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‘Give it everything we can’: the case for putting winning first and expense second in national security

However, Australia must be responsible for all aspects of its own security, a key part of that being our alliances particularly with the US, our military capability and our diplomacy. As a rich country of 25 million aware and educated people in our own continent, and with the alliances and friends that we have, Australia is more than capable of defending itself against any credible threat. We have just made the decision that at the moment, we can get away with not doing it, thinking that the answer to all strategic questions is the figure “2 per cent of GDP”.

The problem with strategy in Australia is that for the last 75 years, Australia has not had to produce a national strategy nor a defence strategy that was ever tested. Our strategies have been just words, and for decades officials, commentators and bureaucrats have believed that just saying you have a strategy is the same as actually having a strategy.

Defence white papers are the closest we get to security strategy in this country. They have been a shambles since the first in 1976. None of them has been coherent, the implied or stated strategy in each has been fantasy and the ADF has never been able to achieve their part in the strategy – which seemed to worry no one. Most strategic guidance from government has been limited to budgetary limitations.

Setting defence spending at 2 per cent of GDP is not the answer.

Setting defence spending at 2 per cent of GDP is not the answer.

The best defence white paper was in 2016. The words in the public document were out of date and so vague as to be meaningless by the times they were published, but the investment program was the best I have seen in 50 years. We should never forget that Australia’s great experience of conflict since before federation has not been the ANZAC tradition as we continually tell ourselves, but has been national unpreparedness overcome by the ANZACS. Think about that.

But this also reveals the basic flaw in making national strategy in Australia. We all recognise that “strategy is budget and budget is strategy”. But the key challenge in making strategy in Australia is that budgetary stricture is applied too early. If the process of security strategising is limited from the start by a budgetary limitation, then even the intelligence assessment of economic, diplomatic and military threats to this nation is compromised. How meaningless is a process of determining the needs of our security strategy, if we know that nothing above a certain budget will be permitted regardless. We got away with this for decades. We must not try to get away with it any longer.

The answer is to make an honest and uncompromised assessment of our strategic environment, in the first instance, unrestricted by budgets, to determine the economic, diplomatic and military need. Having made such an uncompromised and realistic assessment, it must be converted into what types of conflict this nation must be prepared to deter by being able to win. An attitude of winning is the key. You deter conflicts by being able to win, and winning takes a whole nation, not just the ADF. The only security outcome worth considering is what wars and conflicts can the nation deter, by being able to win them.

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Therein lies the essence of our future national security strategy. The process of linking the need to deter by winning with what we need to be able to do, in economic, diplomatic and military terms, is relatively simple, despite what so-called experts say. This defines what we need strategically. Only when we have defined the need should government apply budgetary reality. How can we understand the risk that a government takes by not funding what we need in national security to maintain our national sovereignty, if at no stage the government actually knows what we need?

Economic recovery is the basis of national sovereignty. But once this is in place, the next priority for government must be national security. Let’s hope that the Prime Minister can say about national security what he said about his national recovery strategy: “It may succeed, it may fail; but I can assure you, we will give it everything we can.”

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