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Address to the Victorian Branch of the Australian Defence Association: lessons from the past, principles for the future

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Australia's defence policy: lessons from the past, principles for the future: address to the Victorian Branch of the Australian Defence Association, 5 October 1995

I was delighted to accept the invitation of the Australia Defence Association to give what is my first formal address on defence policy since becoming Leader of the Opposition. I am particularly pleased this evening to be addressing members of an Association which represents a range of views from the broader community. I strongly share your Association's guiding interest in promoting the defence and security of our country.

In the past few years we have seen a significant change in Australia's strategic circumstances with the end of the Cold War. Globally, the environment is one of continuing relief that the threat of a nuclear holocaust has been removed. Yet, paradoxically, our own region is probably now less predictable and less stable than in the past.

The end of the Cold War has significantly changed community attitudes towards defence and security issues.

The Cold War era involved a constant threat of nuclear annihilation. That very threat produced in many Western nations an acceptance of high levels of defence spending.

Now that the threat of global annihilation has gone, the peoples of those same nations no longer uncritically accept the same volume of defence spending. In other words, they demand a peace dividend.

Yet the reality in our own region is not fully consistent with this, as in many respects there is greater uncertainty and complexity, and less stability, in the post-Cold War regional environment than previously existed.

All this has made the formulation of defence policy more difficult.

In Australia we have seen a run down in defence expenditure to a point where we now spend only two percent of GDP on defence. There is continuing community and political pressure for further reductions in defence spending.

This has thrown an added responsibility on those within the Australian community who understand the strategic realities of our own region to argue with even greater vigour the case against a further decline in defence commitments.

These new demands impact on all aspects of national defence. This evening, therefore, I would like to explore the Coalition's priorities for defence policy.

Principles of Defence Policy

The Coalition believes that the direct defence of Australia's interests and territories must remain our first priority.

We believe that providing for our own security through a more self-reliant approach is a sensible goal. Yet we also emphasise that self-reliance must be placed within the context of our strong alliances - especially with the United States - to which we remain vigorously committed.

We also have a firm commitment to contribute to the maintenance of stability in our region. This is an important objective as it will help reduce the possibility of Australia becoming involved in armed conflict.

The Coalition believes that a strong defence force must be structured in a way appropriate to today's circumstances. That means the maintenance and enhancement of military skills, timely intelligence, quick reaction times, rapid mobility and adequate firepower.

We rely on the partnership between industry and defence, and believe that this partnership needs to be strengthened in a way which best meets the needs of all parties. We believe that a viable and vigorous defence industry is a key part of greater self-reliance.

In the post-Cold War era the concept of security has broadened. As a result, we believe that there is a need for a mechanism to more effectively coordinate Australian security policy across a range of portfolio areas, with Defence integral to this.

Most importantly, and this is a point that I would like to emphasise, we rely on the skills and dedication of our highly committed Defence Force personnel as the vital core of any defence effort.

Australia's New Strategic Circumstances

Australian defence policy has to be relevant to strategic circumstances. The end of the Cold War in 1989 brought with it far reaching changes, some of which will take time to work through.

However, what is very clear is that the end of the Cold War has not necessarily made the world or the Asia-Pacific region a safer place. With the absence of the super-power balance - which often acted as a deterrent to local conflicts - what we are faced with is a more complex and uncertain strategic environment.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the era of a bipolar balance of power has translated into a focus on multipolar centres of power. This means a greater range of security interests needs to be taken into account both in our immediate region and globally. Local and regional tensions and conflicts which previously had been subsumed in great power rivalry are coming to the fore.

Ethnic tensions, historical animosities and border disputes are increasingly impacting on global security: the Gulf War, events in Somalia and in Bosnia are all illustrations of this trend.

As a result, there has been a greater focus on United Nations' peacekeeping activities, with the definition and requirements of peacekeeping significantly expanding in the last few years. Australia has been proudly involved in a number of peacekeeping operations including Cambodia, Somalia, and Rwanda. However, peacekeeping requirements do place greater demands on defence forces worldwide.

In addition, although the threat of a global nuclear war between two super-powers may have receded, the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, along with their means of delivery, is a dangerous global development. A number of former states of the Soviet Union are now nuclear weapons states, and in our region North Korea is believed to be close to possessing nuclear weapons. The control of nuclear technology and material is one of today's most pressing problems.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has also led to an increase in weapons and advanced technology available on the international arms market. States throughout the world are taking advantage of a relatively cheap supply to improve their defence capabilities.

There are other important global developments which have an impact on security. These include potential politico-religious conflicts, management of significant flows of refugees, the international drug trade, and pressures arising from global population growth.

Australia's security will be affected by these global trends and the impact of these trends on the Asia-Pacific region. Our security will also be influenced by more specific developments in South East Asia, North East Asia and the Indian Ocean.

The Asian region post-Cold War is characterised by a complexity of factors:

. the nations of our region are developing more confident and assertive attitudes towards defence and security. This is reflected in programs of arms modernisation which increase the technological and capability levels of regional defence forces;

. border disputes remain unresolved, with examples including disagreements between China and Vietnam, within the ASEAN states, and between China and a number of regional states over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea;

. political tensions remain between China and Taiwan;

. instability on the Korean peninsula is of major concern;

. there is regional proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including their means of delivery;

. insurgencies continue in Cambodia, Burma and the Philippines; and

. tensions remain on the Indian sub-continent.

These factors shape Australia's strategic environment and will have an impact on Australia's defence and security planning. We need to recognise and respond to the uncertainty generated by such a combination of regional security issues.

On the positive side, regional security is underpinned by a web of bilateral and multilateral alliances, most relying on the essential role of the United States in underwriting the security of the region. The United States' presence in the Asia-Pacific is, if anything, even more important today than it was during the Cold War. There exists general support in the region for the continuation of this role.

It is vital to ensure that the United States does remain engaged in the region. The United States' withdrawal from the Philippines and its expectation of greater burden-sharing by regional allies, has led to the impression of a reduced commitment to the region. Domestic pressure in the United States for a peace dividend adds to this impression. We therefore welcome statements from the United States that it intends to retain a substantial defence deployment to the region.

By demonstrating a strong commitment to defence stability in the Asia-Pacific, Australia together with our regional partners can do much to encourage and support the maintenance of a strong United States military presence.

In addition, I believe that the development of the ASEAN Regional Forum has the potential to assist in managing the diversity of security interests which exist in the region.

And of course, the phenomenal economic growth of Asia and the growing economic and trade interdependence of regional states should exert pressure for stability.

Whilst the Coalition has for some time recognised the regional implications of recent global change, there are signs that the Government has not.

The Government's 1994 Defence White Paper - "Defending Australia"

One salutary lesson we must draw from the past is the consequence of Labor's slow response to change. The latest Defence White Paper was released in November 1994. Given we saw the end of the Cold War in 1989, the Government took an excessively long time - five years - to respond to significantly changed global and regional strategic circumstances.

During this time, Australia's defence policy was adrift, with no clear directions to guide defence planning for the entire period. As a consequence, there was no reassessment of purchases of large items of equipment or of force restructuring in the light of Australia's changed security environment.

Yet the release of the new White Paper shows clearly that Labor has still not come to terms with the end of the Cold War.

The White Paper is largely a failure with no genuine effort to rethink defence policy in light of the new demands Australia must face. What the White Paper contains is a rationale for past policy. It is really only an incremental adjustment to the 1987 White Paper which was prepared in entirely different strategic circumstances. Labor failed to meet the challenge of developing a new strategic vision to accommodate changed circumstances

The White Paper does nothing to solve the Government's failure in five key areas:

. the lack of adequate combat capability;

. the drift in the ANZUS alliance;

. no clear approach to regional engagement;

. deficiencies in the Ready Reserve scheme; and

. neglect of defence force personnel.

I would like to spend some time exploring each of these failures as they must be addressed to improve the effectiveness of our fighting force.

1. Labor has ignored deficiencies in combat capability

There are deficiencies in the combat power of the Australian Defence Force. A disproportionate emphasis is placed on support activities relative to the size of the combat force. Too much of the defence budget is spent on administration and not enough on combat capability. And Labor has allowed this to happen.

It is vital that we have adequate combat capability to provide for the direct defence of Australia. Yet there are many examples of deficiencies in combat capability that I could cite. The more telling examples include:

. The Army has only four (with a fifth in the planning stages) regular combat battalions. These four battalions comprise only 2,300 personnel out of a total Army personnel number of 27,000. Adding in other combat units, only around one in four Army personnel have a direct combat role. The rest are engaged in support activities.

. The Navy is suffering from a critical shortage of qualified personnel, which makes it almost impossible to crew its small fleet of combat vessels. On present estimates, the Navy will not be able to fully staff the six new Collins Class submarines or eight ANZAC frigates when they are all in service. Only around one third of the Navy's 15,000 personnel are employed in combat roles.

. The Air Force is also suffering from a critical shortage of air crew and air frames. While we have adequate numbers of strike aircraft and tactical multi-role fighters, we lack enough maritime patrol aircraft and transport aircraft to perform effectively even in realistic exercise scenarios, let alone in real military contingencies. The Air Force is also suffering a significant shortage of pilots and air traffic controllers. For the Air Force, ninety percent of personnel are engaged in support roles. Only ten percent have direct combat roles.

. The General Reserve is nominally at a strength of 26,000, of which 11,000 are deemed "non-effective" due to having served for not more than ten days in the last year. Yet the

General Reserve is required to provide sixty percent of the combat force. They are undertrained and underchallenged which has led to an unacceptably high level of personnel losses.

. Ammunition stock-holding is also inadequate. We know that Australia holds very low levels of stocks, not even enough to supply the force for more than a couple of weeks in a real conflict. The Government has had no adequate policy on the amount of ammunition that Australia needs to hold in stock to deal with its scenario of short- - warning conflicts in our north.

Labor must take the blame for running down Australia's combat forces. The Government has no policy framework which will address the critical lack in combat capability. Australia is the fifteenth biggest defence spender in the world but the money is not being spent effectively. Far too much is being spent on the inflated administrative structure, rather than on the sharp end of the Defence Force.

The Coalition will increase the emphasis on combat capability in our defence effort. We will review activities which do not directly contribute to a highly effective military force and divert the resources to the combat end. We will devote more time and resources to operational training and less to support activities, whilst recognising the demands of greater self-reliance.

2. Labor has allowed the ANZUS alliance to drift.

Australia's alliance with the United States is drifting due to the Labor Government's neglect.

Labor down-played our alliance with the United States in the 1994 White Paper. The alliance slipped down the priority list because of the Government's single-minded focus on building closer relations with the countries of this region. The Coalition places a lot of importance on regional engagement - indeed our 1992 Defence Policy statement "A Strong Australia" pushed a then reluctant Government to embrace closer regional defence relations. But we do not think this should be done at the expense of the United States alliance.

. For a start, the Coalition recognises that the United States has long underwritten the stability of the region. We understand how this stabilising role is especially important in a time of transition -

as we are currently experiencing. Virtually every country in the region, including China, wants the United States military presence maintained to assist in the management of strategic competition. We will strongly encourage the continuation of the United States presence in the Asia-Pacific and do more to promote closer ties.

. The United States is also important to the direct defence of Australia. The Coalition supports the defence concept of self-reliance, but this has to be within an alliance framework. We must not forget how significant United States' equipment, intelligence and logistic support is to Australia. And we continue to value the role played by the US- - Australia joint facilities.

Labor, more generally, has neglected the United States. Not only has the alliance's priority slipped in the White Paper, but the Government did not include the United States in the Indian Ocean Forum economic and security discussions in Perth earlier this year, and nor does Senator Evans include the United States on his "East Asia Hemisphere" map.

The Coalition will do more to promote closer links with the United States. Neither we, nor our neighbours believe that we have to choose between Asia or the United States.

We will reinvigorate the United States defence alliance to reflect new regional and security realities, whilst at the same time strengthening regional ties. Increasing Australia-United States exercising and training opportunities, joint research and development, greater United States access to Australian facilities, and the potential for United States pre-positioning of equipment in Australia are a few of the areas which we will evaluate.

3. Labor does not have a clear approach to regional engagement.

The Coalition realised the importance of regional defence engagement some time before Labor did. We have had a policy supporting closer defence relations with the region since 1992. In contrast, the Government's first consideration of this was in the "Strategic Review" published in December 1993, but not until the White Paper in November last year did we get a statement of policy.

There are a number of ambiguities in the Government's approach to regional engagement:

. The 1994 White Paper argues that defence planning will be based on an assessment of regional capabilities which could be brought to bear against Australia, rather than an assessment of threat from the region. We believe that this is a simplistic view as surely a combination of capability and intention is a more effective way of determining the scenarios Australia may have to meet.

. A competing pressure has arisen in Government defence policy between a focus on the requirements for the defence of Australia, and at the same time the need to pursue the closest possible defence cooperation with our regional neighbours.

There are unresolved tensions between the Government's focus on defence partnership with the region versus the region as the potential source of threats; between the force structure needed for the defence of Australia versus that needed for regional engagement activities, and unresolved competing resource choices which will result from these differing priorities.

. The Government fails to understand the importance of developing closer relations with North Asia. The overwhelming Government priority in regional engagement is towards South East Asia. Yet it is in North Asia where lie the most pressing Asia-Pacific security concerns which may have an impact on our more immediate region.

As a result, security policy needs re-balancing to see if we have got the mix right between defence of Australia concerns and the need to enhance regional engagement. Labor has failed to do this, not least because Defence and Foreign Affairs Ministers have not been able to work closely enough together to overcome differences of perception and priorities.

Despite having six years to do it, Labor has still not developed an adequate regional security policy appropriate for the post-Cold War era. The ambiguities in its approach to regional engagement need to be resolved if Australia is to have an effective security policy.

The Coalition will ensure that defence of Australia remains our top priority, and that we will contribute to the stability of the region in a way compatible with that priority. We will develop closer relations with North Asian states in addition to South East Asia, and strengthen our regional bilateral defence relationships to address the imbalance which has arisen in Labor's policy.

4. Deficiencies in the Ready Reserve Scheme

I have already mentioned Labor's failure to provide adequate combat capability. In relation to this, the Coalition also has a number of serious concerns about the Government's Ready

Reserve scheme.

The first concern is about the impact which the Ready Reserve scheme has on the Regular Army.

. When the Ready Reserve was introduced in 1991 essentially as a cost cutting measure, Labor cut the number of Regular Army battalions from six to four. Then late last year the Government said they would again begin to raise a fifth regular battalion.

However, four or even five regular battalions does not give us enough flexibility to plan for defence operations, as we saw when we sent a battalion to Somalia in 1993. It also makes it harder to keep a large peacekeeping force deployed overseas without unacceptably weakening our defence capabilities at home.

. The problem with the Ready Reserve scheme is that it does not fill the gap left by Labor's decision to cut the regular battalions. There are still serious questions about what kind of call-out provisions are needed so that the Ready Reserve can be used in contingencies short of a direct attack on Australia. The effect of the Ready Reserve, therefore, has been to make the Army less flexible.

The Coalition's second concern about the Ready Reserve is its cost.

. The Government now says that the Ready Reserve 6 Brigade in Brisbane costs about 65 percent of the cost of the previous regular brigade. When the scheme started, Labor said the Ready Reserve would cost only about a third of the regulars. There are problems with the current costing of the scheme which makes accurate figures impossible to obtain. What is clear is that the Ready Reserve costs much more than Labor originally said it would.

. We need to look again at whether the Army can afford the costs of administering three totally different forms of service - the Regulars, Ready Reserve and General Reserve.

. Even if Labor's current costing is correct, we need to remember that this gets us a force which operates together only fifty days a year after the initial one year training. So that is 65 per cent of the cost for less than one-sixth of the time the Regular force operates.

. What that means is that the Ready Reserve is not that ready at all. No-one should expect that a force which operates together for fifty days a year will be anywhere near as ready for military service as a full-time Army brigade.

The Coalition's third concern about the Ready Reserve is that it has turned the General Reserve into the poor third cousin of the Defence Force.

. More for political reasons than anything else, Labor has poured resources into the Ready Reserve. But the effect has been that the General Reserve continues to be starved of funds leaving deficiencies in its training and operational ability, which have had an unfortunate impact on morale.

. This lack of meaningful deployment and training opportunities, as well as inadequate conditions of service, has contributed to high wastage levels in the General Reserve.

Although a recently released report on the Ready Reserve (authored by Lieutenant-General John Coates (retired) and Dr Hugh Smith) argues for its retention, the Coalition continues to have serious doubts about the viability of the Ready Reserve.

5. Labor's lack of support for Defence Force personnel

The Coalition is very concerned by the Government's neglect of Defence Force personnel.

We now have the lowest force strength of regular uniformed service personnel in thirty years - approximately 58,000. This represents a decline in regular force numbers of about fifteen percent in three years.

The Defence Force is suffering from significant undermanning and a loss of experience as the services shrink. This means declining career opportunities and increasing morale problems. It also leads to greater demands on Defence Force personnel as they try to do more with less.

Conditions of service are being eroded as the Government focuses on big ticket items of expenditure. Whilst the Coalition recognises the problem of block obsolescence of equipment early in the next century, this should be addressed by careful management of the defence budget and cutting of administrative activities, rather than reallocating money which should be spent on service personnel.

Labor does not adequately value the people who make up Australia's defence force. Personnel interests are being sacrificed by the Government as the easier option rather than having to examine how efficiently each defence dollar is spent.

The Coalition believes that it is the efforts of our highly dedicated Defence men and women which underpin Australia's defence force and provide for the defence of our national interest. We value that effort and would place the highest priority on ensuring that a fair, satisfying and valued career is available to all who volunteer to serve their country.

Future Directions

The points I have just made indicate five of the Coalition's major areas of emphasis for the future. To reiterate:

. We will increase the emphasis on combat capability and increase resources devoted to this by redirecting resources from administrative and support functions;

. The Coalition will promote closer defence links with the United States;

. Defence of Australia remains our top priority, but we will also enhance our contributions to the stability of the region in a way compatible with that priority. We will develop closer relations with North Asia, strengthen our regional bilateral defence relationships and our participation in the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the ASEAN Regional Forum;

. The Coalition has serious concerns about the Ready Reserve scheme as it does not address gaps in defence capabilities, it lacks readiness and its cost is high relative to its capacity.

. We will place the highest priority on Defence Force personnel to ensure that a fair, satisfying and valued career is available to all who volunteer to serve their country.

The Coalition also believes that in this post-Cold War era, there is a greater need to think in terms of having a single security policy which would give weight to the interaction between defence, foreign, and trade and economic priorities and policies.

We believe there needs to be a more effective mechanism for coordinating these dimensions and ensuring that Australia's interests, especially regional interests, are better managed. We have had a number of examples in recent years of hiccups in regional relationships which could have been avoided with more effective coordination. Australia has fairly solid defence relations with a number of regional neighbours which luckily have remained largely immune from political difficulties. The Coalition will ensure that our defence, foreign and trade approaches are more closely coordinated in the future by ensuring that appropriate Ministerial and Cabinet arrangements are put in place.


The Government has failed to respond to the new demands of the post-Cold War world. White Papers should set strategic guidance for the future ten years at least. The 1994 White Paper rubber-stamped the strategic guidance of the previous eight years. It has little to say about Australia's future defence and security.

The challenge that the Coalition will accept is to ensure that policy settings for the defence of Australia are appropriate to the likely future development of the regional security environment. Similarly, careful thought needs to be given to ways of enhancing regional engagement and how this aim interacts with defence of Australia priorities. Once this policy interaction is resolved, clearer guidance can be given to our force structure and equipment priorities.

Australia does not have an adequate long term defence and security strategy, yet this is vital to our future. The Coalition will ensure that ongoing careful evaluation and formulation of a defence strategy for the future is one of its highest priorities.