Report

Threats to Australia's security: their nature and probability

4 Jun 1981
Description

This 1981 report provided a rare frank, detailed, comprehensive and accessible account of the major national security questions facing Australia, at a time when such discussions were often confined to closed bureaucracies. It also contributed to later decisions by the Labor Party to not close down the Australia-United States joint facilities at North West Cape, Pine Gap, Nurrungar and Smithfield.

This is the first time a digitised version of this report has been made publicly available.

Overview

In the early 1980s Cold War tensions had re-emerged with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the election of Ronald Reagan in the United States. Defence issues, which had not featured heavily in Australian politics following the Vietnam war, gained increased public attention.

Given this interest, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence directed its Sub-Committee on Defence Matters to monitor "the implementation of the Australian Government's announced Defence programs" (p. vi). The Sub-Committee then called for submissions and held public hearings, but found a "widespread misunderstanding amongst the public as to what constitutes a 'threat' to Australia's security" (p. vi).

Starting from the position that "no analysis of a defence program can proceed without a thorough understanding of the types of threats and contingencies which may be faced by the Australian Defence Force", this report was produced to explore what security threats Australia actually faced.

The Sub-Committee examined threats ranging from the worst-case scenario of full-scale invasion, to intermediate threats such as disruption of shipping lanes or aggression against a regional ally, to low-level contingencies such as terrorist attacks, harassment of shipping, poaching of resources or military intrusions into airspace. The report concluded that Australia was well-prepared for the lower-level threats and that the more serious threats were very remote. It did not make recommendations, but it opened up the possibility that Australia did not need to be solely dependent on a major ally and could take up much of the burden of defending itself.

This occurred at a time when the future of Australian defence policy was uncertain. Malcolm Fraser's Coalition government was committed to Australia's alliance with the United States, but the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was internally divided, particularly given the Vietnam experience. Some sections of the ALP favoured moving away from the US alliance while others felt Australia should commit to the alliance but maintain an independent foreign policy.

One of the biggest debates was over whether to keep the facilities Australia shared with the United States at North West Cape, Pine Gap, Nurrungar and Smithfield, and what role these installations would play in a global war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Did these joint facilities enhance Australia's defence, or simply make Australia a greater target in the event of a nuclear confrontation?

Kim Beazley, reflecting (0) on this report decades later, said that the ALP had been at a crossroads: "Either the facilities, and the generality of the alliance, were an unacceptable risk to Australia, or they were essential and needed to be incorporated wholeheartedly into national strategy."

This report foreshadowed the approach the ALP would end up taking. The Sub-Committee producing this report drew heavily from arguments by Professor Desmond Ball, from the Australian National University, that the joint facilities could contribute to global peace by providing early warning of attacks and giving the United States confidence that the Soviet Union was abiding by arms control agreements. The report quoted Ball's argument that "there is no doubt that SALT [Strategic Arms Limitations Talks] was predicated on adequate and detailed verification capabilities. You would not have had SALT unless you could have had a lot of the intelligence which comes down through satellites to the Australian ground stations" (pp. 16-17).

However, hosting these bases also posed dangers. The Sub-Committee quoted Ball saying, "I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that those three installations would be targeted by the Soviet Union. However, that should not be the whole point of the question. At least three other issues should be addressed. One is that whilst they would be targets in the event of a nuclear war, I do not see a nuclear war as being very likely. One could argue that the existence of these installations deters the outbreak of a nuclear war. But one still has to come to the conclusion that if a nuclear war does come, those stations are going to be targeted" (p. 18).

The report examined the competing arguments in extensive detail, and ultimately argued in favour on keeping the facilities, which helped shift sections of the ALP in that direction. Kim Beazley, who had been a member of Sub-Committee, later said (0): "I doubt whether my Liberal colleagues were aware, but much of this report was aimed at an internal ALP debate. Effectively the argument was: live with the facilities; recognise their value to the Americans and the leverage it might bring; focus on enhancing Australian sovereignty and information; concentrate on arms control and disarmament issues and on a self-reliant defence strategy."

Beazley also argued that maintaining the facilities had allowed Australia leverage within the US alliance, at a time when the Reagan Administration was trying to drag US allies into a confrontational stance towards the Soviet Union. He claimed that: "The first piece of leverage the facilities gave the Labor government was to get off the hook of the MX tests [the US testing of experimental missiles in Australia], but they were helpful in securing American tolerance on a wide range of independent Australian initiatives on arms control, Southeast Asian regional diplomacy, self­-reliant defence strategy and ducking involvement in policies like the Strategic Defence Initiative."

Whether the approach that was opened up by this report, and adopted by the ALP after it came to power in 1983, was the correct one will always be subject to debate. Many commentators argue that Australia has been far too closely allied to the United States, and that the firm commitment to the alliance by both major parties has been to Australia's own detriment. Malcolm Fraser, who as Prime Minister championed the US alliance when this report was produced in 1981, argues that the alliance has now outlived its usefulness. His 2014 book says that Australia should close the joint facilities, end the alliance and adopt of policy of armed neutralism. Other commentators argue (60) the opposite (276), that the attempt at defence self-reliance during the 1980s was misguided, that Australia has no choice but to depend on a major power, and that Australian public opinion favours the alliance. These debates will no doubt continue, particularly given the prospect of confrontation between the United States and China.

However, this report matters not just because of its indirect policy impact, but because it provided a rare frank, detailed, comprehensive and accessible account of the major national security questions facing Australia, at a time when such discussions were often confined to closed bureaucracies and when there was little effort to allow Australians to even know what were the risks and benefits of hosting joint facilities with the United States.

From the introduction:

In the course of its hearings to date the Sub-Committee has identified a widespread misunderstanding amongst the public as to what constitutes a 'threat' to Australia's security. Some of this misunderstanding derives from the simplistic way in which defence issues are frequently discussed. As a result most Australians have no framework or set of criteria with which to judge the adequacy of Australia's defence. It is the Committee's view that no analysis of a defence program can proceed without a thorough understanding of the types of threats and contingencies which may be faced by the Australian Defence Force.

The purpose of this report is to canvass the concept of 'threat' within the Australian context. It is intended as a forerunner to further reports covering particular aspects of the terms of reference and seeks to provide a framework for public discussion of the subsequent issues. In this context the report presents conclusions without making formal recommendations.

If this report has any particular target it is the reasonably well informed citizen who has made no special study of defence, and who has the impression that because of its vast coastline and small population Australia is fundamentally indefensible. Such a person will find substantial reassurance in this report, and will, it is hoped, develop an informed interest in defence matters.

A report published by a Parliamentary Committee has an advantage over a Government paper in that it can canvass the delicate matter of Australia's relationships with its neighbours and allies without compromising Government policy. For example, there has sometimes been misinformed comment that individual countries within our region might pose a threat to Australia's security. Official constraints, however justified in the cause of diplomacy, have tended to leave the public in a state of ignorance or uncertainty. It is the Committee's hope that a frank discussion of such matters will dispel unnecessary fears, lead to an informed and balanced appreciation of Australia's regional relationships, and improve the climate of understanding between Australia and its neighbours.

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Part of the Policy History Collection. Digitisation of this report has been supported by the National Library of Australia.

Reproduced with permission of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Publication Details
Published year only: 
1981
144
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