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Transformation or stagnation? Rethinking Australia's defence. Inaugural presentation of the Australian Security in the 21st Century lecture, co-hosted by the Menzies Centre and Australian Defence Industries, 13 November 2002

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Transformation or Stagnation? Rethinking Australia’s Defence


Inaugural presentation of the Australian Security in the 21st Century Lecture , co-hosted by the Menzies Centre and Australian Defence Industries, Parliament House, Canberra, 13 November 2002.

I believe that we are on the cusp of a new, more dangerous and unpredictable era in

global affairs that has profound implications for Australia’s defence and national

security. The tragedies of the Bali bombing and the World Trade Centre in New York

are visible manifestations of a shift in the security paradigm which may, over time,

prove as transformational as the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

The indiscriminate brutality of contemporary terrorism is only one aspect of a broader

assault on the rules and conventions that have governed international society for the

last 100 years. The state on 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.

Future wars will be the step-children of Somalia and Chechnya, as well as the sons of

Desert Storm, and they may have more in common with the tribalism and anarchic

savagery of the Middle Ages than the structured conflicts of the recent past. But they

will play out on a global stage. And the perpetrators of anti-systemic violence will be

adept in the use of modern technology and information operations. Preventing and

managing these ‘Mad Max’ wars requires new strategies and approaches. However,

there is precious little evidence that the architects of our strategic policy have grasped

this point.

Over the past few months, Defence Minister Robert Hill has questioned some of the

underlying assumptions of the defence orthodoxy. In my view he is right to do so

because our strategy is 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). Traditionalists aver that

“forces structured for the defence of Australia and its approaches can meet all the

tasks asked of it by the government” despite the unprecedented tempo and range of

non-DOA activities and the repeated overseas deployment of the ADF.1

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.

What Australia needs is a strategy for the future, not the past, and a transformed ADF

structured to manage the very different security challenges of the 21st century. The

strategic studies community can help by mapping what Senator Hill has aptly

described as the contours and fault lines of a new strategic landscape. The ADF must

be able to cope with a broader spectrum of threats than in the past and be prepared to

go to the crisis rather than have the crisis come to us.

As a crucial first step, we must rethink a defence strategy that 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.

Geographical determinism

For nearly three decades, the underlying assumption of our defence policy has been

that proximity ought to determine strategic import. Traditionalists insist that

geostrategic imperatives should shape strategy as well as force structure, an idea that

finds visual expression in Professor Paul Dibb’s map of Australia and its radiating

concentric circles.

This is a surprisingly narrow and one dimensional view of strategy that has more in

keeping with the pre-modern world of Halford Mackinder than the post-modern era of

Osama bin Laden.2 In an age of globalisation and transnational threats geography

matters far less than it once did because of the compression of space and time. As the

world has become painfully aware, state and non-state adversaries can strike from

great distances in conventional as well as unconventional ways.

The great conceptual weakness of the Defence of Australia doctrine and its associated

maritime strategy is that it is based on a notion of threat that takes little account of the

declining strategic relevance of geography and the proliferation of non-military, non-


state challenges to security. The flaw in the maritime strategy is that the so-called sea-air gap to the north of Australia is not a gap at all. It is an archipelago occupied by

numerous islands of varying importance, size and population where any conceivable

military operation would require the effective use of land forces including the means

to transport and sustain them.

For traditionalists who pride themselves on their understanding of the strategic

importance of geography this is an inexcusable misappreciation. To assume that an

enemy could be deterred or subdued primarily by air and naval power ignores the

lessons of history in general, and Australian history in particular.

In committing so much of the defence budget to expensive ships and aircraft the

“gatekeepers of strategic doctrine” have pursued a misguided policy that has severely

weakened our capacity to deal with a range of problems in our own backyard, not to

mention further afield.3 The reality is that we did East Timor on a wing and a prayer.

What wars will we fight?

A second, fundamental failing is that the ADF is structured for the wrong wars. DOA

assumes that the most dangerous threat to Australia is a conventional military attack

on Australian soil from a hostile, well-armed state. Interestingly, DOA advocates do

not suggest that this is the most probable military contingency. On the contrary, they

concede that a direct military attack is unlikely, or even “highly unlikely”, but that

since a military attack would be a serious event, with potentially grave ramifications

for Australia’s security, prudent decision-makers must consider outcomes as well as


This curious inversion of strategic logic contradicts the first principle of risk

management which is that the consequences of an action must be carefully weighed

against the probability of its occurrence. To argue that a highly unlikely event should

command the lion’s share of an organisation’s resources or be the principal focus of

its attention would not get past first base in the political or corporate world. It is

certainly not the basis for a sensible defence strategy.


So who is going to attack Australia? Traditionalists tend to dance around this question

without actually answering it. 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


Often such notional threats are devoid of any plausible political context. A prime

example is the assertion that a major power could lodge in the archipelago to our

north and threaten Australia militarily from bases established there. I have yet to hear

a convincing explanation as to how this might occur without precipitating a major

regional conflagration and drawing a countervailing US response.

Are we to believe that Indonesia and China might threaten Australia with

conventional military force in the next decade or so? Our own intelligence analysts

think not. So why is the ADF structured for such improbable contingencies?

Weak states, like Indonesia, do not have the resources to mount invasions or cut trade

routes. They pose security problems of an altogether different kind in the form of

internal instability and the proliferation of low intensity conflicts that could spill over

and draw in Australians as peace makers and peace keepers. They also provide fertile

soil for terrorist and criminal activities that may necessitate an ADF response, but of a

far different kind to that envisaged by the architects of our defence strategy.

A Chinese attack on Australia is even more implausible. Assuming that China wanted

to threaten Australia militarily the People’s Liberation Army could neither deploy

substantial forces to the archipelago nor sustain them for any length of time for at

least a decade and probably more.

None of this is to argue that Australia faces no military threats only that those

customarily posited are short on analysis and long on hypothesis. There is a worrying

disjuncture between the gatekeeper’s fixation with war between states and the rise in

intrastate conflict.


What kind of wars will the ADF have to fight? It is commonly assumed that the ADF

will be pitted against the armed forces of another state, organised, equipped and

trained to fight conventional wars. But such wars are increasingly unlikely. Iraq is the

exception not the rule. Moreover, in any future conflict over Iraq Australia would

only play a minor role.

More than a decade ago the Israeli military historian, Martin Van Creveld, forecast

that conventional military wars between the regular, armed forces of sovereign states

would decline in frequency and duration while low intensity conflicts within states

conducted by warlords, criminals, insurgents, militias, terrorists and paramilitary

groups would intensify. He surmised that such conflicts were most likely to occur in

the developing world. These predictions have been dramatically borne out since Van

Creveld audaciously challenged the Clausewitzian universe.

The ADF has repeatedly been deployed on international peace keeping and peace

enforcement missions that bear little resemblance to the kinds of tasks anticipated, or

deemed worthy, of serious consideration by a generation of Australian defence

planners. The diversity and frequency of the ADF’s operations will almost certainly

increase as the war against terrorism gains momentum.

One does not have to see the attack of 11 September 2001 as a transformational event

to acknowledge that the new age of terrorism has major implications for Australia’s

defence and national security. The reasons are threefold.

First, 11 September and its aftermath demonstrated the global reach of al Qa’ida and

its capacity to forge transnational, strategic alliances with like-minded groups far from

the organisation’s home base in Afghanistan. Second, terrorists have lowered the

threshold for the use of weapons of mass destruction because they are far more likely

to use them to achieve their aims. Third, terrorists and criminals fight asymmetrically,

using surprise, deception, detailed planning, networking and the selected use of

advanced technology as well as cruder instruments of violence to combat the superior

firepower at the disposal of the states they seek to undermine.


These are the classical techniques of guerrilla warfare adapted to the urban jungles of

first and third world states. However, the prospect of the ADF having to engage in

urban warfare barely rates a mention in the white paper although it is now exercising

the collective minds of the best strategists in the US and Europe.

Asymmetric wars will not only be fought by terrorists and criminals. Other armed

groups, who inhabit the lower reaches of the threat spectrum, will fight hybrid forms

of warfare where modern, conventional weapons systems may be of limited use.

Somalia is perhaps the pre-eminent example of a conflict in which overwhelming US

firepower was blunted by a canny war lord’s effective use of urban warfare and

superior local knowledge to force a humiliating withdrawal. This was a salutary

lesson in the limitations of modern warfare.

Dealing with messy third world conflicts involving peace keeping and nation building

tasks is the real challenge ahead. Our commitment to Somalia was very much in this

vein as was East Timor, where the ADF was confronted by a rag tag band of anti-independence militia supported by elements of the Indonesian armed forces. But East

Timor was not in the script of any white paper nor did it fit the preconceptions of our

maritime strategy.

East Timor showed up far more serious flaws in our force structure and strategy. Our

Army lacked critical mass and the ability to sustain itself, our soldiers were deficient

in basic equipment, and our navy and air force struggled to transport and resupply


These deficiencies were directly attributable to an inflexible and dysfunctional

strategy that privileges high-end warfare and pays insufficient attention to the force

structure implications of intervening in internal conflicts, within our region and


Core tasks - what should the ADF do?


A third element of the current debate concerns the ADF’s core tasks. Or put another

way, what exactly do we want our armed forces to do? Traditionalists believe that the

ADF’s principal task is to fight and win a conventional war.

I argue that the central purpose of the military is not just the application of lethal

force. This is old thinking. Modern defence forces have to win the peace as well as

prepare for war. The two are not the same. Winning the peace means that military

personnel at all levels must be able to master the cultural, economic and political

dimensions of a conflict and be discriminating in their use of lethal force. Peace

operations are a pertinent example. But the choice is not between structuring for war

or peace keeping, as some falsely assume. The defence forces of the 21st century must

be structured for both.

In East Timor the ADF has to handle a wide range of peace keeping tasks, such as

monitoring cross border movements, that require sound political judgement and

sensitivity to local culture as well as the capacity to switch to combat mode when the

need arises. Complex peace operations are now, by any objective measure, a major

ADF activity.4 Yet the architects of strategic policy doggedly refuse to accept that

they represent a core task for the ADF or that they should shape, in any way, the

capabilities of the force.

Traditionalists also seem to have great difficulty in accepting the legitimacy of the

human security, border protection and constabulary tasks that have been levied on the

ADF in recent years and which now account for much of its operational activity. They

contend that structuring the ADF for transnational threats would effectively

“downgrade” the Force, shift the regional balance and weaken Australia’s security.

Such thinking reveals a worrying inability to comprehend the way in which defence

forces around the world are being transformed by the new strategic agenda.

Transnational issues like terrorism, organised crime, illegal fishing and people

smuggling have moved along the threat continuum towards the customary concerns of

the military.


What does transformation mean?

The key lesson to be drawn from this analysis is that the ADF is not optimally

configured or trained for today’s threats, let alone those of tomorrow. While others

restructure for the conflicts of the future we, for the most part, remain wedded to

strategic concepts that have long past their use by date. It is axiomatic that the ADF

should be able to defend Australia against military attack. But DOA is too narrowly

conceived and disconnected from the security challenges of the contemporary world

to provide the necessary strategic guidance for an ADF in urgent need of


It would be a mistake to characterise this call for strategic renewal as merely the latest

incarnation of the long-standing debate between proponents of forward defence and

continental defence. These tired old shibboleths reflect the linear thinking of a by-gone era and shed little light on the essential defence and security problems for

Australia in the 21st century. Deploying force beyond our immediate neighbourhood is

perfectly consistent with the defence of Australia’s vital interests and should not be

construed as fighting someone else’s war.

We have been slow to recognise that the ADF must be capable of combating the

irregular, low intensity conflicts that now predominate and to counter post-modern,

hybrid threats which require a different repertoire of military skills to those of the

Cold War. A force designed for state-on-state conflict will struggle to manage the

multifarious security challenges posed by neo-nationalist guerrilla movements,

terrorists, new age mercenaries, pirates, people smugglers and global crime


Transformation is not a prescription for radical change. Nor does it mandate increased

defence spending. Significant transformation can be achieved through a modest

reordering of priorities and adjustments to existing programs within the existing

budgetary framework. As US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld observes, it can be

achieved by new ways of arranging, connecting, and using existing capabilities. It is

worth recalling that the Blitzkrieg unleashed on Europe in 1939 to such devastating

effect was accomplished by only a 13 percent transformed German Army.


Transformation means that the ADF must acquire more high-value, niche capabilities

and additional land forces equipped for a wide range of contingencies across the

threat spectrum that can be despatched rapidly, with adequate protection, sustainment

and command and control. The ADF must be trained and configured for multi-faceted

tasks. And while advanced technology is essential to the knowledge edge it must be

usable and appropriate, for the new wars as well as the old. Unfortunately, some of

our existing systems fail this crucial test.

One linguistic fig leaf and two straw men

Before concluding I want to correct some recent mis-characterisations of the defence

debate. Let us be clear that this is not an argument between regionalists and acolytes

of a so called ‘expeditionary school’ who want to structure the ADF for distant

conflicts. Rather, it is a contest between the inertia of traditionalist who see no need to

change our strategy and force structure and the vision of reformers who seek a modest

transformation of both.

It is pure sophistry for traditionalists to portray themselves as regionalists. This

linguistic figleaf cannot disguise the fact that the emperor has lost his conceptual

clothes. The whole thrust of the Defence of Australia doctrine was to develop a force

specifically designed to protect Australian territory from a conventional military

attack, not to advance and defend Australia’s regional interests. The deficiencies so

manifest in our East Timor deployment are ample evidence of this reality and give the

lie to the proposition that traditionalists are misunderstood regionalists.

Miscasting reformers as supporters of an expensive, expeditionary force structured for

high intensity warfare in distant theatres is similarly disingenuous. I am not aware of

any service chief or senior defence official who seriously advocates such a force and

wants to structure for armoured warfare on the Korean peninsula - or anywhere else

for that matter. I’m sure that Senator Hill doesn’t.

Sometimes traditionalists resort to knocking down and picking apart two straw men a

tactic whose exposure is long overdue. The first of these is what I call the straw man


of strategic relativism. It has been argued, for example, that the transformation of the

UK defence force has no relevance for Australia because the UK operates in a benign

security environment whereas Australia lives in a hostile neighbourhood. I think the

British might dispute this assessment.

War in Europe might be unthinkable but it is certainly very thinkable in Africa, the

Balkans and the Middle East which are as close to the UK, and as strategically

relevant to London, as Southeast Asia is to Australia. And the British have a few

things to worry about at home, as well, including illegal migration, terrorism and the

possibility of a regression to violence in Northern Ireland.

It would be a mistake, therefore, to regard Australia’s security challenges as unique or

dramatically different from those of our allies. In fact the opposite is the case. When it

comes to peace operations, forming coalitions of the willing and the war against

terrorism we are all in this together. Australia can learn much from British reforms as

well as those of our other friends and allies.

The second straw man wears a big dollar sign. When their other arguments fail, the

default position of traditionalists is to argue that we can’t change our force structure

because it will be too expensive. Let me quote Paul Dibb here:

“Remember that the defence budget is finite: we need a tough-minded planning

framework to decide what gets funded and what does not. Developing an

expeditionary force would be hugely costly.”5

I agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments, but the point is that no one else is

talking about a costly expeditionary force. A transformed ADF may actually save

money by reducing spending on capabilities that lack versatility or are prohibitively

expensive to maintain and run. Transformation makes sound budgetary as well as

strategic sense.

In conclusion, the task ahead for our defence planners is to manage the transition from

the legacy force to an ADF better structured and prepared for the threats of today as

well as those of tomorrow. It is a challenge they cannot afford to fail.



Thank You.

Alan Dupont


1 Paul Dibb, ‘Tinker with defence policy and risk attack’, The Australian, 30 October 2001, p.13.

2 In 1904, Halford Mackinder delivered a seminal paper to the Royal Geographic Society in London arguing that European civilisation had been shaped by the struggle to repel a succession of Asiatic invasions. His

conceptualisation of a pivot area, comprising central Asia, adjacent to an “inner crescent” of nations accessible by sea power privileged geography as the determining factor in world politics. But like other geographical determinists he neglected to make allowances for technological advances and the power of ideology. 3

The term “gatekeepers of strategic doctrine” was used by the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, in his address ‘Future Wars-Futuristic Forces’ to the Land Warfare Conference, Brisbane, 23 October 2002. 4

Complex peace operations is a term that denotes any combination of peace keeping, peace enforcement or peace building activities aimed at preventing or minimising conflict and promoting stability, especially in weak or failed states. It refers to operations governed by Chapters VI (pacific), VII (using all necessary means) and VIII (regional arrangements) of the United Nation’s Charter. 5

Paul Dibb, Does Asia Matter To Australia’s Defence Policy? The Australian National University’s National Institute for Asia and the Pacific Public Lecture, Parliament House, Canberra, 23 October 2002.