20 August 2015
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Nicole Brangwin, Nathan Church, Steve Dyer and David Watt
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section
Australia published defence white papers in 1976, 1987, 1994,
2000, 2009 and 2013 and a new white paper is expected in 2015.
A community consultation process was undertaken as part of the
2000 and 2009 defence white papers and a similar process is being carried out
for the upcoming 2015 defence white paper.
The need to defend Australia against a major aggressor remains
the primary driver in Australian defence policy.
Regional security and contributing to the global order have been
secondary, but still important priorities in Australian defence planning.
Each of the defence white papers has been created on the basis
that Australia should be able to defend itself against a potential aggressor
without outside assistance (the principle of self-reliance), while at the same
time stressing the importance of the alliance with the United States.
Threat perceptions have changed from the Cold War influences
reflected in the 1976 and 1987 white papers to a contemporary focus on
terrorism while also incorporating emerging threats such as cyber attacks and
the rise of China.
Defence white papers are not produced in a vacuum but are
informed by key reviews of Australia’s strategic situation, industry policy and
Defence policy is subject to the broader economic conditions of
the time and the Department of Defence must contend with many other priorities
for government funding.
The financial plans set out in the various defence white papers
are often ambitious and rarely brought to fruition.
On the whole, capability choices have displayed continuity
between the different white papers regardless of changes in government. This is
understandable given the length of time required for major capital equipment
Recent white papers have placed a greater emphasis on regional
The contribution of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to humanitarian
assistance and disaster relief operations, as well as to border protection
activities, has also been included in the most recent white papers.
The purpose of Australia’s defence
Historical context: 1870–1976
Australian Defence (1976
Defence White Paper)
The Defence of Australia (1987
Defence White Paper)
Defending Australia (1994
Defence White Paper)
Defence 2000: Our Future Defence
Force (2000 Defence White Paper)
Australia’s National Security: a
Defence Update 2003, 2005 and 2007
Defending Australia in the Asia
Pacific Century: Force 2030 (2009 Defence White Paper)
Defence White Paper 2013 (2013
Defence White Paper)
The authors would like to thank Marty Harris, Peter
Jennings, Paula Pyburne and Laura and Graham Rayner for their valuable
assistance in the preparation of this Research Paper.
This paper provides a summary of each of Australia’s defence
white papers issued between 1976 and 2013 and seeks to draw out common themes
that emerge in some or all of them. The background provided to each white paper
is necessarily selective—in particular, it generally excludes discussion of
reviews pertaining to the organisation of the military and civilian components
of Australia’s Defence organisation.
Given the scope of this topic, this paper does not attempt
to provide a comprehensive history of Australian strategic policy. Instead,
this paper considers some of the key strategic issues and influencing factors
that directly relate to the production of the various defence white papers. It
provides a comparison of different government policies relating to defence and considers
whether the stated objectives and outcomes of each white paper were fully, or
even partially, realised.
Australia’s defence white papers originate from the
Westminster model whereby government strategic policies are enunciated publicly
through white papers. According to the United Kingdom (UK) Parliament’s website,
white papers contain ‘government policy initiatives and proposals for
Prior to the release of a white paper, the British Government
traditionally produces a ‘green paper’ to promote discussion on key topics as
part of a consultation process, after which a white paper is produced. The government
of the day then presents the white paper to Parliament as a way of announcing
key government decisions in key policy areas. At this point, the white paper is
referred to as a ‘command paper’ because it is presented to the Parliament ‘by
Command of Her Majesty’.
There is no formal definition of what constitutes a white paper but it is
commonly accepted as a statement of government policy.
In the Australian context, white papers are similarly described
... papers or reports which embody a statement of the
government’s policy or proposals on some topic of significance, e.g. defence,
health insurance. These papers tend to be more common in the federal Parliament
than in state parliaments. The term ‘white paper’ derives from the Imperial
Parliament where different types of papers are distinguished by the colour of
their covers. ‘White papers’ are usually smaller documents which do not warrant
binding in the stiff blue covers used for more extensive documents.
The distinctive white cover is no longer used. The Cabinet
Handbook states, as a general rule, that white papers are used to announce
government policy and green papers are considered public policy discussion
papers. Both papers usually announce significant policy developments when they
are tabled in Parliament.
But as this paper shows, not all defence white papers have been tabled in
Given this background, it might be argued that the first
Australian white paper was produced and tabled in Parliament in the mid-1940s
under the Curtin Government; however, it was not explicitly described or
presented as a white paper. The then Minister for Post-war Reconstruction, John
Dedman, presented the Government’s policy paper on post-war employment to
Parliament ‘to draw the attention of honourable members to the importance of
the document and the fundamental character of the policy outlined in it’.
The production of defence white papers is not isolated to
Commonwealth countries: defence white papers are regularly produced by, for
example, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea.
Since the first defence white paper was released in 1976,
leading commentators have questioned their purpose and usefulness. According to
Hugh White (Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National
University), the purpose of a white paper should be to provide ‘a detailed
statement describing a new policy direction’ that is supported by credible
arguments and evidence.
While white papers can be produced in any key area of government:
... they are especially important in defence, because it
involves such long-term decisions, engaging critical national interests and
committing huge sums of money, in circumstances of great uncertainty. Such
decisions are inevitably based more on judgement than on hard data, and are
often infused with murky, half-articulated hopes and fears. It is all too easy
for momentous decisions to be made on flimsy grounds which would not withstand
serious scrutiny. It is therefore especially important in defence for the
Government to set out explicitly the evidence and arguments underpinning its
Peter Jennings (Executive Director of the Australian
Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI)) asserted in 2005 that a defence white paper
... do some hard thinking about the impact of strategic
change on defence policy. A clear statement of Australia’s strategic outlook
would help to order our thinking about how we should set priorities between
traditional ‘defence of Australia’, regional and global tasks. A new white
paper also provides an opportunity to develop some disciplined language
explaining Australia’s policies. This would be helpful in building relations
with our closer neighbours.
In the lead-up to the 2009 defence white paper, Rod Lyon
(ASPI) described the role of a defence white paper as being central to
resolving the ‘puzzle’ of Australian strategy, in the public sphere. Lyon
argued that the puzzle ‘requires us to define the relationship between three
a strategic environment largely beyond our own making
our own role in the world
and the constraints that bound that role.
Lyon went on to state that a ‘White Paper is not merely a
clever academic paper. It requires us to make judgments, including judgments
about our own strategic future and about how we manage risks in an uncertain
Similarly, John Hartley (National President of the Royal
United Services Institute of Australia (RUSI Australia)) argued that white
... are useful because they force a government to consider
its policy priorities in a disciplined and structured way and also provide the
electorate, and indeed the international community, with a statement of policy
Essentially, defence white papers should define the
government’s broad strategic objectives and the capabilities needed for them to
be achieved within fiscally responsible and realistic boundaries. They should
also reflect the Government’s position on the composition of Australia’s
military forces and other factors that support the defence of Australia.
Defence white papers are always vulnerable to question and dissent, in part, because
some of the strategic rationale that underpins a white paper is classified and
therefore unavailable to the public. White papers also suffer the same problem
of prediction that affects many academic and policy areas, and with the benefit
of hindsight it is often quite easy to highlight inaccurate forecasts in
defence white papers.
So what should one expect to see in a defence white paper?
Hugh White argued that it should contain four main elements aligning ‘force
plans with strategic objectives [and] funding realities’:
first, articulate what our forces are expected to do to achieve
the Government’s strategic objectives
second, identify all necessary capabilities while considering ‘funding
third, ensure that ‘strategic objectives’, ‘force plans’ and ‘realistic
funding’ elements are aligned and
fourth, test the process of determining objectives by measuring
the required capabilities against affordability. In short, is the cost
justified to meet certain strategic objectives?
A common theme throughout the defence white papers has been
Australia’s alliance with the United States under the ANZUS Treaty (Australia,
New Zealand, United States Security Treaty signed in 1951). In most white papers, it
has been implicitly acknowledged that Australia should not rely entirely on a
major allied power to come to our aid if attacked. Nonetheless, as former
Secretary of the Department of Defence Arthur Tange stated:
The Government of the day, while prudently avoiding
commitment to some American ideas on new military engagements in the Pacific,
subscribed to the view that our main defence lay in America honouring an
obligation under the ANZUS Treaty... Questioning whether there was certainty of
that support, including military action in every circumstance, was forbidden
as, to use the political jargon, ‘downgrading ANZUS’.
As such, defence white papers have tended to argue that
Australia must sufficiently develop and maintain its own military power to
repel an attack against the mainland. There was a shift in strategic priorities
from a concept of ‘forward defence’ to one of ‘self-reliance’, which was
officially adopted by successive Australian governments from the early 1970s
and reflected in Australia’s defence white papers. However, by the 1990s,
strategic priorities shifted again to a more outward-looking regional focus.
Historically, Australia’s defence white papers have not been
released within any specified timeframe. Politics plays a key role in the
decision to develop a defence white paper. While white papers seek to
articulate particular policy issues, the political objectives sought by
successive governments have a big influence on the outcome of any white paper.
The first official Australian defence white paper was
released by the Fraser Government in 1976. Subsequent defence white papers were
released in 1987 (Hawke), 1994 (Keating), 2000 (Howard) (with biennial updates
in 2003, 2005 and 2007), 2009 (Rudd) and 2013 (Gillard). The next defence white
paper is expected to be delivered in the second half of 2015 and the Government
has said that it will be costed, affordable and ‘align defence policy with
According to David Horner (historian):
The legacy of the past exerts a powerful influence on force
structure, defence concepts and doctrine. At the beginning of the twentieth
century there had been tension between the Australianists, who wanted a militia
that could not be deployed outside Australia, and the Imperialists, who
preferred a field force that could be deployed on imperial operations overseas.
By the 1950s, Australia’s adherence to the Western alliance and its commitment
to forward defence had superseded its reliance on imperial defence. In the
1970s, after the Vietnam War, the pendulum swung away from overseas
commitments. But during the 1990s, there was an increasing readiness once again
to send forces overseas—expressed more overtly in [Australia’s Strategic
Policy 1997]. This approach was described initially as ‘regional engagement’
and was later expanded to ‘defending Australia’s regional interests’.
From the time the British Army withdrew from Australia in
1870, a conundrum emerged about whether local forces should be raised to defend
the country or to provide forces in support of Imperial objectives abroad.
Consequently, aspects of both concepts were employed by the Australian colonies
prior to Federation in 1901. Individual colonies deployed volunteer forces to
assist the British in Sudan (1885), South Africa (1899–1901) and China (1900). Since
Federation, the government has maintained discretionary powers to deploy
military forces overseas.
The Defence Act 1909 amendment provided for universal
compulsory military training and service during peace time for Australian males
aged between 18 and 60.
In his 1910 report on Australia’s military preparedness, Field Marshall Herbert
Kitchener (British Army) strongly recommended Australia boost its Citizen
Forces through a universal compulsory military training program, which
commenced in January 1911 and ran until 1929.
The scheme had ‘a chequered rate of success’ before it was suspended in
Within the first four years of the scheme, one in twenty men were prosecuted
for non-compliance: around 636,000 enlisted, 34,000 were prosecuted and 7,000
In 1911, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was officially established and the
Army’s Royal Military College (RMC) was formed. At the outbreak of World
War I, Australia’s responsibilities as part of the British Empire were
recognised by the Government. The RAN was placed under British Admiralty
command and a volunteer expeditionary force (the First Australian Imperial
Force) deployed overseas in support of British-led operations.
During the inter-war period, Australia’s military
preparedness waned as the ‘Singapore strategy’ dominated domestic strategic
thinking and military expenditure was reduced.
The Singapore strategy was driven by British and United States interests in the
Asia-Pacific region in response to Japanese expansionism. At the Washington
Naval Conference 1921–1922, three treaties were signed among major naval powers
aimed at relieving tensions in the East through naval disarmament. In turn, the
Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902 was abandoned.
In the meantime, the British Government promised to build a large naval base in
Singapore and vowed that, in a time of war, British naval forces would be
deployed to Singapore within six weeks to protect the sea lanes around
Australia, India and New Zealand.
By 1937, the British Chiefs of Staff Committee assessed that should a war break
out in Europe, Japan would not hesitate in furthering its expansion schemes.
The Committee noted that while the Singapore defences were nearing completion, ‘they
alone do not secure our strategic position in the East. The dispatch of a fleet
to the Far East remains the operation upon which the security of the eastern
half of the Empire depends’.
Nonetheless, military leaders and senior political figures
questioned Australia’s reliance on the Royal Navy to defend Australia should
war break out in Asia. In 1936, Opposition Leader, John Curtin, warned
Parliament that ‘the dependence of Australia upon the competence, let alone the
readiness, of British statesmen to send forces to our aid is too dangerous a
hazard upon which to found Australian defence policy’. However, the government
continued to rely on the Imperial defence plan—the Singapore strategy—for the
defence of Australia.
Following World War II, Australia’s defence policy
predominantly aligned with British strategic defence priorities. ‘Forward
defence’ remained the primary focus of the Government’s strategic policy at the
time due to concerns about Australia’s geographical isolation and the need for
a larger ally to come to Australia’s aid should foreign forces threaten to
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, defence planning encountered competing priorities,
as David Lowe and Joan Beaumont describe:
... on the one hand, Malaya and the local region, in the
context of local decolonisation and communism in South-East Asia; and, on the
other hand, the familiar Dominion role of providing an expeditionary force,
wool, and food in a global war—the force being required to help defend British
air bases in the Middle East...
In June 1947, the Chifley Government tabled its Defence:
Post-war Policy in Parliament, which acknowledged, first, the role of
the newly formed United Nations in maintaining international peace and security
and second, expectations that Australia would maintain forces for regional
support, defence of the British Commonwealth and the defence of Australia within
the new world order.
While not officially presented to Parliament as a white paper, the Post-war
Defence Policy fits the criteria. At that time, Defence Minister John
Dedman described the Government’s priorities to place Australian forces:
... at the disposal of the United Nations for the maintenance
of international peace and security, including regional arrangements in the
Pacific; the Forces to be maintained under arrangements for co-operation in
British Commonwealth defence; and the Forces to be maintained to provide for
the inherent right of individual self-defence. The security of Australia will
therefore rest on the blending of these three safeguards, which are
complementary to each other, and none of which is exclusive to the others.
The 1947 defence policy also outlined the measures the
Government would take to strengthen Australian military forces. Particular
emphasis was placed on expanding the RAN as Australia’s experience during World
War II exposed the need for enhanced sea power.
Australia’s experience in the Pacific during World War II
provided the impetus for building a stronger relationship with the United
States and highlighted the importance of the alliance to regional security. The
Korean War (1950–53) strengthened this alliance, with the ANZUS treaty being a
major outcome of this period. However, there were reservations about the
agreement. One key Defence official, the former Secretary of the Department of Defence
Arthur Tange, recalled the concern of the time that the United States might not
place the same level of importance on the agreement as Australia or New
... the new alliance ... was not only a landmark, but a source of
uncertainty, because there remained doubts about how Washington would interpret
its obligations. Despite another treaty with similar provisions, SEATO, in
1954, Australians’ unease about the Americans attitude seemed well founded
when, in 1955, Washington made it clear that Australian forces in Malaya would
not necessarily trigger an American response of military help under ANZUS. Even
with ANZUS and SEATO, the Australians spent much time during the 1950s and
early 1960s trying to firm up an American preparedness to intervene in South-East
From the mid-1950s until the end of the Vietnam War,
Australian defence policy was based on the concept of forward defence,
predominantly fighting to prevent the spread of communism in the region. Yet,
even before the end of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, defence policy was
already shifting towards the concept of self-reliance, sometimes known as ‘continental
Tange revealed in his memoirs that in the early 1960s,
Australia’s defence priorities began to shift towards self-reliance, despite
the importance placed on Australia’s alliance with the United States. Tange
remarked that by:
...the early 1960s, Defence programming was putting more
emphasis on a capacity to act independently. In 1963 Townley [Minister for
Defence] spoke of the desirability of being able to ‘react ... by ourselves’.
The Americans had longstanding reservations, rooted in their
history, about defending British colonial interests in South-East Asia. The
consultations [in February 1964] with the Americans brought home to the
Australian Government that any US support to Australia with combat troops was
neither guaranteed in advance nor unconditional. But this was the last thing
for the Government to admit publicly.
By 1968, many new factors had begun to influence Australia’s
defence policy, namely the British Government’s decision in January of that
year to completely withdraw its military forces from Malaysia and Singapore by
December 1971. The Defence organisation noted at the time that this ‘presented
a new defence and security situation in the region’. Five Power Talks on defence
arrangements had commenced the year before between Australia, Malaysia, New
Zealand, Singapore and the UK that would eventually shape long-term defence
cooperation between all five nations.
The Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) was signed in 1971 to support the
stability of the newly independent South-East Asian nations.
Also in 1968, Australia’s military commitment to the Vietnam
War expanded with the Government increasing Australia’s military contribution
to 8,000 personnel.
However, by mid-1971, Prime Minister William McMahon had announced that
Australia would be withdrawing from the conflict.
Another factor affecting Australia’s defence policy around
this time was the scaling down of US military forces in South East Asia
following the Vietnam War.
A key turning point was the announcement of the Guam Doctrine (also known as
the Nixon Doctrine) in 1969 that stated allied states were expected to do more
for their own security but could rely on help from the United States if they
showed genuine efforts to maintain their own security.
This shift in US policy led to Australia developing a more self-reliant
approach to defence policy.
In 1972, the McMahon Government initiated the Australian
Defence Review to assess the new strategic environment following Australia’s
withdrawal from Vietnam. The review formed the basis of the Government’s
revised strategic outlook and defence program, with an outlook through to the
Originally, the review team was tasked to prepare a defence white paper and
while Defence Minister David Fairbairn tabled the outcome in Parliament, the
Minister insisted it was not a policy document. Rather, it was a document
containing ‘information and analysis’ of interest to Parliament.
The Australian Defence Review considered Australia’s
broader strategic outlook and identified issues that might have affected the
development of Australia’s military forces. It ‘represented the first major
review of Australian defence policy since enunciation of the Nixon Doctrine and
the end of Australia’s commitment in Vietnam’.
The Australian Defence Review assessed that:
[t]he first requirement is to make a reasoned definition of
the Australian interests needing to be pursued by our defence policy, and of
the strategic situations against which we should build our defence
capabilities. It is clear that the objective must be a policy for the 1970s and
1980s. It is clear that great changes are occurring in Australia’s external
environment which justify a careful and progressive re-evaluation of the
situation. It is also clear, I suggest, that we should not found our defence
policy, or our willingness to engage ourselves to assist others, on a simple
faith in the success of diplomatic efforts of mighty powers or on the benign
intentions of rivals for ideological supremacy among communist powers.
Consequently, the Australian Defence Review
recognised the need for a defence policy that balanced elements of ‘self-reliance’
with developing and maintaining important strategic alliances. As Minister
There is a duality in the
requirements of a national Australian defence policy: on the one hand, we need
defence equipment and manning giving Australian services an increasing measure
of self-reliance and ability to act alone in certain situations. On the other,
we seek an intensification of our defence understandings with the United States
and with our northern neighbours in the
expectation that the United States will, as pledged to the Prime Minister, Mr
McMahon since the Nixon Doctrine was promulgated, provide the foundation of
Australian security against threats or actual attack going beyond Australian
capacity to deal with alone.... the first objective – greater Australian
self-reliance – will of itself contribute to the second objective – getting the
support we need from greater allies in emergencies going beyond our
The Whitlam Government’s election in December 1972 meant
that the McMahon Government’s embryonic defence policy discussion went nowhere.
However, on 30 May 1973, the Whitlam Government tabled its own defence policy
statement in Parliament. Two key policy announcements by Defence Minister Lance
Barnard included Australia’s complete withdrawal of military forces from
Vietnam and the abolition of compulsory National Service. Other policy
announcements included the development of a volunteer Army of up to 34,000
personnel, which was expected to be reached by 1976, with a view to assessing
the need for a further 2,000 personnel that same year. However, by 1976, the Army’s
strength had reached just 31,430.
Throughout the Whitlam Government years, a number of strategic and internal
defence reviews were commissioned that would feed into Australia’s first
official defence white paper released by the Fraser Government in 1976.
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