Australian Defence (1976 Defence White Paper)

Strategic objectives
Identified capability choices
Cost of capability
Alignment of cost, capability and strategic objectives


Australian Defence (1976 Defence White Paper)

AP-3C Orion

AP-3C Orion (Source: Australian Defence Image Library)


  • Emphasis on self-reliance as the strategic environment had changed in several ways, including:
    • a shift in the United Kingdom’s strategic interests away from South East Asia to focus on Europe
    • United States military disengagement in parts of South East Asia (Guam Doctrine)
    • Russian military build-up in the Indian Ocean and
    • instability in the South West Pacific.
  • Australia’s primary strategic concern was to protect Australia’s contiguous maritime areas of responsibility and more broadly, maintain a military presence in Malaysia and Singapore.
  • $12 billion funding over five years was allocated for the acquisition of white paper capabilities, with an expected five per cent annual increase in real terms.
  • Within one year the disconnect between funding and white paper acquisition targets was apparent as it became clear that funding intentions would not be reached.
  • A misalignment between self-reliance policy and support for Australian defence industry insofar as Australian industry focused on sustainment while large-scale design and construction work was done overseas.


The 1976 Defence White Paper, entitled Australian Defence, was tabled in Parliament by the Fraser Government on 4 November 1976 with a five-year funding outlook. Work on the 1976 Defence White Paper had commenced during the Whitlam Government’s tenure so it largely received bipartisan support. However, the Australian Labor Party (Labor) Opposition did raise a number of concerns about the Government’s ability to fund the proposals set out in the white paper (discussed below).[61]

Strategic objectives

The 1976 Defence White Paper sought to establish self-reliance as the primary focus of Australia’s defence policy. While the 1972 Australian Defence Review had recognised the need for Australia to move towards a policy of self-reliance, the geopolitical environment had significantly changed by 1976, prompting greater emphasis on a self-reliant posture for Australia. These changes included Britain moving away from Asia and ‘turning increasingly to Europe and the North Atlantic, where its primary strategic interests’ lay, and the military disengagement of the United States from the South-East Asian region.[62]

The 1976 Defence White Paper declared that Australia no longer based its defence policy on the expectation that its Navy, Army or Air Force would be ‘sent abroad to fight as part of some other nation’s force’.[63] While Australia’s alliance with the United States provided some confidence that support from the United States would be provided in the event of a significant threat, the notion of self-reliance meant that ‘we owe it to ourselves to be able to mount a national defence effort that would maximise the risks and costs of any aggression’ towards Australia.[64] A policy of self-reliance was expected to enable Australia to accept its local responsibilities, while still being able to contribute effectively to combined operations as part of the ANZUS alliance.[65]

The 1976 Defence White Paper went on to state that, ‘for practical purposes, the requirements and scope for Australia’s defence activity are limited essentially to the areas closer to home’.[66] These were identified as areas where an unfriendly power could attack or harass Australia, its maritime resources or its communications. Thus Australia’s areas of primary strategic concern were considered to be its contiguous maritime areas of responsibility; potential instability in the South West Pacific with newly independent or soon to be independent states; greater cooperation with neighbours such as Papua New Guinea and Indonesia; and uncertainty in the behaviour of certain states in the South-East Asian region.[67] The 1976 Defence White Paper also amplified the Fraser Government’s concern about Soviet ambitions in the Indian Ocean given the Soviets’ extensive military build-up program at that time.[68] To this end, Australia maintained a military presence in the region by basing Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) elements in Malaysia and Singapore and operating Royal Australian Navy (RAN) vessels from Singapore.[69]

Identified capability choices

In light of the significant structural changes within Defence following the Tange review—the establishment of a single Department of Defence to replace the three single Service departments and the abolition of the Service Boards—the 1976 Defence White Paper broadly presented a force structure in terms of capabilities across the newly established Australian Defence Force (ADF). This was a significant change in practice as previously, capabilities had been considered by the needs of each individual Service.[70]

Chapter Four of the 1976 Defence White Paper confirmed previous capability decisions and announced a number of new proposed acquisitions, including:

  • ten P3-C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft (the 1976 Defence White Paper increased the existing order from eight aircraft to ten)
  • 15 naval patrol vessels to replace the RAN’s Attack Class patrol boats
  • two guided missile frigates (FFGs) (the proposed acquisition of two FFG Adelaide Class frigates had been previously announced. The 1976 Defence White Paper confirmed the Government’s support for this acquisition to proceed)
  • two Oberon Class submarines (at the time of the 1976 Defence White Paper’s release, the RAN already had four Oberon Class submarines in service and these two additional boats were still under construction)
  • one replenishment ship
  • 14 Leopard tanks (87 tanks had previously been ordered. The 1976 Defence White Paper announced the purchase of an additional 14 tanks)
  • one heavy sea lift vessel (the decision to acquire HMAS Tobruk was taken prior to the 1976 Defence White Paper release)
  • 12 C-130H Hercules (the 1976 Defence White Paper confirmed the previous decision to replace the twelve C‑130A aircraft that were in service with the RAAF at the time) and
  • the commencement of project development work for the acquisition of new tactical fighters to replace the Mirage III-0 fighter squadrons.[71]

Cost of capability

The 1976–77 Defence budget allocated more than $12 billion (in 1976 prices) over five years (1976–81) towards the acquisition of defence capabilities.[72] The 1976 Defence White Paper confirmed the expected expenditure under the Five Year Defence Program.[73] This allocation represented ‘an annual average increase in real terms of more than 5 per cent’. However, half the money was dedicated to personnel costs including recruitment; training; retraining and accommodation; major capital equipment acquisitions and defence facilities, with around 22 per cent of expenditure allocated to operational and maintenance costs.[74]

Within a year, it became apparent that the Government’s original funding intentions for the 1976 Defence White Paper would not be fully realised. The 1977–78 Defence budget saw an increase by only one per cent in real terms, which the Government considered ‘inevitable’ given the economic climate at the time (public sector spending was being contained to deal with high inflation).[75] In October 1978, the Government acknowledged that not all the objectives and projects detailed in the 1976 Defence White Paper would be achieved as originally planned, due to continued budgetary constraints.[76]

Alignment of cost, capability and strategic objectives

Within the first year of the 1976 Defence White Paper’s release, the Government received considerable criticism from commentators over what, it was argued, was a lack of strategic direction on procurement decisions. National Times journalist Anne Summers, for example, wrote in July 1977 that the Department of Defence was ordering equipment ‘without reference to a Cabinet-sanctioned statement of what it was needed for’ and recent purchases did ‘not reflect even the vague guidelines of the Strategic Basis’.[77] In the same article, Professor Des Ball discussed the new strategic direction, as laid out in the 1976 Defence White Paper, noting that the alignment of strategic objectives did not fit with the stated capability requirements:

Because strategic documentation says nothing about how continental defence is to be achieved, Defence has been allowed to operate on the old forward defence mentality. This allows the services rather than Defence to control procurement.[78]

Opposition spokesperson on Defence and Economic Management, Bill Hayden, emphasised that in his view there was insufficient funding for the procurement activities specified in the 1976 Defence White Paper. Hayden criticised the ‘Fraser Government’s austerity drive against the defence forces’ during a speech at the National Press Club in early December 1977. Citing a number of recent procurement decisions, he warned that there was the potential for gaps in capability to develop, including the P3-C Orion aircraft project (each aircraft valued at $18 million). Hayden noted that the P3-C Orion aircraft would not be fully operational for at least another three years as anti-submarine avionics needed to be fitted. Additionally, although the number of operational Oberon Class submarines was soon to total six, the RAN only had enough crew to operate four vessels at one time. The basing of seven major fleet units at HMAS Stirling, Western Australia, had been reduced to three and the purchase of World War II Bofors guns for the RAN Hayden likened to ‘arming Manly ferries with pea rifles’.[79]

The personnel chapter of the 1976 Defence White Paper discussed the Government’s plan to increase the permanent forces of all three services and the Reserve forces, while reducing the civilian component. The white paper did not, however, discuss the strategic objective for this plan.[80] There was a hint that the planned increase in uniformed personnel was aimed at preparing Australia’s military forces for the introduction of new major capabilities.[81] As at June 1976, the total personnel strength of the Permanent ADF (a voluntary force since National Service had completely phased out in 1975) was 68,774 (the Reserve force totalled 22,666).[82] Defence funding, as a proportion of public sector expenditure, was around 2.8 per cent.[83]

The capability choices outlined in the 1976 Defence White Paper confirmed the policy shift towards self-reliance. It did not, however, provide a balanced explanation of how Australian military forces should be positioned to best respond to any of the potential threats identified in the paper.

Despite the paper’s emphasis on self-reliance, there was little in the way of a corresponding policy to support and promote the growth of an Australian industry for defence, which was needed to make ‘self-reliance’ a reality. While the 1976 Defence White Paper highlighted the need for Australia to maintain, and potentially expand, a local defence industry capability (with a view to reducing Australia’s dependence on overseas arms purchases), it explicitly stated that ‘Australia will continue to rely on overseas sources for the design and construction of most of the larger and more complex weapons systems’.[84] The main objective therefore was for Australia’s defence industry to develop and maintain the capability to sustain Australian military forces.[85] Given the nominal increase in personnel and the number of new platforms expected to come online over the subsequent few years, the Government’s limited investment in the Australian defence industry at this juncture was at odds with the new strategic concept of self-reliance, particularly in the naval and aerospace sectors.

Kevin Foley (a former Liberal member in the Victorian Upper House and consultant to the Department of Defence) forewarned in a July 1976 article that the ADF’s preparedness levels were reliant on strategic guidance from the Government, and needed to be aligned with capability development:

Resources acquired for the “wrong” conflict, or no conflict at all, or resources acquired via a planning process that follows a “replacement philosophy” can all have a negative effect on defence capability. If planning is anticipatory decision-making, and not an inexorable, and absurdly simple process of replacement or “following-on” with the new model, then those responsible for Australia’s defence in the last two decades are guilty of a dereliction of duty, waste, irrationality and irresponsibility... National defence planning must be developed from and justified in terms of a strategic basis—that is, the official Government view of the future threat environment. A second requirement of rational planning is an equally clear statement of strategic doctrine: that is, how and where the threats are to be met, by nuclear weapons or conventional warfare, on their beaches or ours?[86]

As such, Foley emphasised that defence planners required firm and clear strategic directives from government. Lack of direction from government would leave them with ‘only one of the sets of data necessary to allow them to select the “right” defence resource’, especially in terms of new technology. He went on to write:

Increased [technological] performance becomes synonymous with increased effectiveness ... [and] planning under these circumstances, has meant an inexorable movement up the technology ladder. It has meant we are buying performance we don’t need, and in the process, pricing ourselves out of the market. There is nothing in logic nor in common sense to suggest that irrespective of the way in which threats might change over time, they will always be most appropriately deterred or defeated by weapons from higher levels of technology.[87]

On revisiting the 1976 Defence White Paper in the late 1980s, Alan Stephens (from the University of New South Wales/Australian Defence Force Academy) noted that its intention was ‘to set the agenda and provide the framework for Australian defence for years to come. Instead, by 1981 it had collapsed’.[88] The Government’s inability to fully define its strategic objectives and to set realistic financial projections was cited as the main cause of this collapse.[89]

[61].        DJ Killen, ‘Australian defence‘, House of Representatives, Debates, 4 November 1976, accessed 13 January 2015; W Hayden, ‘Australian defence‘, House of Representatives, Debates, 4 November 1976, accessed 13 January 2015; Making the Australian Defence Force, op. cit., p. 49.

[62].        1976 Defence White Paper, op. cit., pp. 1–2.

[63].        Ibid., p. 10.

[64].        Ibid., p. 10.

[65].        Ibid., p. 11.

[66].        Ibid., p. 6.

[67].        Ibid., p. 6.

[68].        Ibid., pp. 4–5.

[69].        Ibid., p. 7.

[70].        A Tange, Australian defence: report on the reorganisation of the defence group of departments: presented to the Minister for Defence, Department of Defence, Canberra, November 1973, accessed 13 January 2015; D Horner, Making the Australian Defence Force, op. cit., p. 50.

[71].        Horner, op. cit., pp. 15–27.

[72].        J Killen, ‘Ministerial statement: Defence‘, House of Representatives, Debates, 25 May 1976, accessed 13 January 2015.

[73].        1976 Defence White Paper, op. cit., pp. 15 and 58.

[74].        Ibid., pp. 59–60.

[75].        J Killen, ‘Ministerial statement: Defence review‘, House of Representatives, Debates, 22 September 1977, accessed 13 January 2015.

[76].        J Killen, ‘Ministerial statement: Defence review‘, House of Representatives, Debates, 24 October 1978, accessed 13 January 2015.

[77].        Following World War II, Defence regularly produced Strategic Basis papers which were, until 1990, classified documents. The purpose of these papers was to assess Australia’s strategic threats and potential areas of concern to provide guidance to Defence planning. Cited in S Frühling, A history of Australian strategic policy since 1945, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2009, pp. 35–36, accessed 13 January 2015; A Summers, ‘Defence: 100,000 extras without a script’, The National Times, 11–16 July 1977, p. 13.

[78].        Ibid., p. 14.

[79].        B Hayden (Labor Spokesman on Economic Development), The uncertainty facing Australia under three more years of Fraser Government, Perth Press Club, speech, 5 December 1977, p. 7.

[80].        The ceiling for permanent ADF personnel was raised in 1976–1977: the RAN by 100, Army by 300 and RAAF by 100. Over the Five Year Defence Program, the strength of the permanent Army was expected to expand by 2,500 personnel to a total of 34,000 and the Army Reserves were to increase by around 5,000. Cited in 1976 Defence White Paper, op. cit., pp. 30–38.

[81].        Ibid., p. 31.

[82].        Australian Government, Defence report 1976, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1976, p. 57.

[83].        Ibid., p. 53.

[84].        Ibid., pp. 50–51.

[85].        Ibid., p. 51.

[86].        K Foley, ‘The “best for the boys” may not always be the best for the country in defence procurement for Australia’, Financial Review Survey, 16 July 1976, pp. 2–3.

[87].        Ibid., p. 2.

[88].        A Stephens, ‘The white paper—1976 revisited’, Pacific Defence Reporter, 15(10), April 1989, p. 7.

[89].        Ibid., p. 7; DG Schott, ‘Australian Defence Policy 1976–1987’, Defence Force Journal, 67, November/December 1987, p. 12.


For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to members of Parliament.

© Commonwealth of Australia

Creative commons logo

Creative Commons

With the exception of the Commonwealth Coat of Arms, and to the extent that copyright subsists in a third party, this publication, its logo and front page design are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence.

In essence, you are free to copy and communicate this work in its current form for all non-commercial purposes, as long as you attribute the work to the author and abide by the other licence terms. The work cannot be adapted or modified in any way. Content from this publication should be attributed in the following way: Author(s), Title of publication, Series Name and No, Publisher, Date.

To the extent that copyright subsists in third party quotes it remains with the original owner and permission may be required to reuse the material.

Inquiries regarding the licence and any use of the publication are welcome to

This work has been prepared to support the work of the Australian Parliament using information available at the time of production. The views expressed do not reflect an official position of the Parliamentary Library, nor do they constitute professional legal opinion.

Any concerns or complaints should be directed to the Parliamentary Librarian. Parliamentary Library staff are available to discuss the contents of publications with Senators and Members and their staff. To access this service, clients may contact the author or the Library‘s Central Entry Point for referral.