What Does Australia's Defense White Paper Actually Say?


Last Thursday, the Australian government finally released its long-awaited Defense White Paper for 2016. The paper has been relatively well received by most major commentators, including the opposition Labour Party (although not by the Greens, who argue that the increased defense funding could be better spent elsewhere). Most of the substance of this paper was prepared by the previous Abbott government. However, current Minister of Defense Marise Payne has apparently changed some of the important formulations around, especially Australia’s relationship with China, and has received much praise by both her Liberal Party colleagues and the Australian media for her presentation of the paper.

This document essentially explains three things: First, it provides an analysis of Australia’s geopolitical and security environment, and identifies six main drivers that will shape the country’s security requirements until 2035. These were all fairly predictable: the U.S.-China relationship, the ongoing military modernization and state rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, the threat of terror attacks emanating from the conflicts Iraq and Syria, and, finally, cyber-attacks. The United States, and to a lesser degree Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, are all identified as Australia’s most important security partners in the region.

No big surprises here. China’s policies in the South and East China Seas have been a hot topic in Australia for some time. The paper reiterates Australia’s position that it takes no sides in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but it does single out China for its land reclamation and militarization efforts in the area. In the paper, security and freedom of navigation in Southeast Asian maritime environs are classified as a crucial area of interest for Australia. As previously reported by the Diplomat, Canberra has supported U.S. freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, and has possibly even conducted its own flyover over the South China Sea.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The white paper additionally makes clear that terrorism and instability in the Middle East remain an important issue for Australian security. Considering that the country has been hit by several small-scale terror attacks, in which the perpetrators have claimed allegiance to the Islamic State over the last couple years, it is no surprise that the paper says that Australia will continue its support of the Iraqi and Afghan governments in their fight against the terrorist organization. (Australia currently has around 500 mentoring and support personnel stationed at Camp Taji in Iraq, and is participating in airstrikes against IS in Iraq and Syria.) The interesting formulation here is that Australian international military commitments will be much more dependent on whether its core national interests are at stake. The paper then indicates that Australia will mostly contribute in a support capacity, which might indicate an increased reluctance to participate in larger, more muscular missions, such as its 12-year stabilization operation in Uruzgan province in Afghanistan.

The important exceptions here are operations in what the paper describes as areas of “strategic interest”: the South Pacific and Southeast Asian maritime environs. Australia has already led several stabilization and humanitarian missions in the area, notably in the Solomon Islands, Bougainville, and, recently, to Fiji. The paper, as well as discussions with Australian officials, heavily insinuates that Canberra will continue to prioritize these missions.

As both Franz-Stefan Gady and Euan Graham have discussed in these pages, the government is investing heavily in new defense capabilities to meet the security challenges outlined in the paper. The Australian government has pledged to increase the defense budget to 2 percent of GDP by 2020-2021, increasing it by just short of 30 billion AUD. Interestingly, this increase is fixed to the present projections of GDP, not to what the actual GDP growth might be in future years. This means that even if Australia’s economic growth is slower than projected today, spending on defense will remain constant.

This added spending will, according to the white paper, add an impressive array of new capabilities to the Australian Defense Force (ADF). Most of these are focused on the ADF’s naval and aerial capabilities, but there are also some interesting additions and reforms to the army as well. Just like its geopolitical analysis and identification of potential challenges, the defense acquisitions definitely have a closer-to-home edge, in that they are mainly meant to operate in the Indo-Pacific and primarily against a state opponent.

The centerpiece of the ADF’s naval modernization program is the SEA-1000 program, the replacement program for Australia’s six Collins-class submarines. The 12 future submarines represent the largest defense investment in Australian history. Other important naval acquisitions include three Hobart-class Aegis frigates, nine anti-submarine warfare frigates to replace the current fleet of Anzac-class ships, and 12 patrol boats. By their nature, these capabilities are mostly suitable for Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) roles than a typical force projection role. However, the Royal Australian Navy is also acquiring two Canberra-class amphibious ships, each with the capability of carrying 1,000 troops and required equipment. These do provide Australia with some force projection capabilities, and the paper states “the Canberra Class provides the ADF with the capability to undertake a range of operations, including supporting the security of maritime South East Asia and Pacific Island Countries and addressing emergent threats in the broader Indo-Pacific region.” Most likely, these will be used primarily for HA/DR or stabilization missions in the South Pacific and South East Asia.

The Air Force is (hopefully) receiving 72 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, which will begin to enter service by the early 2020s. These will apparently be equipped with the experimental, Norwegian-developed Naval Strike Missile and Joint Strike Missile. Again, these are more A2/AD capabilities than force projection capabilities (although the JSM is primarily intended for use against vehicles; this would have some utility against an enemy such as ISIL). In addition, Australian special forces are receiving new helicopters and the Air Force is adding 12 E/A-18 Growlers and 2 C-17 Globemasters. The first of these are suitable for fighting enemy aircraft; the second is useful for out-of-area operations.

While the army has probably drawn the short straw in terms of funding, the paper is still promising some benefits. The paper promises to add two brigades consisting of three battalions each. Furthermore, as Franz-Stefan Gady has reported previously, Australia is also set to replace its Bushmaster Infantry Fighting Vehicles.

All in all, the paper is more of a confirmation than a revelation of Australia’s future strategic choices. Canberra has long signaled that it is intending to concentrate on its own neighborhood. The paper clearly gives the impression of an Australia that is reinforcing its position as a “middle power”: a crucial actor in the South Pacific, an important factor in the Indo-Pacific, and a strong voice in global affairs that affect Australian interests.

The reaffirmation of alliance with the U.S. and New Zealand, and the deepening security partnerships with Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN states, is no surprise either. The paper’s description of Australia’s complex relationship with China has also been praised for managing to balance the necessity of securing good economic relations with Australia’s largest trading partner on the one hand, and adequate resistance to China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea on the other.

Chinese responses to the paper have been predictably sour; Beijing has stated its “dissatisfaction” and accused Canberra of misinterpreting China’s policies in the region. However, going by the kind of rhetoric one sometimes hears from Beijing, especially on U.S. military policies in the region, the Chinese government probably isn’t surprised or even overly alarmed by the paper’s contents.

While the paper has been relatively well received, there remain some questions as to how likely its contents are to be realized. As Graham points out, most of this spending will occur at the end of the paper’s period, from 2019-2021. Considering Australia’s notoriously frequent changes in government, whether these promised reforms would survive a change in government remains to be seen. For now, Australia’s new Defense White Paper lays out an ambitious, but realistic, role for the country’s future security prospects. Let’s see if Australia’s politicians agree.

Benjamin David Baker is a former editorial assistant at The Diplomat and was also part of the Norwegian Armed Forces. All views presented here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Norwegian government or any other entity. 

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief