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Gillard’s security strategy prepares for the known unknowns

The central problem for defence and security planners right now is uncertainty. The clarity of the Cold War is gone, new threats such as terrorism have come, and seemingly peaked, and what the rise of…

Julia Gillard has presented a coherent plan for an uncertain future. AAP/Lukas Coch

The central problem for defence and security planners right now is uncertainty. The clarity of the Cold War is gone, new threats such as terrorism have come, and seemingly peaked, and what the rise of China and India means for regional stability is impossible to tell. Like Schrödinger and his famous cat, we don’t know if the box marked “future” holds war or peace, prosperity or decline.

Under former prime minister Kevin Rudd, the government sought to confront this uncertainty. In the diplomatic sphere Rudd was a systems builder, advocating an Asia-Pacific Community where great powers could mediate the challenges of the day. In the defence sphere, he wanted significant new air and maritime capabilities, unsubtly directed towards China.

By comparison, prime minister Julia Gillard seems more comfortable with complexity. Instead of seeking to overcome it, Gillard’s strategy is to work within it. The 2013 National Security Strategy aims only to improve Australia’s position until such time as we have a better understanding of the direction our region is heading. It might therefore be termed Schrödinger’s Strategy. The underlying logic seems to be that rather than worrying about what we can’t possibly know, let’s do what we can with what we have.

A comparison between the 2008 National Security Statement and the 2013 National Security Strategy is telling. The strategy identifies three goals to work towards, when there were ten in Rudd’s statement.

The new goals are improving our diplomatic and defence engagement with the region; a better approach to cyber security and increasing the vertical and horizontal cooperation between Australian security agencies (that is, between state and federal governments, and within the federal bureaucracy). Each is achievable and each helps in the long term, whatever outcome Australia faces.

The change in name – from “statement” to “strategy” – is also important. The 2008 document discussed what Australia’s environment and interests were and some of the main government agencies that addressed these issues. The 2013 document does this, but also tries to describe the link between what we want (ends), what we are doing to achieve it (ways), and what resources we have to dedicate (means). There is also a stark difference in language, suggesting that this time, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and experts in the bureaucracy have written the document, not the prime minister personally, as seemed to be the case in 2008. This is for the better.

Notably, the United Nations has fallen away from the priority it had in 2008. The only references are to the United Nations Security Council seat Australia has for 2013/2014 and UN peacekeeping missions. Global multilateralism seems far less important this time around. There are other shifts too. The current document is more optimistic, but less certain. It’s more regional, but less ambitious. It is more focused on economics, and less on institutions. It’s also more concerned with outcomes than process. In short it promises less, cares more about where we end up, and admits there’s a lot we don’t know.

There are of course some problems with the document. The eight “pillars” of national security involve an odd mix of threats (terrorism, crime), resources (the US alliance) and aims (preserving border integrity, gaining understanding and influence in region). The strategy mentions the risk of other states trying to coerce Australia on economic, political or military grounds without explaining why these issues have leaped into the forefront of government thinking.

The biggest failing, however, is the question of resources. The strategy places high priority on improving our diplomatic engagement with the region, yet our diplomats remain on a starvation diet. Military-to-military diplomacy is also given significant responsibility, yet the recent cuts to defence are already curtailing existing efforts. As noted above, good strategy is the connection of means to ends, and yet this document offers no new funding, or even recognition that current funding is plainly inadequate.

These concerns aside, the 2013 National Security Strategy is to be praised. It tackles the hardest question in Australia’s defence and security planning today, namely uncertainty, and embraces it. It tells us what the government thinks about Australia’s position, the main goals it has and some of how it intends to get there.

There are still a lot of fuzzy words – “enhance”, “focus”, “encourage” or “continue to develop” – but the meaning is clear enough. If these strategies become a regular habit of the Australian government, we might not have guaranteed security, but we should end up better off than Schrödinger’s Cat … maybe.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Anthony Nolan

    Ruminant

    A disappointing document that avoids the key issues: how do we keep on selling coal to China whatever the consequences? how do we keep the reffos from Bangladesh out when the seas start rising? how many US bases will we need? will the Yanks still love us in the morning?

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    1. David Clerke

      Teacher

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Leaving aside the fact that Bangladesh is getting bigger not smaller it is naive to think that defence and particularly defence purchases have anything to do with Australia's national strategy. What for example is the purpose of the large landing ships purchased from Spain? Whom are we going to invade, we do not have the logistic tail to sustain an invasion of anything larger than Norfolk Island. Likewise Defence to a perfectly airworthy helicopter, the Seasprite in service with a number of Navies, spent a billion (yes a billion) on it and ended with one that could not get an airworthiness certificate.

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    2. Stuart Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Clerke

      You make some valid points there David. There are some additional things to consider with respect to the examples you highlight. The Canberra class LHD is the result of our Timor experience. It was identified back then that we did not have a force projection capability that would be able to move a reasonable size force to somewhere in our region and provide the necessary support for a force disembarked. An amphibious capability is nothing new to the ADF and is a valid strategic acquisition…

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    3. David Clerke

      Teacher

      In reply to Stuart Smith

      I disagree with you on both points. Timor will not happen again and in any case could have been supplied by STUFT civilian ships. The real reason was embarrassment over operation Morris Dancer when it would have proved impossible to rescue Australian hostages from Fiji over twenty years ago and in any event no hostages were taken. These days terrorists are sufficiently astute to spread any hostage our in different locations making rescue impossible in any case. The Sea Sprites never had anything…

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    4. Stuart Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Clerke

      Firstly, you cannot guarantee that circumstances similar to Timor will not happen again. There are multiple locations within our region (Bougainville, Solomon Islands, possibly PNG to name a few without going into further analysis] that are fragile. If nothing else history teaches us that regional conflicts can develop in a short space of time and these timeframes are not long enough to scratch something together. I do note that Fiji occurred in 1987 [Hawke/Keating era] and Timor was in 1999…

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    5. David Clerke

      Teacher

      In reply to Stuart Smith

      Sorry mate I was in the game. Morris Dance was an abject failure and the Brits did just fine with STUFT when they re took the Falklands. Timor was unnapposed and we had he use of a port and US and other allies. Australia has a stockholdings which allow for two minutes of warfare. I know I attempted to change that and got sacked. We are completely dependent on US supply for almost everything and there is no unbroken indigenous supply of anything not even small arms ammunition the nitrocellusose board coming from Canada. The Seasprites were ordered because you could not land a Sea Hawk on the proposed OPV. Sorry mate I was there! I did not read it in the newspapers!

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    6. Stuart Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Clerke

      And here lie a few problems. Firstly, the “I was there” excuse. In what capacity? What information did you have access to? What role did you fill? Were you directly involved in all decisions made? If you were not directly involved then how far down the chain were you? Was the information first hand, second hand, last hand? Some specifics please otherwise the “I was there” excuse means nothing. As you are a proverbial “man with an experience” your experience is limited therefore you are only…

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    7. David Clerke

      Teacher

      In reply to Stuart Smith

      I was a Colonel equivalent and kept critical correspondence which they will find in my papers when I die! Your disgusting reference is appalling and is nothing more than a wishful thinking that New Zealand will buy the non functional Australian version versions of the obsolete Sea Sprites!My involvement was no excuse.

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    8. David Clerke

      Teacher

      In reply to Stuart Smith

      "And for the record you haven not been employed by Defence and never have been " That is totally clear. Thank God!

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  2. Theo Pertsinidis
    Theo Pertsinidis is a Friend of The Conversation.

    ALP voter

    Re: "The central problem for defence and security planners right now is uncertainty".

    Look at profiles and take an educated punt :-)

    Think and act global and local.

    In this era of accelerating change, knowledge alone is no longer the key to a prosperous life. The critical skill to couple knowledge is foresight. Knowledge quickly goes out of date, but foresight enables you to navigate change, make good decisions, and take action now to create a better future.

    We often think people are…

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    1. Stuart Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Theo Pertsinidis

      I’ve no problem with you theory. What makes you think that it is not being applied at the moment?
      There are some other things I would like you to consider with it. Firstly there are always unintended consequences. Some of these will come from X factors and others because not all outcomes can be foreseen. And no, I don’t for one minute accept that the use of predictive modelling and the full application of your process will produce a flawless outcome. For your model to work there needs to…

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