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Shaping a Way Ahead for Australian Defence - Dr Robbin Laird

Dr Robbin Laird, Shaping a Way Ahead for Australian Defence: A Discussion with Vice-Admiral (Retired) Barrett, 9 April 2023





The Williams Foundation seminar on deterrence held on 30 March 2023 provided a chance to think about the way ahead for Australian defence. The seminars started with the introduction of the F-35 as a forcing function into the ADF and the shaping of a joint force by design.


But much of that thinking was built to support the strategic environment envisaged in the mid-decade best expressed in the defence white paper of 2016.


As the late Brendan Sargeant characterized the 2016 White Paper: “The 2016 White Paper was an important document because it restored the underlying funding framework that the 2009 White Paper envisaged but was never able to sustain. The underlying vision of the force that was evident in 2009 was reinvigorated in the 2016 White Paper and a funded investment program was established. This was an important achievement.


“The 2016 White Paper also recognised that Defence was more than the ADF, but also included the broader Defence system. We saw a much more sophisticated recognition of the importance of enablers (what Nick Warner in a landmark speech when he was secretary had called the broken backbone of Defence).


“It put renewed emphasis on defence industry, particularly with the recognition that industry is an element of capability. At the heart of this White Paper was a recognition that we needed to rebuild the Australian Navy, so the shipbuilding agenda, which we are all now grappling with, was born in that document.


“But it also had two other very interesting features. One was that it removed the prioritisation framework for the development of the force structure that had been evident in the 2013 and 2009 papers, and in preceding papers such as the ones in 2000, 1994 and, most importantly, the one in 1987. It was a significant break with the past. This is perhaps the most controversial element of the paper.


“But perhaps the most interesting element of the 2016 document was that it gave enormous enormous priority to the maintenance of the rules-based order, a theme that also occurs in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. The 2016 Defence White Paper has many achievements, but its focus on the rules-based order is now starting to look a bit wistful.”[1]


Wistful indeed and we have entered a global era with many chartered unknowns.


The re-thinking of Australian defence is occurring precisely when its allies in the Pacific and in Europe are re-thinking and re-working their approaches to the future of defence in a very different world when it was simply trying to ensure that the authoritarian powers complied with the rules-based order.


Now they are focused on building a new one.


That is why the Williams Foundation team established a seminar which focused on first principles: what are the nature of the defense challenges which Australia faces in this new historical epoch?


And what is the role of the ADF and its recalibration and re-design within the new context?


Vice-Admiral (Retired) Barrett underscored the focus of the seminar in his concluding comments as follows: “As the Chairman of Williams, Geoff Brown, indicated at the beginning of the day we are taking a different tack with this seminar and the one to follow later in the year.


“The subject that we discussed over the last couple of hours has been around deterrence where previously at these conferences, we’ve been talking very specifically around fifth generation capability throughout the ADF.


“So the idea that we would gather, and we would have an array of esteemed speakers who would inform us, educate us, but also challenge us, to assist us in being able to formulate our thinking about the way ahead made a great deal of sense.”


I discussed at further length Barrett’s thoughts on the transition a week after the seminar.


He emphasized that “we have to look at the broader strategic redesign of Australian defence within which the ADF will be re-crafted. Our views of deterrence in this new period are not yet fully formed and it is the broader perspectives that need to guide the way ahead for the ADF.


“We need to settle our understanding of deterrence as a foundational effort or we will simply end up with a platform centric perspective driving this or that new platform without consideration of what these new capabilities bring to the deterrence equation.


“What is needed is a national enterprise that looks across all parts of government, be it statecraft, diplomacy, economic or military capabilities. It is essential that we drive towards an understanding of what deterrence means to us and for us.”


We did not dwell on the submarine issue but he naturally touched upon it.


His argument was the role of being able to operate successfully in the underwater domain is key for the ADF in a broader deterrence strategy.


Clearly, my own work for the U.S. Department of Defence has made it very clear that the speed, agility, stealth and range of a nuclear submarine make it a key element enabling the U.S. Navy to play a much more effective role in operating in the underwater domain and with the multi-domain kill web approach they are finding ways t more effectively include the nuclear submarine fleet within joint firings solutions as well.


Barrett argued: “I often hear comments that there has been little debate about the need for a submarine capability and that more needs to be done before a decision to proceed is made. In reality, there has been significant open debate and critique in the last decade – but few have taken the opportunity to read it, understand it, or educate themselves about that debate.”


Building capability is part of deterrence.


As Barrett concluded: “It is not simply about process; it is about outcome. Deterrence is empowered by a demonstration of the will of a nation to be able to act to meet its own interests which comes not only through political actions but industrial ones as well. It is an ability to draw on the strength of the whole nation which can be demonstrated in building out new capability which enhances the ADF’s ability to act supported by the nation.”


[1] Laird, Robbin. Joint by Design: The Evolution of Australian Defence Strategy (pp. 325-326). Kindle Edition.

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