Australia’s Defence White Paper: Revolution or Evolution?

The new approach of the 2013 White Paper is not through a Defence of Australia strategy or on fighting distant counterinsurgency wars. Instead the focus is on engagement with the nations of the Indo-Pacific region.

IN May this year a new Defence White Paper was released in Australia. A new White Paper was expected in 2014 so this early release both surprised many and led to cries that it was unnecessary and said little new. There is indeed continuity from earlier times but there is also real change. These changes to Australian defence have been overlooked in the worries over the White Paper’s timing, the budget and the forthcoming Australian Federal Government election. There are however, important developments that will carry forward into the future and shape the Australian Defence Force (ADF) for many decades to come.

The White Paper brings some revolutionary changes at the strategic level with a new stress on regional engagement and to ADF capabilities in the interrelated areas of airborne electronic attack and cyber war. There is also important evolutionary change with Army’s Plan Beersheba continuing and in the Navy with the new submarine program being clearer and its impacts more understood.

But there are serious issues left for the next White Paper including: Should Australia be part of the US’s Air-Sea Battle schemes? What will happen to the Special Forces post-Afghanistan? How will the unmanned air vehicle revolution shape the Air Force?  How will the ADF meet the challenge posed by the new submarine fleets emerging across the region?  There is much for future White Papers to consider but they will start from the foundation this White Paper has created.

Big Strategic Changes
The big strategic change is the focus on the Indo-Pacific region; a new term that highlights the two regions should be considered as one. Previously, Australian defence has focussed on either the Australian continent, its immediate neighbourhood or nearer parts of Southeast Asia but the 2013 White Paper has now taken a much more expansive view. This is even a sharper change coming after a decade of being mainly concerned about combat operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Where is this ‘new’ Indo-Pacific region?

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