The prime minister's man

20 Feb 2006

Is Brendan Nelson “the subject of serious seduction” in his new job at Defence? Geoffrey Barker thinks not.

BRENDAN NELSON’S appointment as defence minister has triggered three remarkable pre-emptive strikes designed to capture the new minister’s thinking on Australia’s strategic defence policy.

The strikes have come from two writers who see the regional focus of current strategic policy as outdated and inadequate and who want a much greater focus on developing heavy expeditionary forces to operate globally in US-led coalitions.

Both the timing and content of the attacks appear coordinated and inspired, perhaps, by senior army elements who apparently fear that Nelson might be persuaded to re-think already approved plans for hardening and networking the Australian army.

Professor Robyn Lim, visiting fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, announced in the Australian Financial Review on 16 February that Nelson “is being told the Australian Army should be composed mainly of light infantry... Such an approach would undermine our capabilities close to home while reducing our ability to operate with the forces of our major ally”.

Also on 16 February, Greg Sheridan in the Australian attacked as mistaken critics who “yearn to restore the ancien regime in Australian defence when our army was culpably small and under-equipped... Both the US and Australian need bigger armies, and they need armies with all the relevant, modern kit”. Only two days later, on 18 February, Sheridan suggested that Nelson was “the subject of a serious attempt at seduction” by Professors Paul Dibb and Hugh White who, he said, are opposed to the decision to harden and network the army.

Lim does not reveal who is telling Nelson the army should be composed mainly of light infantry; Sheridan does not identify who yearns for the army to be small and under-equipped, although he says “the ‘old paradigm’ gang are plotting a big comeback”.

Sheridan appears concerned that Nelson has kept only one member of the staff of former Defence Minister Robert Hill, who made a sustained effort to dilute the regional defence-of-Australia focus of strategic policy in favor of a so-called global reach expeditionary posture. He also seems concerned that Nelson has hired Aldo Borgu, formerly of the Australian Strategic Policy Insitute.

There are three deep flaws in the Lim-Sheridan attacks. First, they are based on the false assumption that regional and global defence policies are mutually exclusive - that it is either one or the other, but not both. Second, they imply that Nelson is easily swayed and needs to be warned and insulated against dangerous counsellors. Third, they do not adequately understand the case for placing primary emphasis on defence-of-Australia regionalism in strategic policy.

Before examining these flaws, it is as well to be aware of Nelson’s views. When I interviewed Nelson last week he made it clear that he had no plans yet to review the current (2000) defence white paper, Defence 2000 - Our Future Defence Force, which, with upgrades, is the source of the so-called “concentric circles” defence-of-Australia policy. But equally, he said, he would not see the white paper as “set in stone irrespective of changing circumstances”. Here, for the record (for the first time) are his comments verbatim:

“I think there are elements of what I understand to be Paul Dibb’s position and others, and elements of the so-called expeditionary model, which both have relevance to modern and ongoing policy in defence. So I don’t think it’s one or the other. It’s like a lot of things - it’s a little bit of both.

“Of course geography is important. We have got really important historical and geographical reasons to support PNG in terms of governance and stability. So too the Solomon Islands, East Timor. You can see obviously some things that are happening in Papua. Why do we take such an interest in having such a close and effective relationship with Indonesia. Of course those things are important.

“But we also have to understand that in terms of global security, of which Australia is a part, stability in the Middle East does and will have an impact on Australia, and that impact will become I think more significant with the passage of time. So too our alliance arrangements... the war on terror is a global activity. We have to have a capacity to be able to deploy our personnel and necessary equipment in support of them to the most remote parts of the world... that’s the preparedness capacity we have got to have.”

Professor Lim and Mr Sheridan might have been less concerned if they had asked Nelson for his views. Nelson is no fool. He is consulting widely, including with Dibb, but he is unlikely to be captured by any policy advocate.

The essential point is that Nelson is John Howard’s man in defence - and he will do what the prime minister, who is deeply interested in defence, wants done. While Howard is a strong US alliance man who will always contribute to US-led coalitions, he is too smart a politician to make the mistake of putting all of Australia’s strategic policy eggs into either the defence-of-Australia or the global reach basket. In his speech to the Lowy Institute last April, and elsewhere, Howard has left no doubt that his primary focus is regional. He even acknowledged that Australia and the US might not always see eye- to-eye on regional issues - as differences in Australian and US atttidues towards China increasingly demonstrate.

There are, ultimately, two reaspons why Australia’s military force structure and strategic policy should be focused primarily on the nation’s regional geography. The first is that Australia always has a choice about whether to join with others in coalitions to defend selected vital interests in distant places. But Australia has no choice about having to fight alone, if necessary, to defend Australia and possibly its neighborhood against foreign state or non-state predators. As Dibb has said there are wars of discretion and wars of necessity.

Secondly, even when Australia is equipped with joint strike fighters, air warfare destroyers and large amphibious ships, and the army is hardened with Abrams tanks and fully networked, it will still at be able to make only limited but valuable “niche” contributions to US-led coalitions. It will remain too small to do more.

In gesture that smacked of hubris, the latest defence update replaced the words “niche contributions” with the vaguer words “meaningful contributions”. Compared with US, British and European forces, the Australian Defence Force, is small - but it is also professional, well-led and increasingly lethal. Of course it will continue to deploy to distant coalition operations when required, but its primary focus has to be the defence of the nation and its region. •

Geoffrey Barker is a senior foreign affairs and defence policy columnist for the Australian Financial Review and author of Sexing It Up: Iraq, Intelligence and Australia, published in APO’s Briefings series by UNSW Press.

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