ‘rebalancing’ affecting operational readiness, interoperability, and some new capabilities. Indeed, the Minister confirms that the ‘principles set out in the Defence White Paper remain sound’ (Defence, 2003, p. 5).

Yet as the Government concluded this statement, it deployed Australian forces to participate in a war that may re-write the rules of international conflict. This deployment rendered irrelevant the statement’s declaration that Australia would contribute to a coalition operation in Iraq ‘if necessary’ (Defence, 2003, p. 24). In other words, the government made the decision on Australia’s participation according to criteria other than those enunciated in this defence statement. If a reformulation of defence policy was needed to guide decision making in an era of ‘renewed strategic uncertainty’ (Defence, 2003, p. 7), then its principles are contained elsewhere.

Australia's National Security provides no criteria for the deployment of the ADF.

Australia’s National Security provides no criteria for the deployment of the ADF because it considers only superficially the two main factors it credits with changing Australia’s strategic environment. In general, despite awareness that contemporary security problems may require a range of government responses, Australia’s National Security fails to distinguish between the broader national security implications of the development of global terrorism and those of a purely military nature.

In pursuing the valid point that terrorism in South East Asia has moved from a focus on local issues to broader Islamist objectives, the defence statement remains descriptive. It avoids analysis of the impact of this development on the strategic environment and of the relevance of military responses. When arguing for a targeted bilateral, regional, and global approach to counter terrorism, Australia’s National Security gives no hint that these levels might not always be compatible. It appears blind to the argument that actions on one level to counter terrorism might undermine activities on another, requiring careful judgment on where the balance of Australian national security might lie. Consequently, its discussion degenerates to a feeble assertion of the need to show no weakness in the face of terrorist blandishments. Similarly, the statement posits the need for further resort to military force against terrorism without, it seems, considering that the use of force might undermine broader national security goals such as the maintenance of regional cohesion and an effective global security system.

On concerns about the proliferation of WMD the statement is, arguably at least in the terms presented, incorrect. The 2000 Defence White Paper noted that WMD remained a concern for regional strategic stability and required a continued focus (Defence 2000, p. 26). Not much has changed in the succeeding two years to justify elevating proliferation of WMD to a major force changing Australia’s strategic environment. The statement dismisses the strategic importance one significant development—North Korea’s abrogation of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other commitments from mid-2002—as a strategic issue, apparently to be managed peacefully (Defence 2003, p. 8). The entire section is little more than thinly veiled support for the US campaign against Iraq (Advancing the National Interest is more explicit—see p. 44) and, even here, it is arguable that the situation has not deteriorated since December 2000. Significantly, the statement ignores the most dangerous contemporary example of WMD proliferation, the nuclear weapons developments of India and Pakistan.

An alternative reading of Australia’s National Security is that the problem is not the proliferation but the distribution of WMD; specifically, that existing stocks might be handed to terrorist groups. Yet, even on this interpretation, the importance of WMD as a major shaper of the strategic environment over the last two years is debatable. The few instances of the use of materials of mass effect (such as the late 2001 anthrax letter campaign in the United States) appear to have originated in the target country.

The statement ignores the most dangerous contemporary example of WMD proliferation.

The concept of a terrorist group deploying a biological or chemical weapon in a major western city incites popular horror but is not highly probable. Terrorists work from within the local community; they do not have long range strike capability. Using a weapon obtained overseas is more risky and, therefore, less attractive than seizing readily available local means of catastrophic attack—such as aircraft or chemical tankers. And, were some serious thought to be given to the prospect of terrorists accessing WMD, the defence statement does not mention what many commentators think the most credible scenario for this: Islamist militants gaining access to Pakistan’s nuclear bomb technology.

The Continuing Importance of Regional Circumstances

It is typical of the statement’s treatment of the two supposedly significant drivers of strategic change that it does not mention the dangers of promoting Islamist terrorism —partly through Australia exercising poor judgment in security policy—as a potential source of trouble in Australia’s relations with Indonesia. Australia’s National Security notes enough of these as it is. Indeed, with interest focused on terrorism and WMD, few have remarked that the statement’s comments about Indonesia are the most sombre to appear in a defence document for several decades. There is much of substance in the statement’s section on problems within Australia’s immediate region to indicate those ADF roles likely to persist in coming decades. Dealing with falling levels of governance is likely to become more pressing than pursuing terrorists in distant theatres, if only because the consequences of poor governance might make it easier for terrorist groups to infiltrate.

Public reaction to the defence statement generally overlooked a statement of potentially great significance: that there is little evidence of the development of aggressive military capabilities in South-East Asia. For over fifteen years Australian policy has expressed concern about the growing quality of military equipment in South East Asia and the steps that the ADF would have to take to counterbalance them. The White Paper of 2000 discussed in detail the improving military technologies in the region (Defence 2000, p. 24ff). If this more benign view of regional military capabilities remains policy it will have significant impact. Developing levels of military technology to keep ahead of those introduced into the region has been the primary driver of the cost levels of Australia’s defence equipment.

A Better Basis for Defence Policy?

Australia’s National Security claims several important implications of the trends it has observed. Not surprisingly, most of these should be qualified by application of a broader perspective than it uses.

Few of the developments on the global stage have military consequences.

The statement argues for the increased importance of the global strategic and security environment over the established focus on the defence of Australia. There is a difference, however, between the broad national security aspects of developments in the strategic environment and their military consequences. Few of the developments on the global stage have military consequences, so it is not surprising that the document predicts only slight change to the ADF.

Australia’s National Security argues that there will be less need for operations in defence of Australia in the near term. That is undoubtedly true because it has always been the case. The question for defence policy is not the nature of the near term because, for over 25 years, defence planning has assumed that there is no identifiable military threat to Australia in the near term. However, the fundamental need for policy to enable long term planning for the ADF continues. The Minister’s Forward endorses pre-existing policy to underpin long term planning—policy based on the defence of Australia paradigm.

The statement claims that the ADF is more likely to participate in coalition operations beyond Australia’s region. This may be true. However, decisions to do so will remain a matter for judgment by the Australian government. Australia’s fundamental interests are not necessarily engaged across the totality of the trends discussed in Australia’s National Security in a way that compels Australia to take military action on each of them. That the statement provides no tests to decide when participation is justified means that deployments will continue to be contentious and to reflect more the predilections of government than the imperatives of the strategic environment.

This statement has not found any new underlying logic to Australian defence policy. It has described well the processes that have been in play since the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001. It has not been able to find a more cohesively logical way of determining how and to what extent the ADF should become involved in the consequence of those changes. Given this failure, ADF involvement in distant coalition operations will continue to be driven more by politics than by policy. This is not unusual. But it is surprising, for it leaves the ADF with the same problem that producing Australia’s National Security was meant to solve—being developed to meet one set of objectives but being continually asked to perform another.


Department of Defence 2003, Australia’s National Security: A Defence Update 2003, Defence Publishing Service, Canberra. [Online], Available:

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2003, Advancing the National Interest: Australia’s Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra [Online], Available:

Department of Defence 2000, Defence 2000: Our Future Defence Force, Defence Publishing Service, Canberra [Online], Available:

Department of Defence 1987, Defence of Australia 1987, Defence Publishing Service, Canberra.

Derek Woolner is Director, Defence Analysis Program in the Australian Defence Studies Centre at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He was for many years the Director of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Group of the Commonwealth Parliament’s Research Service. His research interests include defence policy, management and financing, maritime border protection and homeland security.

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