The Practical Implementation of the ‘Defence of Australia’ Doctrine

The central issue here was not a lack of hard work. Both within the Defence Organisation and in the SDSC, there was much detailed articulation of the problems of defending Australia.[21] In fact, the largest proportion of the SDSC’s work in the second half of the 1970s and in the 1980s concerned the defence of Australia. In many ways the Centre was at the forefront of the conceptual revolution in Australian defence policy from ‘dependence on great and powerful friends’ to ‘greater self-reliance’ and from ‘forward defence’ to ‘defence of Australia’.

The first major step in this process was a conference organised by Robert O’Neill on The Defence of Australia: Fundamental New Aspects in October 1976, which was designed to assist policymakers struggling with the transformation of Australia’s defence posture. Ross Babbage wrote about the need for revolutionary change and why Australia must now mobilise its own resources to develop an independent capability to defend itself. Desmond Ball noted that the Services were more interested in equipment questions than in any other element of defence policy. The problem he correctly identified was that Australia lacked a basic policy of sufficient clarity and cohesion to enable the resolution of competing claims. He criticised the then popular idea in Defence of a core force because, he said, it did not know what the core force would expand into in an emergency.

O’Neill wrote about the development of operational doctrine for the ADF. He produced the formative studies of the requisite command-and-control structure for a joint ADF in ‘defence of Australia’ contingencies, including a proposal to establish functional command arrangements.

The Department Defence too was busily undertaking contingency studies. But the three military Services and Headquarters Australian Defence Force (which was formed in 1984) struggled to reach agreement with the most senior civilian advisers about what threats they should be prepared to counter, and therefore what force structure priorities should be considered by government. In 1981, for example, as the Senior Assistant Secretary for Strategic Policy, I attended meetings in which only very generic and indicative force structure principles could be agreed upon: no consensus was reached on specific priorities for particular force structure elements.

By late 1984, the Defence Organisation had become quite dysfunctional in some respects. For well over a year the Minister’s two most senior advisers, the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) and the Secretary, had exchanged deeply antagonistic correspondence. The Defence Organisation did not even touch on any agreement about force structure priorities for the defence of Australia, which is what the Minister had directed. Instead, it was bogged down in what I can only describe as the theology of defence policy concerning such issues as intelligence warning time, the definition of lower and higher levels of contingency, the priority (or not) to be given to Australia’s northern approaches, the core force, and the expansion base.

I was appointed in February 1985 as Ministerial Consultant to the Minister for Defence to resolve these issues. My terms of reference directed me to undertake a review of Australia’s defence capabilities: I was asked to examine the content, priorities and rationale of defence forward planning and to advise on which capabilities were appropriate for Australia’s present and future defence requirements. I was to make judgements on the appropriate balance between equipment, personnel numbers, facilities and operating costs, between current readiness and long-term investment, and between the relative priorities given to responding to various levels of possible threats. I was to look as far forward as practicable, and it was suggested that an appropriate timeframe could be the next decade. My report was to be formulated in the light of already endorsed strategic guidance.[22] It was to be completed within 12 months (and, in fact, the classified version of the report was delivered to the Minister in March 1986, with the public version being released in June 1986).

I soon recognised that this was not some sort of academic exercise: the disagreements between the military and civilian elements of Defence Headquarters were severe. My chief aim of delivering a workable policy solution would be a serious challenge. In the initial drafts, I would have to come down fairly hard in some areas in order to allow for the inevitable bounce back in negotiations with the CDF and the Secretary and their senior military and civilian advisers. My work was to focus on the development of a clear set of force structure priorities for the self-reliant ‘defence of Australia’. For over a year my team circulated drafts to the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), which was augmented to include discussions with the Secretary of Defence and his chief advisers. Most months they saw and commented upon drafts written by myself and my team.[23]

The main policy differences were that the civilians tended to regard only the lowest of low-level threats as being credible for the immediate and medium term future, whereas the military was more inclined to want to structure now for high-intensity conflict. These differences undermined any possibility of agreement on force structure priorities, the expansion base and stockholding policy. Fortunately, I was able to chart a course that was strategically responsible while also pacifying to some extent and in different ways the principal protagonists. My approach was to give priority to the more credible threat, and to the lower-level threats that could arise with little warning. This clearly recognised that contingencies could escalate on the basis of current and foreseeable regional military capacity, and that we should be able to handle such escalation. At the third level of conflict there were possibilities for more substantial conventional military action—but below the level of invasion. This could only occur if regional countries developed over time the necessary capacities—an outcome that would take many years. The conclusion was that our defence priorities must ensure that the ADF had available sufficient equipment, support and trained personnel to respond to credible military situations. We also needed to take account of the possible demands of more substantial threats. The basic skills necessary for higher-level conflict should be available, to be expanded and further developed within warning time. But any tendency to prepare for unrealistically high levels of threat should be resisted.[24]

The end result was an historic document which the CDF and the Secretary jointly signed to the Minister broadly agreeing with the direction of my recommendations, but also noting of course that areas of difference remained. As the then CDF, General Sir Phillip Bennett, wrote to me in a personal letter:

The important point is that an agreed course can now be set, and I assure you that it will have my full support in its subsequent implementation following government consideration … I, and the Chiefs of Staff, agree the general direction of your review and the great bulk of your proposals for the future development of the Australian Defence Force.[25]

One of the most contentious issues was the size and role of the Australian Army, which was having difficulties adjusting to the post-Vietnam War era. An Army Development Guide had been prepared as a basis of force structure development by the Army Office. It argued that, where an enemy had lodged essentially a four brigade divisional group (including supporting troops), Australia would require a field force comprising some 135 000 troops, and the whole Army would be some 270 000 strong.[26] The Army recognised that this was not attainable, so instead it proposed an ‘Objective Force-in-Being’ with a strength of 94 000 personnel to provide the firm base from which expansion for higher levels of conflict could occur, while concurrently maintaining forces committed to lower-level operations.

I had substantial reservations about this approach as it was at serious variance with the government’s endorsed strategic guidance (which my terms of reference instructed me to follow). Instead, I recommended:

The minimum number of regular infantry battalions that we require is six. A lesser number of regular battalions could be faced with an impossible operational task. A similar number of reserve battalions would also be required, to be available for early deployment from a reserve force of at least 10 battalions.[27]

The interesting question I have is whether the Army is in fact any bigger today?

In passing, let me note that there is a classified version of the Review of Australia’s Defence Capabilities or Dibb Review which has not been released publicly. It dealt with specific contingencies in our neighbourhood, including contingencies involving Indonesia, as well as situations to do with the security of PNG. It also canvassed such issues as targets for strike operations, and specific intelligence and surveillance priorities.

The Dibb Review was a capabilities review that, within the context of the Australian Government’s strategic policies, provided a basis and rationale for the self-reliant structure of the ADF. The Review did not make recommendations on strategic policy, and it did not canvass how the ADF should be used overseas. The subsequent 1987 Defence White Paper, Defence of Australia, which I helped to draft, set out the government’s strategic priorities, including the matter of overseas operations. The White Paper is quite clear on this point. It stipulates that the government’s policy of defence self-reliance ‘gives priority to the ability to defend ourselves with our own resources’ and that this policy ‘is pursued within the framework of alliances and agreements’. It concludes by saying:

This paper has stressed that the priority need for the Defence Force is to fulfil the national task of defending the nation. It has also dealt with the need for Australia’s defence effort to take account of developments in our region of primary strategic interest, and to be capable of reacting positively to calls for military support elsewhere, should we judge that our interests require it. The Government considers that Australia can deal with both, but to do so we must be alert to priorities.[28]

So it was that Australia developed pioneering ideas of how to develop a Defence Force without a threat. They were based on two key concepts: (1) the enduring nature of Australia’s strategic geography and its maritime approaches; and (2) a requirement to have a clear military technological advantage in our own region.

This was essentially capabilities-based defence planning long before its time and it carried us through the decade of the 1990s when many other countries were essentially adrift in the post-Cold War world.